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May 8, 1998 2:00 AM
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Ten Days of French and American Indies in Manhattan: A Report from the 1998 Avignon/New York Film Fe

Ten Days of French and American Indies in Manhattan: A
Report from the 1998 Avignon/New York Film Festival

by Leslie Weishaar




With what remained of the cases of champagne, wine and vodka consumed
after 10 days of celebrating two of the most influential film
communities in the world, the 4th Avignon/New York Film Festival (A/NY)
closed up shop late Sunday night.


Despite the unfortunate glut of four festivals in two weeks this year
(which hopefully programmers will adjust for next year), A/NY is one of
the few venues for non-industry New Yorkers to talk to filmmakers
directly after every screening (of course, in some cases, knowledge of
French is helpful). But for those who don't parlez, every film, whether
it's a short or a feature, is followed by a Q & A session between the
filmmakers and the audience, skillfully translated by filmmaker
Phillip Bryden (felicitations on his short film, "Le Tocard"). Where
else in NYC can you get a cocktail party with filmmakers, a short and
a feature, all for $8?


With tales of the trenches coming from hardened veterans like Peter
Bogdanovich and Paul Schrader, and several discussions of Sam Fuller's
ill-fated "White Dog" (which seems way too tame to send a man out of the
country), it's time for a new tag line, "Banking is easy. Filmmaking is
hard." Curtis Hanson (director of "LA Confidential" and co-writer with
Sam Fuller of the controversial "White Dog"), wondered why weekend box
office receipts so strongly influence people's choices today, "If I'm
not a producer or an investor, why should I care if a film made $5
million or $10 million over the weekend?" But indie filmmakers are more
aware than ever of the need for "star power" to drive their features
towards distribution and good box office. Surprisingly, the stars
appearing in this year's line-up included: Mira Sorvino, Ben Gazzarra,
Takeshi Kaneshiro, Claudia Cardinale, Nick Nolte, Christina Ricci, Bruce
Willis (upstaged by a dog no less), and Kevin Bacon, Cathy Moriarty and
Mary Stuart Masterson (but of course Tim Hutton would have some actor
friends).


At the Script, Script, Script panel, moderated by James Ryan, teacher of
the intensive 3-day Screenwriting from the Heart Seminar, Paul Schrader
(whose new film "Affliction" opened the festival, along with Wonsuk
Chin's "Too Tired to Die") commented that whether the public blames
the industry for its product, the industry blames the public for its
demand or the press gets blamed for its undue influence (because people
want to be told what they should watch), the truth is, the market is a
"four-legged creature," and it "doesn't go forward unless all four legs
are walking in the same direction."


Jon Carnoy, one of Avignon's success stories, made several short films
(including the wonderful "Lucas" screened last year) and recently went
on to premiere his new feature, "Mob Queen" at LAIFF. Jon felt it was
"much more fun" to be at Avignon/NY because the "pressure was off." In
fact, this is a festival with little or no industry pressure - no reps
or distributors ready to sign deals. Head Programmer and festival
founder, the charismatic Jerry Rudes originally conceived the festival
as an alternative to the commercial frenzy and heirarchy of Cannes,
where the work takes a back seat to glamour and star power. It was
conceived as "Rencontres" (translated as "meeting"), a time to hang out
and watch films and discuss them in a friendly way over wine and cheese
-- although next year a little more cheese would be good.


Rudes's desire to keep things non-competitive is behind his reluctance
to give out awards. But in the spirit of encouraging filmmakers to try
it again (maybe in a few months, once the pain has worn off), the
festival has instituted the 21st Century Filmmaker Awards: $50,000
worth of prizes decided by audience ballots. This year, three of the
four director's prizes were given to women, which is especially
encouraging after last year's panel at Cannes on new American directors
was devoid of a single female face (although Barbara Kopple was in the
audience).


This year's French winners were: "Artemisia," a beautifully crafted film
by Agnès Merlet to be distributed by Miramax, and "Theo, Are You There?"
by Julie Lapinski, a cleverly shot, humorous short about a woman who
winds up at the wrong door.


While "Sous les Pieds des Femmes" ("Under Women's Feet") by Rachida Krim
didn't win an audience award, it deserves commendation for its strong
political ambience and directorial restraint. While at least one
audience member was bothered by its slow, non-linear unfolding which
provided no big pay-off at the end ("The French need to learn pacing
from the Americans"), it had a beautiful, ethereal quality greatly
enhanced by the screen presence of its star, Claudia Cardinale.
Algerians in the audience attacked the film for inauthenticity but Krim
defended her film on the grounds that she was not trying to make an
historical document. In any case, due to its political nature alone, it
is likely not to get distribution in the U.S., "malheureusement."


"Tree Shade," a remarkable debut film by Lisa Collins shot entirely MOS,
took the award for best American short. The story of a young, black
woman trying to find some good in her family's shady legacy, "Tree
Shade" celebrates the empowerment of black women (with a little help
from Nefertitti). 3-1/2 years in the making, the completion of "Tree
Shade" is as much a story of triumph over adversity as the film itself,
and the film was loved despite production weaknesses and won the prize
over much slicker films.


The charming "Once We Were Strangers" by Emanuele Crialese won for best
American feature. While it offered some refreshing twists on the
romantic comedy format, it was also notable for its leading man,
Vincenzo Amato, who has so much sex appeal it seems impossible Crialese
was able to find an actress capable of appearing uninterested. Two
other actors with the same magnetic degree of sexuality were the
outstanding Candice Cayne, who provided the sexual energy needed to fuel
the farce behind "Mob Queen," and Christina Ricci, who used "little
girl" appeal to enrich the outstandingly sexy short film "Little Red
Riding Hood
," shot on 35mm, expertly directed by David Kaplan and the
winner of the Kodak Vision award for best cinematography by Scott
Ramsey.


While A/NY emphasizes the art of cinema as story-telling, there was some
exposure to digital technology. Image Group, one of the sponsors, kept
a monitor running in the lobby promoting their digital and DVD
products. Two popular short films completed post at Cineric (which also
created the A/NY and Delta trailer shown before every single film):
"Frankie Goes to Hollywood" by Brendan Kelly, shot on high definition
video (with a guest appearance by Bruce Willis) and "Ouvre La Fenêtre"
by Steve Stein, a clever B&W film shot on 16mm.


Unfortunately the Kodak panel on cinematography steered clear of any
relevant digital discussion, but the panel on New Media and Cinema
(co-sponsored by Harvestworks Digital Media and Film/Video Arts)
featured digital artists Zoe Beloff, Toni Dave, Art Jones and Tina
LaPorta. Beloff (who recently won first prize in Apple's 1998 QuickTime
VR competition), teaches at the Pratt Institute and CCNY. Her recent work
with the Wooster Group can be seen at www.thewoostergroup.org/lights.
Canadian Toni Dove presented a video of her amazing interactive
installation, Artificial Changelings, which recently premiered at the
Rotterdam Film Festival. This installation simultaneously responds with
sounds and images that change interactively as a person moves through
three zones in front of the screen. Don't miss this amazing
installation if it comes to your city, but over the internet her work
can be seen at: <www.funnygarbage.com/dove>.


An interesting marriage of technology and road movie, "No Sex Last
Night
" by Sophie Calle and Greg Shephard explored the limits of both
cinema verité and high-8 shooting. Shephard, whose film has been
playing in Paris for a year, encouraged filmmakers to "get out and use
the technology." It will be interesting to see if this film can get
U.S. distribution. As one journalist noted, "Who wants to see a film
about people not having sex?" Apparently the French.


One thing for sure, on the rough road of producing a low-budget indie
and bringing it to market, festivals like A/NY provide a respite from
the relentless trials and heartbreaks. Of course it helps to have
generous sponsors like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Wit beer, Grey Goose vodka
and Taittinger champagne. So the next time you hear someone complaining
about the tremendous amount of duplicate product being projected
simultaneously across the mega distribution chains of America, tell them
to support alternative distribution. Support the film festival of your
choice.


[Leslie Weishaar began working in the cutting room, first on those
annoying Obsession commercials, and later moving to features as a
dialogue editor, on such feminist classics as "Class of Nuke 'Em High
II". Currently working as a free-lance journalist and screenwriter, her
latest comedy about the adventures of two New York roommates on a trip
to Mexico, "South of the Border," is really an excuse to travel to
Mexico repeatedly.]

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