New Directors Showcases International Independents, While
"Judy" Nears Deal
By Anthony Kaufman
New Serbian director Srdjan Dragojevic was scheduled to arrive for the
New York debut of his film "The Wounds" at this year's New Directors/New
Films festival, but all borders have been closed in his country and
commercial airlines shut down. Several NY journalists were supposed to
interview the young turk, but last we heard, he was trapped in Belgrade
communicating by e-mail with festival organizers until his electricity was cut.
While watching Dragojevic's two under-aged Bosnian criminals barely
survive the moral wasteland of 1990's Serbia, or street kids die on the
streets of Jakarta (Garin Nugroho's "Leaf on a Pillow") or Scotland's
working class near kill themselves from futility (Peter Mullan's
"Orphans") or Lebanese children endure the violent partition of their
capital (Ziad Doueiri's "West Beirut"), it is sobering to know these
tragedies continue -- and as we step from the sheltered theater of the
Museum of Modern Art and walk down 5th Avenue, it's disturbingly easy to
forget there's a whole lot more to our disparate world.
Having said that, the 28th edition of New Directors/New Films (ND/NF) --
a festival co-organized by the twin mammoth New York institutions of
cinema, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art
-- is a hefty reminder of the global independent film scene. From 19
different countries around the world, including entries from Indonesia,
Cape Verde, Hungary and the Czech Republic, this year's selection is
just about as democratic as the United Nations General Assembly.
Programmers collected this year's selection from established festivals
such as Cannes, Rotterdam, Toronto and Sundance, smaller venues such as
Naples and Sarajevo, and recommendations from other trusted festival
organizers and industry sources. Of the roughly 1,000 feature film
submissions coming in blind -- slightly down from last year according to
programmer Jytte Jensen -- only a couple made the cut: two French
featurettes, Sebastien Lifshitz's social-sexual "Open Bodies" and
Christophe Restiau and Johan Roger's warm-hearted but amateurish "Like
Father, Like Son." More invitational than prone to discovery, ND/NF has
always been a hit list of the international festival circuit.
The number of Sundance USA entries making their appearance is
relatively small this year and all are feature debuts: the Polish brothers'
oddity, "Twin Falls Idaho" acquired by Sony Pictures Classics, Julian
Goldberger's skillfully orchestrated "Trans" and ND/NF opener "Judy
Berlin" from directing award winner, Eric Mendelsohn. Poised for a deal
since its Park City acclaim, the genuine and heartfelt "Judy
Berlin" has several offers on the table. An amenable New York Times
review from Stephen Holden last Friday generated a new offer, according
to a source close to the film, and with uber-attorney John Sloss
repping, it should be only a matter of time before a distribution deal
hits the trades. Also in Mendelsohn's favor, his film was the first to
sell out at ND/NF -- about a half hour after the box office opened.
Like "Judy Berlin," the fate of many of the films at ND/NF is somewhat
in the hands of The New York Times review, which comes as a virtual
package deal with ND/NF selection. "It's a risky thing," admits Leisure
Times Features' Bruce Pavlow, who acquired two entries on the heels of
the fest's opening, Francois Ozon's psychosexual Bunuelian farce,
"Sitcom" -- not nearly as sharp as the director's debut "Sea the Sea" --
and Dragojevic's "The Wounds," the grim follow up to his tragic-comedy,
"Pretty Villages, Pretty Flames." "Thankfully, we've got the films
booked already -- but if you're still selling and you get bad reviews,"
says Pavlow, "then there goes your release if it's a specialty film like
foreign language or a small American indie. Unfortunately, a bad review
in the Times is a kiss of death."
Still, Pavlow says that just getting into New Directors is a big helping
hand. Though both his acquisitions inspired considerable attention at
prior fests -- "Sitcom" at Cannes' Critic Week and "The Wounds" in
Berlin and Toronto -- it wasn't until the ND/NF selection that Pavlow
finally pulled out his check book. "[The ND/NF selection] did make a
difference. It makes it worth acquiring because you can get some wide
public exposure before release and get the attention it deserves."
Let's hope it will continue to make a difference with Alexei Balabanov's
fascinating "Of Freaks and Men," Peter Mullan's heart-wrenching
"Orphans" and Garin Nugroho's beautifully, bracing "Leaf on a Pillow" --
three entries without distribution worthy of finding a broader
audience. Taking inspiration from vintage pornographic photos of young
women being spanked, Balabanov envisions a sepia-tinted universe with a
plot involving conspiratorial photographers, manipulative maids, and
singing Siamese twins. Absolutely nothing like his debut film "Brother"
(distributed last year by Kino International), the astounding and
surreal imagery in "Of Freaks and Men" should establish Balabanov as the
foremost new director working in Russia today. Kino, where are you now?
Regarding Mullan's "Orphans," Scottish working class folks mired in
their miserable lives have never been directed with so much endearment
and dark humor. Far more accessible than your average Ken Loach, Mullan
has proved himself just as worthy a director as an actor (he won a prize
at Cannes for his title role in Loach's "My Name Is Joe"). And though
"Leaf on a Pillow" is the hardest sell of the three, this "Kids" in
Jakarta, partially supported by Rotterdam's Hubert Bals Fund, is a
stirring and sumptuously-designed example of the virtually unknown film
industry taking place in Indonesia today.
Two soon-to-be-released entries also deserve special mention: Ziad
Doueiri's "West Beirut," recently acquired at this year's American Film
Market by Cowboy Booking International where it was the first film ever
to be negotiated in Euros, and Christopher Nolan's enigmatic neo-noir,
"Following," acquired by Zeitgeist at this year's Slamdance. Among the
coming-of-age or Gen-X angst stories prevalent in this year's line-up,
"West Beirut" is the most assured and moving of the batch. Set in 1975
when Beirut, Lebanon was split into Christian and Muslim territories,
the film follows Tarek, a teenager with more interest in sex and Super-8
films than the upheaval slowly escalating around him. Director Ziad
Doueiri, a former cinematographer for Quentin Tarantino, creates a
touching tale of lost innocence, political turmoil, and familial
struggle that should stake a claim for Cowboy among the litany of
mini-distributors. Likewise, Zeitgeist has a prize with Nolan's
ultra-low-budget, black and white British ode to 40's film noir. At
only 70 minutes, "Following" is a precise and intelligent gem.
A final note about shorts -- with the 23 film programs running over 17
days (March 26 - April 11), only three short films will screen
throughout the entire festival. (It was four, but Jeff Stark pulled his
Sundance favorite "Desserts" because he garnered a distribution deal.)
Among the three, only Sara Sugarman's "Anthrakitis," a twisted tale of
an elderly woman and her manipulative neighbor, shows promise. According
to MoMA's Jytte Jensen, they received as many submissions as in previous
years, but "we like them to have a dramatic arch and not just be a
joke. And we saw a lot of one-line jokes," she said, "and those we
don't take." Though Jensen's excuse may be valid, it's a shame that no
young talents working in the short format were discovered. For a
festival that calls itself "New Directors," they could at least make a
more determined effort to find some aspiring shorts filmmakers who truly
are "new directors."