Pointing True North: A report on the Eighth Bermuda International Film Festival
by Liza Bear
You know a festival has set its compass when it's the filmmaker's ID badge that says VIP, totally rejecting ubiquitous, corporate-style branding. Bermuda's valiant international film festival takes a cue, perhaps, from this tiny archipelago's perch at the apex of the infamous Bermuda Triangle, one of the only two places on earth where the compass points true north as opposed to magnetic north.
Now in its 8th year, the Bermuda International Film Festival (BIFF) gets it right: a robust menu of films, splendid lodgings, low-keyed but thoughtful organization, a well-integrated volunteer corps of sponsors and patrons and a 'sympatico' ambiance, plus a rare bonus-free time. Screenings at the island's four commercial theatres don't start till 1:30pm or even 4pm.
"It's great," says Burkina Faso director Fanta Regina Nacro over breakfast in the Hamilton Princess' Gold Lounge before checking e-mails; she's here as a juror for the shorts film award. "Time to rest, reflect and explore this island, which I've always heard is a paradise for some." She wonders, though, where the 61% black population lives.
While global shipping of film prints is one thing, getting competition filmmakers from India, Iran, Israel, Norway, Serbia, Turkey, and Vietnam -- not just Canada, the UK and the US -- over to Bermuda is another, in spite of the obvious attractions. But first-time Indian director Ganapathy Bharatbala is here with "Hari Om," starring the incomparable "Monsoon Wedding" star Vijay Raaz as a rickshaw driver in Rajastjhan who becomes the vehicle for a young French woman's wondrous voyage of self-discovery in a 1000 mile trek from Jaipur to Jaiselmer. And the extremely talented Israeli actress Hani Furstenberg, a real live wire, is representing Joseph Cedar's "Campfire" in which she plays the 15-year-old daughter of a recently widowed mother. "Campfire" won a special award for ensemble acting. Nacro wishes Africa was represented by more films than Ousmane Sembene's "Moolade," one of last year's undeniable masterpieces about a woman who give sanctuary to four young girls about to be circumcised.
"There are now several working directors in each African country, not just one," says Nacro, who's made award-winning shorts since 1992 and will be showing her first feature, "La Nuit de la Verite," about the role of women in ethnic conflict, at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. "We did have a lot of American films when we first started but our audience seems to react more favorably to world cinema," says architect David O'Beirne, director of programming, interviewed at the festival's opening night reception at Zurich Re. The office complex is next to the palatial, blush pink Hamilton Princess hotel, a former favorite haunt of Mark Twain, where many of the festival participants are being regally housed. Factoid: "Re" stands for reinsurance, a form of catastrophic insurance that now fuels the island's economy.
With 13,000 international companies registered in this offshore banking tax haven, you'd think fundraising for the festival would be a cinch. "It's not," O'Beirne replies quickly. Contrary to widespread belief stateside, Bermuda is 1000 miles north of the Caribbean and 700 miles east of South Carolina, astride the warm turbulent Gulf Stream where tropical and temperate air masses meet. Wind speed can go from 0 to 80 knots in a matter of minutes.
"Everything's a foreign film when you're in Bermuda," says Duncan Hall, deputy director and press coordinator. "But there are US films in competition. Because of [proximity], the good US indie film is more likely to find us than the small Turkish film," says Hall.
Prime examples of both are in this year's line-up. German-born, New York-based Anja Baron's terrific debut feature "The Last of Us," a cinema verite profile of the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, founded by Al Vollmer in 1973, is both poignant and inspiring as it shows veteran musicians well into their '70s, '80s and '90s hustling gigs and touring in Mexico, Europe and Russia-for sheer economic as well as spiritual survival. The film, which was unsolicited, won a Special Jury mention in the documentary category. An autobiographical story set in the '60s in Anatolia, Turkey, "Boats out of Watermelon Rinds" by first-time feature director Ahmet Ulucay, is a tranquil, poetic coming-of-age film about two teenage country boys with summer jobs as a watermelon vendor and a barber's shop assistant in a neighboring town; ecstatic film buffs, they rig up a makeshift movie projector and unspool discarded celluloid from the local cinema.
"With dominant North American and English cultural influences from cable TV and newspapers, we've all heard the mainstream view," Hall says. "It's important to bring in the great small Indian or great small Iranian film, because otherwise people in Bermuda wouldn't see it." Of Bermuda's 65,000 inhabitants, 10,000 are a cosmopolitan expatriate transient labor force used to art-house films in their home countries, Hall relays. This year's slate of Iranian films -- four in a sidebar and one in competition -- highlighted both the darker and lighter aspects of the overall programming. Among those I screened were "Mama's Guest," a delightful comedy of manners verging on the farcical set in a rambling Tehran apartment complex that's a paen to resourceful neighborliness.
Although Bermuda is a British self-governing colony with no US military base in sight, it's too bad Iranian director Marziyeh Meshkini was not here to receive the Best Feature prize for her second feature, "Stray Dogs." An almost surreal human drama, "Stray Dogs" follows a brother and sister as they save a foreign dog from death by burning, and attempt to find a home in jail as night prisoners with their mother. With an astounding performance by the young girl, Gol Ghoti, the film satirizes the absurdities of living in a country ravaged by war and religious intolerance where the best home for a child is a jail.
For a small festival to secure a world premiere is quite a coup, but Franny Armstrong's dynamite documentary, "McLibel" [UK], seems a particularly fortuitous choice for BIFF: As a sign of its staunch independence from fast-food whoopee, Bermuda has an exemplary law prohibiting franchises.
"There are a lot of small mom-and-pop type coffee shops here that would have suffered if you allow in a giant like McD or Pizza Hut," says festival director Aideen Rattray Pryse. "But there is a community here and a feel for what is Bermudian that we would lose as soon as you homogenize and become like everybody else." Pryse originally studied urban planning at McGill University in Canada.
On Saturday, March 19, Franny Armstrong came to the outdoor wine-tasting of New Zealand Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Southampton after the "McLibel" screening to a packed house at the Little Theatre on Queen Street. With absolute nonchalance and great pizzazz, "McLibel" [UK] chronicles Britain's longest running case about two North London activists, a postman and a gardener, who beat a libel suit brought by McDonald's. The final feature version of the film, originally a short, took ten years to complete. When you meet her, you're not surprised that Armstrong, smart and funny, a former drummer in two pop bands, was able to make a thoroughly understandable and entertaining film out of a convoluted court case.
After a few days in Bermuda, driving rain and scudding clouds give way to chalk blue skies and sun. Bermudian filmmaker Lucinda Spurling has been waiting for just such a day to get pick-up shots for her forthcoming feature, "Rara Avis" [Rare Bird], shown this year as a 16-minute work-in-progress.
With Parks Conservation officer Jeremy Madeiros at the helm, we sail across Castle Harbor Bay past Tucker's Town, St George's Parish -- off-shore habitats of Ross Perot, Mayor Bloomberg and Silvio Berlusconi -- and head for the even more exclusive nesting grounds of the Cahow. In the real world rather than on screen, it's quite extraordinary to witness the expert, gentle handling of adult birds and chicks as they are removed from their nests and weighed -- it's part of the monitoring process. After all, relocating your assets or your home to Bermuda may be a windfall for the likes of Rupert Murdoch, who just saved $41 million in Australian taxes by transferring $7 billion to this off-shore banking haven. But for the Cahow, a delicate nocturnal cliff-nesting seabird once believed to be extinct, relocation to higher ground, safe from rising tides, predators and hurricanes, is a matter of survival of the species. Exactly how that's done will be the story of Spurling's film.