More Films (and Stars) and Still No Velvet Ropes at the 2004 Bermuda Fest
by Wendy Mitchell
The Bermuda International Film Festival, now in its seventh year, obviously doesn't have the history of Cannes or the acquisitions frenzy or Toronto or Sundance. But it does have location, location, location. Each filmmaker I met at the festival was honest about the fact that they'd submitted their films here mostly because Bermuda seemed like it would be a nice place to visit. Except for a few more clouds than expected and some bizarre dance moves exhibited by one or two loony locals, they got what they bargained for: a trip to a lovely island, and a festival that increases in stature every year.
Zana Briski, the co-director (with Ross Kauffman) of "Born Into Brothels," winner of the jury doc prize in Bermuda, said the festival provided a respite from the normal festival circuit (their next stop was the not-quite-so-exotic Cleveland). "The festival was very well organized and treated the filmmakers very well," she said. A relaxed atmosphere (to say the least) meant that there weren't VIP rooms and snobby cliques... the invited guests were mingling together with local film enthusiasts at events throughout the week. There was, however, one VIP party -- the week's hot ticket -- at an obscenely ornate mansion called Deep Water (Deep Pockets might be a more apt name). Hosts Rocco and Sammy Schiralli welcomed festival guests and the island's A-listers (including Michael Douglas).
The stars were shining throughout the festival; Willem Dafoe served as head of the jury, which also included Mexican screenwriters Guillermo Arriaga ("21 Grams," "Amores Perros") and Carlos Cuaron ("Y Tu Mama Tambien"), Shane Smith of the Canadian Film Centre, Premiere Magazine's Mark Salisbury, and previous BIFF award winners Patricia Flynn and Helen Lee. Jim Sheridan, in Bermuda with opening-night film "In America" and retrospective selections, looked to be enjoying himself throughout his stay (although indieWIRE is still mad we never took him to the pub for a pint).
"I think in terms of other festivals, we like to think we're in a different niche," festival executive director Aideen Ratteray Pryse said in a conversation after the festival's conclusion on March 25. "We do welcome all the filmmakers here, we make them feel very much at home and relaxed. It's an intimate setting, so there's no pressure to sell your movie. You can talk about the art and craft without worrying about who you're 'supposed' to be talking to. There isn't a velvet rope in sight." Social events were mostly low-key affairs and the festival hosted late-night happy hours for six nights. Some "late nights" were at posh hotels, where smooth jazz didn't inspire much raucousness. The most excitement came from the party at the Blue Juice bar, when one patron stripped naked (save for a knee brace... not a good look) and boogied on the dance floor. Chalk it up to one too many Dark & Stormys, the local rum-and-ginger-ale cocktail that went down a little too easy. Panels during the day also drew decent crowds, and one filmmaker suggested the festival might consider adding even more panels in future years.
The festival had its largest film program ever; up to 70 after starting with 22 films in its first year. It also added a fourth venue, the theater at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute. The world cinema showcase offered some of the hottest international titles hitting festivals (or theaters) this year, including Christoffer Boe's beautifully shot infidelity tale "Reconstruction"; "The Five Obstructions," Jorgen Leth and Lars von Trier's entertaining exercise in filmmaking with strict rules; Kim Ki-duk's "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring," which is also playing in New York at New Directors/New Films this week; Ulrich Seidl's "Jesus, You Know," an exploration of six people's intimate conversations with God (somebody needs to run this as a double feature with "The Passion of the Christ"); Anders Thomas Jensen's Danish dark comedy "The Green Butchers" (which Newmarket smartly picked up in Toronto); and Siddiq Barmak's Golden-Globe winning Afghani tale "Osama." Other programming included children's films, local documentaries, a few midnight flicks, and a Modern Mexican Cinema sidebar including films such as "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and the recent fest hit "Nicotina." "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Young Adam" closed the festival.
By most accounts, quite a few of the films in narrative competition were disappointing. One narrative competition feature in particular, "The Garden of Earthly Delights," was the most pretentious film I've seen in a while. The film, about two annoying lovers who chronicle their relationship by filming each other, follows them to Venice as the woman dies of throat cancer. I'd never been so desperate for a protagonist to go ahead and die already. Other narratives in competition included the style-over-substance graffiti tale "Bomb the System," gritty Argentinian love story "El Polaquito" ("The Little Polish"), Steven Lewis Simpson's U.K. thriller "The Ticking Man," and the jury's prize winner, Srdjan Vuletic's "Ljeto U Zlantnoj Dolini" (Summer in the Golden Valley). That Sarajevo-set story follows a group of troubled teenagers who get entangled with corrupt policemen. In a statement, jury chair Dafoe said, "The film is very lyrical, but also very tough. It is poetic but not sentimental. Even though the genre is familiar to us, the story is told in a very fresh, character-driven way that undermines and toys with our expectations and normal patterns of empathy."
The doc winner, "Born into Brothels," which will air on HBO in 2005, has been winning acclaim since its debut at Sundance in January. Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski's film follows Briski as she teaches photography to children of prostitutes in Calcutta. It's easy to admire the intentions behind her program, and the intentions of the film; impressively, the film was also beautifully shot and well-edited, showcasing some stunning local music and the colors of Calcutta's streets. "Born into Brothels" is ultimately uplifting; some of the kids that started out being called "worthless cunts" by neighbors in the brothels ultimately become extremely talented photographers; the smiles on their faces as they watch a webcast of their photo auction at Sotheby's, or attend a show opening reception, are truly inspiring. Juror Mark Salisbury summed it up well in a statement: "Seeing the film is a life-changing experience. It has re-set my life's barometer. The things I moan about now pale into insignificance. Zana is a truly astonishing woman for what she has achieved, and the difference she has made in the lives of these children with her foundation." (Check out the group's website at www.kids-with-cameras.org.)
Frank and Jessica Gorter's "Piter," which had its world premiere in Rotterdam, provided a glimpse into present-day St. Petersburg, Russia through the lives of seven interconnected people grappling with the city's history and its changing future. The film as a whole struck me as a bit uneven (and some of the connections between characters seemed forced), but it was still a fascinating glimpse into a world that few people bother to examine (and I particularly was drawn in by one subject, an elderly woman whose father starved to death during the siege of Leningrad). Jessica Gorter told indieWIRE that it was interesting to show a film like this on an island like Bermuda. "There couldn't be a bigger contrast with Saint Petersburg... I think it's quite important to have a festival with an 'outlook on the world' since living on an island can be quit isolating."
Another competition doc, "Hungry for Monsters," certainly had a strong story about a family torn apart after a schoolteacher convinces an impressionable young girl to accuse her father of molestation. Unfortunately, the film seemed to mostly recount the plot and not really delve any deeper into the motives and repercussions of the family involved (most frustrating was the daughter's lack of explanation for her behavior). Bad atonal music and too many filler shots of cars on streets and building exteriors didn't help matters. It's hard not to compare "Hungry for Monsters" to the much better "Capturing the Friedmans" or Celesta Davis' startlingly personal new documentary "Awful Normal."
"How Arnold Won the West," playing in a program with "Monsters," was a very entertaining TV documentary about Arnold Schwarzenegger's California gubernatorial run. Filmmaker Alex Cooke captures the humor of the situation (I got a kick out of Gray Davis's own wife calling him boring) and also some of the more serious issues, like the Governator's misuse of the foreign press.
Among the shorts, I loved the surreal dark humor of Owen Trevor's "Flaming Brain," thought Shandor Garrison's "Free Box" showed promise; and enjoyed the art-world satire of Thurston Smith's "Whoa: The Influence of Art." The jury's shorts winners were Andrea Arnold's "Wasp" and an honorable mention to Chris Shepherd's "Dad's Dead."
The Bermuda International Film Festival group announced several new initiatives during this year's festival: one is potentially equipping the BUEI theater to show 35mm films as a showcase for art-house cinema year-round. The group is also planning a children's film festival, which will be a weekend attracting a mostly local audience, tentatively planned for October. BIFF is also setting up a foundation that will increase educational outreach programming (including expanding endowments and scholarships) as well as securing stable sources of funding for the festival.
Such initiatives, and the festival's increasingly strong programming and high-profile guests, should make Bermuda a more important stop on the festival circuit in years to come. Whether or not it was sunny enough to hit Bermuda's famed pink (or more accurately, pinkish) sand beaches in March, it is still easy to relax here (and even sleep in, since screenings don't start until afternoon). Even without a heavy industry presence, filmmakers raved about the treatment on the island. "I wouldn't go to Bermuda looking for distribution, but then again you never know who you might meet or who knows who," Briski told indieWIRE. "It was a wonderful experience and definitely well worth it."
Jessica Gorter, co-director of "Piter," was also impressed: "My overall impression of the festival is very positive," she said. "The festival is small so it's very easy to meet people in a relaxed and informal way."
[ For photos from the festival, view indieWIRE's iPOP. ]