ND/NF: Sensitive Films Shine at New Directors; McKay's "Our Song" Resonates
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/4.10.2000) -- For those novice filmmakers traversing the annual festival circuit, bopping from Sundance to any number of regional and international festivals around the globe, New Directors/New Films (which ended yesterday) should mark a special place on their calendars.
First off, ND/NF is not a "festival," per se -- no marathon of daily screenings, no hustling through crowds, no nightly parties 'til dawn (just one bash mid-festival). As participating director Jim McKay says, "People go into a place, they see a movie, talk about it, they leave, there's no parties; so it's definitely a more focused thing."
Like its big sister event The New York Film Festival in the Fall, ND/NF is a more dignified affair with two screenings per evening. This gives specificity and coherence to the two-week event and the 22 feature films that have the privilege of being selected. And held at the Museum of Modern Art's theaters, there is certainly an air of chic as one goes to see the movies, passing by the hollowed halls of modern art, down the escalators, and past the classic movie posters into the state-of-the-art Titus theater.
As always, this year's event served up an eclectic array of films. Of the 23 different countries represented, domestic entries, as usual, did especially well with local audiences. Special extra screenings were added for Jim McKay's "Our Song," Alison Maclean's "Jesus' Son," and Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," all of whose two programmed shows sold out quickly. Not surprisingly, the French-language opening night feature "An Affair of Love" (aka "A Pornographic Affair") also got an added screening, while surprisingly, the Iranian feature "Two Women" sold out its two shows and received an extra show as well. Apparently there is a market for Iranian films in New York, more than most distributors probably realize.
Regarding distribution, ND/NF is of course no Sundance with its bidding wars and in-the-aisles deal-making, but this year, a notable number of sales and bookings have culminated during these last two weeks. "Two Women" garnered a slot at New York's Cinema Village in late July, Merchant/Ivory picked up Lynne Ramsay's "Ratcatcher," Lou Ye's Shanghai-noir "Suzhou River" went to Strand Releasing, Cowboy Booking International acquired Pablo Trapero's gritty Argentine slice-of-life "Crane World" (now playing at New York's Screening Room) and Lions Gate purchased international rights to Lee Myung Se's stylisher actioner, "Nowhere to Hide," another sold out film that had MoMA staffers turning away would-be ticket-buyers.
Perhaps the most interesting case study of a ND/NF success story, however, is McKay's "Our Song," a Sundance 2000 Competition entry that drew no awards or special recognition in Park City, but here in New York, created a buzz that's still lingering. "I feel like to some degree it's a fresh start for the movie," McKay told indieWIRE. After his Thursday night screening, Film Society of Lincoln Center Executive Vice-President Joanne Koch was overheard saying that in the 29 years of New Directors, she'd never witnessed a standing ovation like the one for "Our Song."
"In a strange way, business stuff is happening," McKay told indieWIRE. "We're talking to a lot of people, we have nothing to announce -- we're just talking. We want to find someone who really loves the film, who's going to do the right thing with it." McKay was confident that he'd be able to release the film through a distributor this Fall. "I feel pretty certain that that's going to happen; I just don't know who it's going to happen with," he said.
One of the contributing factors to McKay's triumph, besides the hometown advantage -- the film is about Brooklyn teens and much of the cast was present -- also has something to do with the positive, intelligently-written New York Times review by A. O. Scott. The New York Times reviews every film in New Directors -- it's the cherry on top of ND/NF selection and for some films, a make or break factor in garnering distribution. "We certainly got a lot of calls after the very nice New York Times review, which was really great that it helped," commented McKay, "but at the same time, it's a little depressing that that's what it needed -- it's still the same movie."
Which brings up a very important point. Sundance, as special and important and heralded as it is, may not be the right place for every film. Sensitive little films may get lost in the shuffle. And the special cinema-loving care given to those films at New Directors may be just the right thing for certain movies. Last year, Eric Mendelsohn's personal story of Long Island suburbanites "Judy Berlin," for example, fared far better opening ND/NF than at Sundance, where acquisitions execs liked the film, but just weren't sure how to classify or market it.
Among this year's line-up, many of the films appear to fall in between standard categorical definitions. indieWIRE's reviewers often combined opposites to describe the films: Shinobu Yaguchi's "Adrenaline Drive" is both art-house and mall movie; "Suzhou River" is born of the strange marriage of Hitchcock and Wong Kar-Wai; "Human Resources" strikes a clever balance between familial and labor politics; "Sound and Fury" feels like a clinical documentary and yet also an emotional family journey; and if ever there were a film that didn't fit into a neat category, Ra'anan Alexandrowicz's "Martin" would be it.
As quoted in the festival catalogue: "Impossible to classify, 'Martin,' is a powerful and intriguing portrait of a strange elderly survivor of Dachau concentration camp; part documentary, objective in its analysis, and part unresolvable examination of the clash of history and memory." "Martin" was one of my highlights at ND/NF -- a 50-minute film (note: a length that is too long for a short and too short for a feature) that begins poetically with still photographs of a young man's trip through Europe. The delicate documentary follows the filmmaker and his impromptu film crew's interactions with an old man who raises more questions than he answers about the Holocaust. A provocative and emotional Q & A followed its ND/NF screening where audiences reacted strongly to the film's ambiguities surrounding history, truth, memory, and documentary.
"Martin" is just the kind of film that New Directors/New Films is there for -- like many of this year's best entries -- sensitively crafted, pushing the boundaries of its medium, and setting a high bar for what it means to be a new director.