The Palm Springs International Film Festival is blessed with a location and date that many other festivals might only dream of... PSIFF lives up to the "International" in its name, regularly screening the world's entries for Best Foreign Language Oscar consideration - this year, 41 of 65 entries to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Being set in a tony desert resort less than two hours from Los Angeles with some of the balmiest January weather in the United States certainly can't hurt. Plus, Palm Springs has long been a magnet for Hollywood stars and bigwigs for decades, so luring out those Academy members to see some of those contenders on the big screen is a no brainer. Still, the festival's organizers, the Palm Springs International Film Society - which hosts year-round events including Palm Springs International ShortFest taking place this year June 22 - 28 - deserves kudos for exploiting this niche.
And the long queues outside festival venues around the desert enclave are testament to the event's success, even if the audiences are skewed somewhat to the community's resident winter population.
"Palm Springs attendees come from all over North America," PSIFF Lead Programmer Carl Spence told indieWIRE. "They are passionate and longtime arthouse film goers frustrated by the fewer and fewer opportunities to see these types of films in their hometowns. They love to discover new films they have never heard of." Spence called the festival's audience "savvy and "smart" and place value in a geographic diversity of voices. "I'm always surprised when we have people fighting to get into a small film from Turkey, Namibia or another distant country."
Distant, but certainly far from obscure, Australia received a special festival spotlight this year, with a program dubbed, "G'Day USA: A Showcase of New Australian Cinema," showcasing nine features debuting from Down Under. Director Warwick Thornton's look at Aboriginal youth, "Samson & Delilah" was among the crop of films in the spotlight. The filmmaker showed up with his new bride - the couple used their visit to Palm Springs as a honeymoon - to introduce the film which took the Camera D'Or in Cannes last year.
The film follows two teens who live in a dusty settlement in the Australian desert. The plot unfolds with minimal dialog yet seductive performances by its lead actors. Samson, 15, is addicted to sniffing gasoline, while 16 year-old Delilah cares and works on dot-paintings with her elderly grandmother. Their flirtation takes a harsh turn after they take a community car to Alice Springs and they find themselves living under a highway overpass as runaways. From there, things descend further until a chance accident adds another twist.
"'Samson & Delilah' is a horrific film, it hurts," said Thornton after the screening. "But it's 'Honesty Cinema.' It tells the truth. The film may itself be fictitious, but it shows what's happening." Thornton continued to say to the audience (two theaters were packed for the film's initial screening) that the story may have been invented, but it reflected the condition of many Aboriginal youth in Australia and beyond.
"The thing I love about 'Samson & Delilah' is that they're two teens falling in love, and they're kids dealing with drug abuse," he said, "They could be two kids in Australia, Palm Springs, New York or anywhere."
"Samson & Delilah" was certainly captivating, but it didn't make for light viewing. Nor did the U.S. debut of fellow Aussie filmmaker Glendyn Ivin's "Last Ride." Starring Hugo Weaving, the veteran Oz actor plays an ex-con father who takes his 10 year-old son, played charmingly by Tommy Russell, out to the desert on an odyssey he knows can't be good. Their journey is peppered with light moments, but their journey becomes more precarious as they steal food and his father descends down a slow temper-filled spiral. "There were certainly parts of the film that I liked," one member of the audience told a fellow watcher. "Yeah, parts," she added.
"'Samson & Delilah' was the spark that got us to look around and notice a surge in extraordinary productions from Australia," said Spence about this year's country spotlight. "It started with 'Samson & Delilah' in Cannes and then continued in Toronto after seeing 'Beautiful Kate,' 'The Balibo Conspiracy,' 'Blessed' and 'My Year Without Sex' amongst other recent noteworthy films from Australia."
Typically at the forefront of international offerings, French-language film made a splash last weekend with a lovely lunch co-hosted by the Department of Film and Television of the Consulate General of France. Interestingly, France's own submission for Oscar consideration, Jacques Audiard's "A Prophet" was absent from the festival's line-up, but France had 19 other titles listed in the PSIFF catalog.
And, three other French-speaking titles that have been by submitted by other countries traveled to Palm Springs. Belgium's "The Misfortunates" by Felix van Groeningen, Switzerland's "Home" by Ursula Meier and Canada's "I Killed My Mother" by young actor/director Xavier Dolan (one of indieWIRE's favorites from this past Fall's film circuit) were among the films feted at the brunch.
Also grabbing festival attention and headlines ahead of its screening was Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam's "The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet's Struggle for Freedom." China insured a decent amount of press for PSIFF by subtly then demanding the removal of the film which takes a look at the Dalai Lama and his quest for autonomy - but not complete independence - from China. When festival organizers refused, China withdrew two titles from the fest.
The 21st Palm Springs International Film Festival continues through January 18th. indieWIRE will publish the winners of the festival over the weekend.