No Summer Crowds, First-Rate Program Continues Hamptons Fest Rep as Circuit Player
by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE
"I can't believe the cool places you can attend for film festivals sometimes!" That was the immediate comment from an L.A.-based music industry friend after I told him of plans to travel to the near tip of Long Island to cover the 10th annual Hamptons International Film Festival. And, quite honestly, it's hard to not want to make the two-hour trek from Manhattan to attend one of the Northeast's great film events in a setting that has itself been subject to the media spotlight, most notably by Barbara Kopple's recent ABC Television documentary.
Festival executive director Denise Kasell and board chair Stuart Match Suna have enthusiastically carved a niche worthy of the event's high profile locale. The festival's American and international sections include sections on Spotlight Films, World Cinema, Views from Long Island, and Shorts as well as conferences, panels and event's signature Conflict & Resolution program. The section spotlights issue-oriented documentaries and features from around the world, which both informed and provoked attendees on a host of issues of social and political importance. But that's not to suggest that the only hard-hitting work screen in C & R. The fest opened with the East Coast Premiere of Philip Noyce's "Rabbit-Proof Fence," which explores the Australian government's systematic kidnapping of Aboriginal children.
Appropriate to its position in one of America's wealthiest communities, the Hamptons offers the richest prizes of all American film festivals, including the $180,000 Golden Starfish Fiction Films in Competition (goods and services) prize, which five films vied for this year. Other juicy awards are presented to docs, cinematography, shorts, and C&R films, among others -- enough to make many an indie filmmaker salivate. This year, Vanessa Parise's story of sibling conflict between four sisters, "Kiss the Bride," took the Hamptons' top award.
"I had fun. It's off-season out on the Hamptons, so the energy seems all focused on the festival, which is cool," commented New York-based filmmaker Stephen Kijak. Kijak co-directed "Cinemania" with Angela Christlieb, which made its East Coast premiere at the fest. The film, which won the festival's Golden Starfish Documentary prize, turns the camera onto a group of diehard New York film fanatics who spend their lives seeing and planning to see films. The hilarious heart-felt doc provided a great topic for discussion following the screening by both audience members as well as Alex Mamlet and Amir Bar-Lev, whose short "Kid Protocol" preceded the main screening. "I think I've had some of the best discussions with other filmmakers at the Hamptons," said Kijak. "Great Q&As too. The audience out there loves this festival and they are smart about film."
The festival's proximity to New York City and its film community are also a boon to the Hamptons in terms of exposure and industry presence. Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker took part in one of the informal daily town hall forums hosted by indieWIRE editor-in-chief Eugene Hernandez, while actor Alec Baldwin interviewed New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell as part of the festival's "A Conversation With" program. "I know that we had good press and industry coverage, and that's unique for other fests of our size on the East Coast," commented Hamptons' director of programming Rajendra Roy. "Beyond that I do think we offer something unique, an intimate cinematic experience in a tony beach resort community that is also an important New York City event." Roy assembled a broad program of work that include a number of films by female directors, including German filmmaker Caroline Link whose closing night film, "Nowhere in Africa," took the Audience Award for Best Feature. "I was looking to diversify the program in terms of representation, without tokenizing it," said Roy. "We [succeeded with] 50 percent women directors in competition. I was also looking for more premieres, of course, and we had an all-premiere competition."
Gotham directors Andrew Rossi and E.K. Novak's world premiere documentary "Eat This New York" screened in the documentary competition. The film focused on would-be restaurateurs Billy Phelps and John McCormick and their struggles to open an eatery in Brooklyn. Interwoven with their battle, the film also features tidbit insights from some of New York City's superstar restaurant owners, including Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque, Danny Meyer from Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Café as well as Keith McNally, the creator of Balthazar and Pastis, among others. Crowds jammed into the film, no doubt helped by the well-heeled audience's familiarity with NYC eating establishments. In the end, some disappointed filmgoers could not find seats, and the fest added an additional screening later that evening. Meanwhile, fellow competition entry "Shalom Y'All" by Brian Bain focused audiences away from New York with a historic and cultural view of Jews in the South. Non-competition docs "Lost in La Mancha," captured the demise of the Terry Gilliam's film version of Don Quixote, starring Johnny Depp, and festival favorite "Spellbound," which tells the story of a group of students from various backgrounds who vie for National Spelling Bee victory, were among the slew of entertaining docs screened.
The festival's first full day kicked off its Conflict & Resolution section with a panel of participating filmmakers and the programmer of the section, Mark Rabinowitz. The group began the discussion delving into the advent of new technology that has provided filmmakers documenting a social/political event new ways of capturing turmoil or other incident. "The handicam revolution is the greatest [change] since the industrial revolution in capturing our world," said Peter Wintonick, co-director of "Seeing is Believing," during the panel discussion. Wintonick's film, also directed by Katerina Cizek, follows the witnesses of tumultuous events -- including private citizens, human rights activists and right wing hate groups -- who use communications technologies to record what they view. The film won the section's Dan & Ewa and Tammy Abraham Award for Films of Conflict & Resolution, garnering a $25,000 cash award.
Wintonick praised fellow panelist Anand Patwardhan, whose film "War and Peace" documents the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan. The Indian director is currently battling censors in his country's courts and vows to show the film because he believes work such as his can result in change. Still he lamented, "There are too many gatekeepers from allowing films such as these from being shown." Other programs in the series included the Ireland-U.K. production of "Silent Grace," by Maeve Murphy, which focuses on female IRA hunger-strikers in the early '80s who lived in the shadow of the their male counterparts and Aviva Slesin's "Secret Lives: Hidden Children and their Rescuers During WW II." The film tells the story of Jewish children sheltered by non-Jews during the Holocaust. "This year's attendance exceeded my expectations and I think that was due to the expanded scope of the program. The overwhelmingly positive response was quite gratifying," said Rabinowitz on this year's C&R.
Festival spotlight film "Ripley's Game," which had its North American Premiere at the festival on Saturday, lured a big crowd to Main Street.. The Fine Line thriller, which is directed by Liliana Cavani and stars John Malkovich, is based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, the author of "The Talented Mr. Ripley." Other Spotlight films included Dylan Kidd's Tribeca Film Festival winner "Roger Dodger," the East Coast Premiere of "Morvern Callar" by Lynne Ramsay, and "Lawless Heart," Neil Hunter and Tom Hunsinger's story of three men brought together at a funeral in an English village.
"I think it's taken 10 years to work out the kinks, but it is very clear that the Hamptons is poised to move to a whole new level," said Roy when asked about the festival's first decade. Despite some rumblings published by a local in Hamptons Cottages and Gardens Magazine prior to the event, complaining about the crowds and noise, the community's support for the festival should continue to make the Hamptons International Film Festival a growing presence, as it enters its second decade on the world film scene.