Los Angeles once again found itself centerstage for the world's media Thursday morning with the news that Farrah Fawcett's long battle with cancer came to an end with her death in Santa Monica. The day only became more dramatic only several miles away in Westwood, home of the Los Angeles Film Festival, when news emerged that pop superstar Michael Jackson was transported to nearby UCLA Medical Center after a apparent heart attack. Crowds gathered on Le Conte & Westwood Blvd. at the entrance of the UCLA campus in Westwood Village where the sprawling hospital became the focus of hovering helicopters and shocked fans.
Westwood is one of Los Angeles' relatively few truly pedestrian friendly neighborhoods where crowds can walk amidst a slew of restaurants, bars, retail stores and many large cinemas, including the large Village Theatre, the site of many a spectacle including the Los Angeles premiere Tuesday of Michael Mann's "Public Enemies." Hundreds of screaming fans gathered earlier that day as crews set up red carpets on the street for the premiere, which screened as the Los Angeles Film Festival's Centerpiece. Some had apparently camped out overnight in order to secure a choice spot on bleachers opposite the step and repeat in order to ogle the film's star Jonny Depp.
Fans carrying posters behind barricades on four corners waited for Depp, who arrived with a caravan of huge black SUVs and an entourage, immediately exiting the car with security to cross the street to thunderous applause and screams. Depp signed autographs for over a half hour while the audience gathered inside, delaying the start of the screening nearly an hour from its official 7:30 p.m. start. Mann introduced his cast prior to the 2 1/2 hour screening, including Oscar winner Marion Cotillard and Christian Bale. Afterward, distributor Universal through a lavish party at the nearby Armand Hammer museum, complete with a full bar made out of ice. For an evening, the good times and parade of beautiful people transported invitees, including a large group of LAFF filmmakers, into a cocoon of Hollywood glitz.
"Does this mean that we've arrived," asked "October Country" co-director Donal Mosher jokingly with a smile. "Yes," I responded to him also with a smile. "But the trick is being able to stay here..."
Of course the vast majority of films at LAFF went off with less fanfare, but a group of docs received a shot in the arm Wednesday night when Mexican actor Diego Luna arrived in town to talk about Ambulante, the annual traveling documentary film festival that has grown south of the border, but also here at LAFF. The fest is spotlighting three of the films during the festival. Luna talked Ambulante during a chat that brought out an overflow audience to the Armand Hammer Museum's Billy Wilder Theater.
"There are a lot of films today that use the language of documentary," said Luna, who founded Ambulante along with fellow actor, business partner and friend Gael Garcia Bernal. "The films that I think that stick with people are the ones that relate to the personal." This year's Ambulante selection include "El General" by Natalia Almada, which looks at Mexico's past and present through her take on her great grandfather, General Calles who served as president of Mexico from 1924 - 28. The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Eva Norvind's "Born Without" (Nacido Sin) is a portrait of the lives and loves of street musician Jose Flores, while Anais Huerta and Raul Cuesta's "Rehe" follows the life of a native Mazahua woman who leaves Mexico City to return to her small hometown only to see that the idyllic past she is hoping to regain is gone.
"Film doesn't have passports, it's relevant everywhere," said Luna recounting how Ambulante was born. "We think documentary is a tool for change and an element for change. I feel [Mexico] is an adolescent country, we only recently truly elected our first President after more then 70 years after the revolution, and I think documentary can help formulate a country's personality."
Though not part of Ambulante, another Latin American-focused documentary, "Bananas!" by Swedish director Fredrik Gertten provided the most controversy and discussion among filmmakers at the Ambulante party at the W Hotel in Westwood. The film takes a look at the human cost of banana cultivation in Nicaragua. A group of laborers are represented by a trial lawyer against companies using a pesticide that its manufacturer, Dow, apparently warned against.
Though the film was originally slated for the LAFF's doc competition, organizers moved it out of the section apparently under pressure from Dole, which threatened a lawsuit. The agricultural giant also sent a letter to LAFF's sponsors demanding the film not be shown, citing fraudulent activity by the lawyer representing the laborers, Juan Dominguez.
"The letter was written because we were in competition and Dole sent a letter of cease and desist based on their review of the film's website and trailer," said one of the film's producers, Bart Simpson, in a conversation with indieWIRE Wednesday at the Hotel Palomar, where most of this year's crop of LAFF filmmakers are staying. "There were a series of letters that Dole sent to the festival, ITVS (which gave funding to the film), festival sponsors, though not the festival itself."
indieWIRE requested an interview with a festival organizer on the subject, though no response was given by the time of the publication of this article. For his part, director Fredrik Gertten seemed conflicted over the controversy. "The festival has been under extreme pressure. We don't know how they're insured, and we don't know how this would work for them if the shit came down, so we can understand. This big corporation, that is a big supporter of Governor Schwarzenegger, it is coming down on a film festival and a small movie trying to stop free speech by sending threatening letters."
Continuing he added, "Dole was successful at putting spotlight on Dominguez and the film, whereas we think the spotlight should be on the fact that they continued to use pesticides that even Dow Chemicals said they shouldn't use."
The festival goes on
Back in Westwood, a few hundred fans held candles and played Michael Jackson music in an almost celebratory impromptu party outside the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center where just hours before, a helicopter took off from the sprawling facility's roof carrying the body of the pop superstar. Television cameras captured the moment, Jackson lookalikes danced the famous star's moves to "Beat It," while fans held candles. There was even a person dressed as Jesus walking along the sidelines of the crowd, while across the street, a group of peddlers were selling "Michael Jackson Lives Forever" T-shirts.
After viewing the rememberance a group of us walked down to see Claire Denis' latest, "35 Shots of Rum" at the Regent Theater across the street from the Village Theater where days earlier "Public Enemies" had its big Hollywood moment. The festival moves on...