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by Anthony Kaufman
August 1, 2007 7:45 AM
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WORLD CINEMA | New Crowned Series Offers Hope for International Auteurs... And Peace on Earth

In our increasingly divisive and disconnected planet, the omnibus film has been a welcome antidote of late, bringing together various cultural perspectives and differing experiences into one shared space. Whether "Paris je t'aime" (18 directors), Cannes 60th's "Chacun Son Cinema" anniversary celebration (33 directors), or the New Crowned Hope collection--a series of six feature-length films and one short made in honor of the 250th anniversary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's birth in Vienna--these combined cinematic projects show the possibilities for global harmony.

As New Crowned Hope's Artistic Director Peter Sellars says, "We're inundated with such mediatized negativity, so what's beautiful about the New Crowned Hope films is that each film by itself breathes a lot of oxygen into the planet, but taken together, you can really start to breathe deeply."

Winding their way across the world, with some of the films traveling from Venice to Cannes to Toronto, the New Crowned Hope series is finally showing in its entirely in New York (at the Brooklyn Academy of Music). Each of the films, in its own unique way, springs from Mozart's music, specifically the last three classic compositions from the final year of his life, "The Magic Flute," "La clemenza di Tito" and "Requiem," and common themes cited by Sellars as magic and transformation, forgiveness and reconciliation and the recognition of the dead.

The program kicks off with Thai maverick Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Syndromes and a Century," followed by Indonesia filmmaker Garin Nugroho's "Opera Jawa," Taiwanese-Malaysian auteur Tsai Ming-Liang's "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone," Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi's "Half Moon," first-timer Paz Encina's "Paraguayan Hammock," and Chadian director Mahamat Saleh-Haroun's "Dry Season." In addition, South African director Teboho Mahlatsi's short film "Meokgo and the Stickfighter," also commissioned by New Crowned Hope, will be shown.

Not since Celluloid Dreams' "2000 Seen By" series (which included features and featurettes from the likes of Tsai Ming-Liang, Walter Salles, Hal Hartley, Laurent Cantet and Abderrahmane Sissako) have such an outstanding array of emerging international auteurs gathered under one umbrella.

The feat is all the more impressive considering how challenging it is to finance and produce foreign art films, which are having a harder time finding distributors and audiences around the world. As Celluloid Dreams topper Hengameh Panahi recently told indieWIRE, "I have to give up on my smaller films," she said. "I realize there is no economy for those movies anymore."

Former Rotterdam Fest head Simon Field, who worked as an executive producer on the New Crowned Hope films, agrees. "Our experience of the last two or so years has been that funding for these types of international 'art' films is getting harder to find," he says.

"Syndromes" auteur Weerasethakul calls such commissions "water in a time of drought," he says. "I somehow think it is a conspiracy between these organizers to keep cinema alive in the time of Harry Potter."

The New Crowned Hope films came together through a variety of resources, with the commissions--supplied by the City of Vienna as part of the funding of the festival--making up an average of 25% of the total production costs of the seven films, estimates Field, with percentages ranging from film to film. (They basically funded the short "Meokgo and the Stickfighter" in its entirety.)

"Our role was very much that of 'hands-off' executive producers," explains Field, "trusting the directors and their producers to raise the additional budget necessary for each film." The sales companies--including Fortissimo Films, The Match Factory, and Pyramide International--"offered very helpful advances," continues Field, "which in some cases contributed substantially to the funding of the film, but they were not particularly involved in bringing other foreign commitments."

A scene from Tsai Ming-Liang's "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone." Image courtesy of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Initially, Peter Sellars brought Field and his partner at Illuminations Films, Keith Griffiths, to exec produce and curate the film commissions. Together with Sellars and the Vienna Filmmuseum's Alexander Horwath, they winnowed down the final seven projects from a list of some 30 directors.

"Certain people were not free," explains Sellars. "Other people didn't have a project that matched the New Crowned Hope subject matter, while still others came back to us and couldn't turn around a film on our timeline"--to be completed by the 2007 Mozart celebrations. In choosing the filmmakers, they also weighed such issues as geography, gender, and as Sellars says, "the relation of the filmmaker's situation to a certain historical moment."

Right from the start, the NCH team decided it was important to be involved with an entire body of films, rather than a portmanteau project (like "Paris je t'aime" or "Chacun Son Cinema"). "We also wanted to offer sufficient funding to make the films happen or be sure that they would be completed," says Field.

In some cases, Field says some of the films would eventually have been made without NCH's support, such as those by Tsai Ming-Liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Though the Thai director admits, "Simon helped me a lot. And having a deadline is good for me. Otherwise, I wouldn't have completed anything."

On the other hand, "Hamaca Paraguaya" and "Daratt" were long in the works scripts discovered at Rotterdam Cinemart, which Field and Sellars thought fit perfectly with the New Crowned Hope ideals. While others, such as "Opera Jawa," "Half Moon" and "Meokgo" would never have been made had it not been for NCH backing.

Even though Nugroho's innovative musical "Opera Jawa," heralded by Film Comment as a "a work of uncommon grace and defiant beauty," was modestly budgeted, says Field, "it was our offer--and the context--which gave him the chance to make the film with some local funds and support from small festival funds offered by the Rotterdam, Goteborg and Frieburg festivals."

In the case of Ghobadi's poetic elegy for dying "Half Moon," the renowned director of "A Time for Drunken Horses" and "Turtles Can Fly" raised money from private sources in Iran and Iraq and an advance from The Match Factory. "We were not a major partner," admits Field, but he says the commission was substantial, both financially and creatively. To wit, Ghobadi says the film was inspired specifically by Mozart's "Requiem," which he says has "a very close feeling to Kurdistan's landscape" and the film's main character, an aging musician named Mamo was a Kurdish version of Mozart.

"I think all the filmmakers were stimulated and inspired by being part of the project and that influenced them in different ways," says Field. "Some of the films are closer than others to Peter's proposed themes, but it is interesting how many of them use music or are in a certain sense 'musical' in form."

The pleasure of commissioning artists, according to Sellars, "is you never know what's on the way." Just as Ghobadi responded directly to Mozart and his themes, Apichatpong Weerasethakul responded indirectly. "I wouldn't have made 'Syndromes' this way if there was not this guy named Mozart," admits the Thai auteur, though he says his real agenda was to make a film about his parents.

While Mahamat Saleh-Haroun tackles explicit notions of forgiveness and reconciliation, Tsai Ming-liang cites only one specific Mozartian influence; the luminous body of water he discovered in an abandoned construction site that serves as the film's transcendent final locale reminded him of "The Magic Flute," he says. "The prince, princess, spirits and monsters could make this concrete jungle their new stage."

As successful as the New Crowned Hope films turned out to be, Field acknowledges the project is, "a very rare one," he says, "with support given on a very open basis with only modest rights asked in return for the investment." That said, even such an "unusual project has got potential as a model for the future," adds Field, who is discussing new variants of the program with Sellars. "The challenge will be to find other cities or funders with the boldness and foresight shown by Vienna in commissioning this project," he explains.

Sellars plans to continue the project in a range of other cities, so "we can continue to commission filmmakers as artists," he says. "When we're all laboring under the nightmare of this mediatized battle of civilizations being stuffed down our throats, the goal is to get more sophisticated images of truly shared space across cultures and across geography," he explains. "Can we, as a community of artists and culture workers, put forward images that are a lot more productive? For me, this is a real ray of hope."

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