Starting with a lineup of films expertly curated by co-founder and artistic director Ron Henderson and program director Brit Withey, this year's 28th Starz Denver International Film Festival was a rare jewel in the film festival world: a well-organized large fest in a large city that treated filmmakers and guests with courtesy and respect. The fest was bookended by screenings of two much-heralded December releases: Roger Donaldson's "The World's Fastest Indian" opened the fest while Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain" closed the event. Interestingly, both films will be released in some theaters on December 9th. Accompanying "Indian" to Denver was director Donaldson, who had a fine time at the fest's ever-hopping Pearl Late Night Lounge, leaving them with an autographed Indian pennant, while director Lee, screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana and source short story author Annie Proulx were on hand for the fest's closing days.
Programming at SDIFF is a mix of US and overseas offerings and doesn't fall into the common pit of trying to screen as many world premieres as possible. Henderson and Withey fully understand that a world premiere does not necessarily a good film make and that ignoring excellent films that may have played at other US fests (several SDIFF films screened at the recently-concluded AFI Fest) short-changes the local audience. That said, it's a fair bet that none of these films had been seen by a vast majority of festival attendees and after all, isn't that the real point?
In the arena of foreign language films, the SDIFF really shines, with films from 40 countries (including the US) unspooling over the 10 day event. Included in that list are 9 films in contention for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award nomination, including the multiple award-winning "Tsotsi" from South Africa, Gavin Hood's upcoming Miramax release which was a tie for the festival's feature Starz People's Choice Award with Stephen Frears' Mrs. Henderson Presents. The doc audience award went to "Music Is My Life, Politics My Mistress: The Story Of Oscar Brown Jr." by donnie l. betts and the short audience award went to Josh Staub's "The Mantis Parable."
Other awards given before the gala closing night screening include:
The Maysles Brothers Award for Best Documentary went to "El Perro Negro: Stories From the Spanish Civil War" and the documentary jury also issued a special citation to the German/Lebanese "Massacre" directed by Monika Borgmann.
The Krzysztof Kieslowski Award for Best Foreign Feature went to Krzysztof Krauze's "My Nikifor" from Poland, which features a cross-gender performance by Polish actress Krystyna Feldman in the title role and also won the top prize at October's Chicago International Film Festival.
The Emerging Filmmaker Award, given to a first or second-time filmmaker, went to "Laura Smiles" written and directed by Jason Ruscio.
A few of the standouts of this year's fest include Tom Zuber's assured sophomore effort, "Little Athens." A disturbing and at times profoundly upsetting look at youth in an Arizona town, the film follows four stories that intersect at a climactic and disastrous house party and features assured performances from a group of young actors including DJ Qualls ("Hustle & Flow"), Jorge Garcia (TV's Lost), Shawn Hatosy ("Faith of My Fathers"), Michelle Horn ("Hostage"), Rachel Miner ("Bully"), Michael Pena ("Crash"), Jill Ritchie ("D.E.B.S.") who also happen to be Kid Rock's sister, and Eric Szmanda (TV's "CSI"), "Little Athens" firmly establishes Zuber and his co-writer and brother Jeff as talented filmmakers to watch.
Mystelle Brabbe's "Highway Courtesans" also bears mention as a look inside a Bachara clan in India, where traditionally the daughters are roadside prostitutes. Brabbe's film follows the life of Guddi Chauchan from 16 to 23 in her struggle to break with tradition and leave the life of prostitution behind. Brabbe (also the artistic director of the Nantucket Film Festival) spent parts of seven years making a film that started out as one idea and evolved over time into something completely different. Asked at a post screening Q&A if she was planning on doing any more filming with Guddi and her family, Brabbe answered that initially she thought she was done but that now she wasn't so sure. If she wants my 5 cents, this might very well be a story worth following up on, a la Michael Apted's "Up" series of docs.
Another strong doc was David Zeiger's "Sir! No Sir!," a compelling new look at the GI Movement, the concerted effort by active duty soldiers and sailors to protest the Vietnam War. An important and largely forgotten element of the war in Vietnam, the GI Movement resulted in many active duty servicemen and women being tried and convicted of mutiny among other offenses, simply for opposing a war now considered by many to have been both unjust as well as extremely poorly planned and executed. One key note in the film was the first examination that I have seen of the idea that returning soldiers were spit on and called "baby killers" by peace activists in the US. A few of these stories are dissected and found to be fictions, ones likely drawn up by those trying to discredit the anti-war movement.
While the film is a little loose in terms of structure and could use another pass through the editing room, it is an important document and another chapter in the history of this war that is taking on even more importance in light of the current slide in popularity of the War in Iraq.
In addition to the many undistributed features that screened this year, the SDIFF also gave local audiences an advance look at some of the top-notch indie offerings hitting theaters in the coming weeks and months, including Michael Winterbottom's hysterical "Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story," Duncan Tucker's "Transamerica", Eugene Jarecki's doc "Why We Fight" and Matt Mulhern's "Duane Hopwood" (star David Schwimmer was on hand for a special "one-on-one" interview).
A key element of SDIFF's success is the level of hospitality afforded filmmakers and invited guests. The festival staff couldn't be any nicer and enthusiastic in their love of film and filmmakers and the fest's infrastructure was a marvel to behold. Festival transportation was available to accredited guests until 1:30 a.m. with but a phone call and day trips for guests (weekday screenings started at 6 p.m.) were hosted.
The social fulcrum of the festival is clearly the Pearl Late Night Lounge. Sponsored receptions were fine and dandy but the LNL was without a doubt the best party scene I have experienced in my 10 years attending fests. Those of you who know me may still be picking your jaws off the floor when I go on to say that not only did they provide a full open bar of top shelf liquor, beer and wine, but there was food. Good food. Seared tuna, shrimp and prosciutto type food. No cheese cubes here, matey. And yes, they did let me DJ for two nights and yes, they did recognize me and a few others "for special and rather outlandish achievements in the field of Drunken Jackassery" but that doesn't change the fact that the fun and good vibes level make SDIFF a very special event.
While they are in serious need of a new venue (a previous location fell through and they are close to a second one) the SDIFF appears to be rolling on all cylinders towards 2007's 30th edition.
The best kept secret on the US Film Festival circuit may well be the Starz Denver International Film Festival. As a recently converted acolyte in the church of the SDIFF I find myself somewhat conflicted between keeping the secret and spreading the word but the choice is clear. My duty as a scribe and desire to see the fest continue to grow both require me to state: get thee to to next year's 29th SDIFF. You shan't be disappointed.
[Mark Rabinowitz is a co-founder of indieWIRE.com and currently a freelance journalist and producer. He is immensely proud of his award for Drunken Jackassery and promises to add the Late Night Lounge's "Perfect Attendance Award" to his collection next year. More pix and coverage from the 28th SDIFF can be found over the coming days at The Rabbi Report.]