Palm Springs' International Scope Attracts Record Crowds, From A-Listers to Retirees
by Susan Buzzelli
With a strong event that highlighted this year's hottest foreign films, attracted big-name stars, and drew a record number of attendees, organizers of the 15th Palm Springs International Film Festival proved that January has plenty of room for two major festivals.
"We've got more of the foreign-language Oscar submissions this year than ever before, we have a nice slot of guests and the sun is shining every day," summed up festival programmer Alissa Simon halfway through the event.
Though the second half of PSIFF (January 8-19) overlapped with the Sundance Film Festival (January 15-25) for five days, 86,000 attendees revealed that there is a draw for Palm Springs' quirky mix of foreign films and ritzy galas; jogging suits and tuxedos; gray-haired retirees and accented directors.
Simon said that PSIFF organizers do not try to compete with Sundance. "Our concentration is different. Their festival focuses on independent film, while we focus on international film." However, with appearances by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson, and Naomi Watts; screenings of 69 world and U.S. premieres; and generous contributions from the City of Palm Springs, PSIFF proved it has the potential to someday nip at Sundance's heels.
Executive Director Darryl Macdonald, who helmed the fest for four years in the mid-80s, signed on to run this year's edition in early September. Despite a limited time frame, he and his director of programming Carl Spence pulled together a strong lineup of more than 200 films from 65 countries, as well as a handful of American independent features and documentaries. Their efforts were backed by a team of top-notch programmers, including Cannes veteran Marie-Pierre Macia, independent producer Helen du Toi, and Chicagoan Simon.
PSIFF's mainstay has always been long list of the year's official foreign-language Oscar submissions. This year, thanks in part to the Academy Award's earlier date (February instead of March) Macdonald and Spence managed to nab a record 53 out of the possible 56. (Last year, there were 42 out of a possible 54.)
Since Academy members had until January 12 to send in their votes for the top five foreign-language Oscar contenders, PSIFF presented them with one last chance to view the films they had missed. As a result, directors and actors from around the globe eagerly flew into town to draw attention to their films.
Opening weekend was the fest's busiest as Canada's Denys Arcand, director of "The Barbarian Invasions;" Indonesia's Sekar Ayu Asmara, director of "The Stringless Violin;" Poland's Grazyna Blecka-Kolska, star of Jan Jakob Kolski's "Pornography," and others lobbied for a stab at an Oscar.
French director Philippe Le Guay, however, wasn't in town to woo members of the Academy. He traveled all the way to Southern California for the U.S. premiere of his comedy "The Cost of Living" and to mingle with fellow directors.
"It's nice to have the opportunity to meet directors from around the world and share impressions," he said. He took part in a panel discussion about the state of international filmmaking alongside Serbia's Dusan Milic, director of the satirical "Jagoda in the Supermarket," Israel's Shemi Zarhin, director of the comedy "Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi" and Spain's Pablo Berger, director of the crowd-pleasing "Torremolinos 73."
Berger was one of the few international filmmakers to take home a prize. He won the New Visions/New Voices Award for his satirical comedy set in Franco-era Spain. In other awards categories, FIPRESCI tapped Russia's Andrey Zvyagintsev for his somber "The Return"; the John Schlesinger Award for outstanding first feature or documentary went to France's Yann Samuell for his offbeat debut "Love Me If You Dare"; the audience choice award for best documentary feature film went to U.S. documentarians Joe Fab and Elliot Berlin for "Paper Clips"; and the audience choice award for best narrative feature film went to Italy's Tullio Giordana for "The Best of Youth."
Ironically, most of the awards handed out during the international festival went to such all-American filmmakers as producer Richard D. Zanuck, actor and director Kevin Costner, ingénue Scarlett Johannsen, and composer Danny Elfman. They, along with actress Naomi Watts and directors Anthony Minghella and Jim Sheridan, picked up honors at a black-tie awards gala in the Palm Springs Convention Center. In the past, the event has honored more obscure, but no less talented, filmmakers from around the world.
Simon said that the international directors didn't mind sharing the limelight with Hollywood A-listers. "I have guests from Serbia, Israel, and Poland who are so excited to go and see Kevin Costner and Naomi Watts. This really makes it for them," she said.
The gala was one of the many lavish parties and golf events staged throughout the fest that served as an antidote to films that tended to embrace such grim themes as poverty, depression, and political strife. Hiner Saleem's "Vodka Lemon," for example, takes place in an impoverished Armenian village literally frozen in time. The slow, somber "Marie and Julien," directed by France's Jacques Rivette is full of regret and longing. And Jacob Tierney's agonizing "Twist," starring Nick Stahl, presents a portrait of wasted lives.
A handful of American independents that didn't find their way into the Sundance roster found a home in Palm Springs instead. When Sidney Poitier's daughters Sydney and Anika screened their mockumentary "The Devil Cats," about a girl band, their father came along -- unannounced -- to lend his support. Other American films on tap included: Varun Khanna's provocative "Beyond Honor," Juan Geraud's "Cuba Libre," Christopher Herrmann's "Ghostlight," about Martha Graham, Allan Mindel's "Milwaukee, Minnesota," and Campbell Scott's "Off the Map," starring Sam Elliott and Joan Allen.
PSIFF got off to a flashy start with a screening of Tim Burton's "Big Fish" in the local high school auditorium. A steel-drum band played as prominent locals, including Congresswoman Mary Bono, the wife of festival founder Sonny Bono, Alison Lohman, the star of "Fish" and a Palm Springs native, filled the 1,000-seat space.
Two members of the audience, Dana Smith, a local hairdresser, and her friend, Joanie Loureiro, from nearby Eureka, have attended the festival for years. Smith, dressed in leopard velour, raved about last year's party. "It was so glitzy," she said. "They made fresh martinis," Loureiro added.
PSIFF relies on the local community -- mostly retirees -- for volunteers and audience members. Gray-haired, slow-moving men and women dominated the 10 theaters sprinkled throughout the compact resort town. They were joined by members of the city's vibrant gay community, high school students, and foreign film fans from Los Angeles.
Simon, however, raved about PSIFF's decidedly un-hip audience members. "The audiences here are unbelievable. I have had guests tell me that they have had some of the best questions asked here than in other places," she said.
The crowd may have been old, but the festival's main venue -- the seven-screen Signature Theater -- was brand new. Despite a failing projector or two, the sleek space, featuring stadium seating, made festival organization smoother and the atmosphere livelier. "It was great to have the whole thing to ourselves," Simon said.
Executive Director Macdonald, who also runs the Seattle Film Festival, is convinced that PSIFF has arrived. "Palm Springs established itself firmly this year as one of the major contenders and most vital events among the scores of top U.S. film festivals vying for the attention of the worldwide film industry, sponsors and media," he said.
It looks like Palm Springs may give attention-hogging Park City a run for its money, after all.