This was a week of strengths in New York. Newfest audiences discovered a terrific film missed by the festival circuit, Human Rights Watch audiences discovered horrible atrocities the world over. BAM celebrated the spirit of discovery found at the Director's Fortnight, and audiences at Film Forum are about to discover they had a lot to learn about the golden age of Japanese Cinema.
Human Rights Film Festival Kicks Off
On Friday night, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, together with the Human Rights Watch, kicked off the 2008 Human Rights Film Festival, the most reluctantly excellent film festival in the world. Says the Film Society's festival director Marian Masone, "Every year, the submissions we receive keep getting better and better, and more numerous, unfortunately... Unhappily, with all these subjects, there are more films that people need to see."
John Biaggi from the Human Rights Watch agrees. "I like to think the increase in films we've received stems from an increased attention to documentary filmmaking, rather than because the problems they document keep getting worse, but I'm not completely certain." To the end of helping the festival make a difference, Biaggi has spearheaded the practice of including Q&As with experts and activists in the film's subject matters after each film.
Biaggi and Masone pinpoint a few specific themes to this year's films. "We're seeing a lot of themes revolving around the fight for democracy," says Biaggi. "Our centerpiece, 'The Sari Soldiers' is a great example - the story of five extremely different women in Nepal trying to overcome government oppression. There's 'Letter to Anna,' about the erosion of freedom of the press and expression; it's in Russia, but there's echoes in the US, in 'The USA vs. Al-Arian,' a film that shows the erosion of our basic democratic freedoms started by John Ashcroft."
Masone notices a different trend. "A lot of our films are about young people, who are, indeed, our future, but maybe not such a great future. We have a film from Brazil, 'Behave,' all about how the judicial system there treats young people. There's a truly disturbing film called 'China's Stolen Children,' about children being kidnapped and sold on the black market; one of the subjects sold his own 6 year old. I'm really impressed by the Human Rights Watch program "Youth Producing Change," which are shorts made by young people that are so much more hopeful. You really feel like these people have so much to say, it helps balance out some of the despair in the other parts."
There was hope to go around on Monday night at dinner honoring many of the festival's filmmakers at the swanky restaurant Allen and Delancey thrown by the fledgling Cinereach philanthropic organization, which provides support to social justice-oriented cinema. Filmmakers such as Julie "The Sari Solder's" Bridgham, Lisa "The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo" Jackson, and Tamar "To See if I'm Still Smiling" Yarom mingled and expressed true optimism that film could make a difference. "We threw this event, because so much of what the Human Rights Watch and what Cinereach stand for are the same," said Cinereach's Priya Sanghvi. "We both believe film has a tremendous power to change the world."
The Human Rights Watch Film Festival continues through June 26
NewFest Soars With "Were the World Mine"
Newfest: The New York LGBT Film Festival continued through the weekend with events big and small. Besides hosting their final party at the sadly soon-to-be-departed diner Florent (in the sweltering heat, which didn't dampen the spirits), the festival held its women's centerpiece film, Kyle Schickner's "Steam" - about the friendship forged between three women in a gym steamroom; stars Ally Sheedy and the legendary Ruby Dee (!) stayed out until the wee hours at the after party.
Closing out the festival was Tom Gustafson's musical "Were the World Mine," which I would specifically like to discuss in depth for one reason: I loved it. A lot. It's a retelling of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" set in high school, in which the hero turns everybody gay for awhile with a magic potion, but it's the sort of movie in which the plot is almost irrelevant, because the mood, the characters, and especially the music are so strong they supercede all of the other aspects of the film. "I really liked the idea of doing a new kind of musical, not the standard," said Gustafson when I talked to him a few months ago. "Music can touch a lot of emotions that nothing else can."
Audiences have been loving it; the Newfest audience was moved to cheers, and the film has been picking up audience awards left and right. But myself and the people with whom I saw it - festival veterans, programmers, and industry - all expressed shocked that it had not premiered at one of the world's major festivals. Not only did it surpass in quality almost any competition film from Sundance this year, festivals the world over were really scrounging for queer content specifically. It's a mystery to me; there are creaky elements, yes, and while it is not a flawless film, it made my heart soar, and gave me more pure enjoyment than anything I've seen in ages. I can only hope (perhaps against the odds) that it gets some sort of theatrical distribution; it plays like gangbusters with an audience.
BAM Pays Tribute To Cannes Alternative
Brooklyn Academy of Music programmer Florence Almozini is similarly happy with her own viewing fare; this week, the institution has been showing Jacques Rivette's hallucinatory masterpiece "Celine and Julie Go Boating." "It's my favorite film of all time," says Almozini of the "Mulholland Drive"-like dreamlike comedy of two women with intersecting lives. "I plan on attending every screening BAM hosts, except if it conflicts with a Eurocup game."
The week-long run is the first event in BAM's "Director's Fortnight at 40," a tribute to the festival which has run, since 1969, as the parallel, edgier alternative to Cannes, launching the careers of Scorsese, Fassbinder and Jarmusch, among many, many others. "It's the most interesting selection of what is at Cannes, more alternative and cinephilic than the competition," says Almozini. "The films are edgier... and it is still the same after 40 years, it hasn't changed. It is still finding filmmakers like Brillante Mendoza, or Lynne Ramsay. In terms of discovery, it's the festival of our times."
The tribute continues through July 3; highlights include a chance to see Bella Tarr's stunning "Werckmeister Harmonies" on the big screen, as well as Fassbinder's "Fox and His Friends" and Olivier Jahan's tribute to the Fortnight, "40 X 15." It's a program that works perfectly at BAM, which has staked out a successful place as the edgiest of the city's rep houses. Almozini agrees, saying "I suppose we like to think of the BAM Cinematek as the Director's Fortnight of New York."
Film Forum Salutes Nakadai
Coming up next week, Film Forum salutes Japanese actor Tatusya Nakadai, one of the only living legends from Japan's golden age of film, a collaborator of Akira Kurosawa ("Ran" and "Yojimbo") and Masaki Kobayashi ("Kwaidan") who fought against typecasting despite his matinee idol looks, becoming one of the most versatile actors of his time.
"The wonderful thing about featuring Nakadai," says Film Forum director of repertory programming Bruce Goldstein, "is that his career represents the whole golden age of Japanese cinema, because he worked with everybody... We were able to show some of the well known films, and the Japan Foundation helped get new, rare prints of many films which haven't ever been seen in this country, major films from major directors that hadn’t ever been subtitled. It's a real thrill."
Amongst those is a major film from Mikio Naruze, "Untamed," which first brought Nakadai to notice. Concluding the series will be a three-week run of Kaboyashi's 10-hour epic "The Human Condition," starring Nakadai as a conscientious objector in the imperial army.
Nakadai himself will be in town on Tuesday, June 24th, for a special "Evening with Tatsuya Nakadai," which Goldstein had to schedule more than a year ago. "He's still very much active, in the theater, in cinema... When we booked him a year ago, it was the only free time he had in his schedule."
The Nakadai series continues through August 7.