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NY NY | Gotham Fetes United Artists, Africa and a Bit of Religion

NY NY | Gotham Fetes United Artists, Africa and a Bit of Religion

As spring lured New Yorkers outside this week, the Film Forum lured them back in again with its month-long tribute to United Artists. Zeitgeist‘s reception for the Israeli film “Jellyfish” was a bit overshadowed by the neighboring celebrity nuptials, Ondi Timoner‘s “Join Us” put the fear of God into its audience, and the New York African Film Festival got started, with some help from Danny Glover and Charles Burnett.

The many phases of United Artists

The last few weeks have seen sold out crowds at Film Forum, as the theater has held one of its most exciting repertory programs in recent memory, “United Artists 90th Anniversary.” While some may have missed “Raging Bull,” “Midnight Cowboy” and “The Apartment,” audiences can still look forward to “Annie Hall,” “Night of the Hunter,” “Some Like it Hot,” “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” and “Kiss Me Deadly,” many of them in intriguingly themed double-features.

“United Artists was never a studio in the classic sense of a studio,” says Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at Film Forum, of the company founded in 1919 by Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith. “They were originally established to allow these titan megastars, who had their own production companies, to control their work completely via distribution.”

As audience’s tastes changed and the original founders lost popularity, United Artists was sold to producers Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin, who used it to give widespread distribution to edgier films than the standard Hollywood fare. “They became the company you came to when you had something a little different,” explains Goldstein. “They championed a lot of young filmmakers like Kubrick and Frankenheimer, and nurtured a few huge franchises like James Bond and ‘The Pink Panther…’ They got behind a lot of foreign films in the ’70s, sort of like an early Miramax.”

Goldstein, for his part, is justifiably proud of the series. “UA has opened up their vaults. We have the best prints, about 10 new prints for the retrospective… Goldfinger was beautiful the other night, it just popped off the screen,” he continues. “It’s was all the reason you need to watch these films in the theater, and not on DVD.”

The series continues through May 1.

Chocolate, “Jellyfish” and a secret wedding

Zeitgeist Films threw a lovely reception in TriBeCa for the premiere of Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret‘s Israeli film “Jellyfish”, but all the Max Brenner chocolates in the world couldn’t keep it from being a bit overshadowed by the proceedings across the street, where Jay-Z and Beyonce were getting married (even a “top secret” wedding pulls in a throng of paparazzi, it seems).

We can only hope the two have a better honeymoon than that of the newlyweds in “Jellyfish,” who are confined to a shabby Israeli beach resort after the bride’s broken ankle cancels their Caribbean voyage, in one of three intersecting stories that blend elements of magical realism with a strong sense of nostalgia to create a uniquely winsome melancholia.

“This story was very indirectly inspired by a childhood feeling,” said Geffen, at a Q&A at the Angelika Film Center after the film screening. “I get a lot of my ideas from childhood- when I get stuck I just have to go back. In this case, I remember drifting away from my parents one day at the beach, it was only for a moment, but for a child it feels like eternity.”

While the film is Israeli, the focus is deeply personal and almost entirely apolitical. Asked if she was attempting to say anything about Israel with the script, Geffen replied with a simple, emphatic “No”, and left it at that.

The film is currently playing in New York.

Give me that big time religion

On Tuesday night, director Ondi Timoner (“Dig“) was at the IFC Center for the weekly Stranger Than Fiction documentary series, and a screening of her latest doc, “Join Us.” The film explores cults in the United States by specifically focusing on the rehabilitation of one such group, an extremist Christian sect in South Carolina whose pastor forced its members to beat their children (occasionally stepping in to abuse them himself), after contributing most of their financial assets to him. It’s a terrific film, made all the more intense by Timoner’s shockingly intimate footage (much of it taken at the Wellspring treatment facility), which captures the realization, regrets and uncertainty of the church’s members, as they begin to reject their former pastor.

“It was uncanny,” said Timoner after the screening. “These people’s trust and faith had been so violated, and yet they were so open with us. It was really amazing.”

Timoner was inspired to make the film after Bush won reelection in 2004, largely on the strength of the religious right. “The whole idea of religious freedom has gone way too far,” she explained. “The non-profit status of the cults makes it really hard for the state to intervene, it’s abused so badly.”

Timoner includes a good deal of unsettling footage that she shot with pastor Raymond Melz and his wife Deborah (shot under only slightly misleading circumstances- she claimed she was making a documentary “on religion”). “The pastor said “I feel like you’ve been sent from God to bring my message to the world”,” joked the director. “I think I’ve done that as much as I can.”

It’s a completely absorbing film, which makes its lack of distribution surprising; Timoner has been distributing the film herself, from its website .

Spotlight on Africa

The 15th annual New York African Film Festival got underway on Wednesday night at the Walter Reade Theater, with the New York premiere of Charles Burnett’s epic “Namibia: the Struggle for Liberation“.” The audience arrived early to the reception, to have a chat with Burnett, star Danny Glover and many of the filmmakers from the upcoming festival.

“The African Film Festival was really born out of frustration,” says director (and founder) Mahen Bonetti (originally from Sierra Leone). “It seemed like the only images the world received of Africa was of the Ethiopian famine…the only African film anybody knew about was the coca-cola bottle film.”

“Cinema is a powerful medium,” she continues. “It really formed the stereotypes that have been synonymous with the name ‘Africa.'”I thought, here we have a body of films and filmmakers who are African, who can reclaim the medium and tell the world who we are, how we want to be seen.”

While the past decade has seen the growth of national cinemas in both South Africa and Nigeria (“Nollywood”), developing technology has democratized filmmaking everywhere, and the festival has grown to include all regions of Africa. This year’s program has over 40 films from 22 countries, with a special highlight marking the 50th anniversary of the Republic of Guinea, featuring little-seen Russian archival footage of the country and a program devoted to its independence movement. Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka will present the centerpiece program on Saturday, “The African Slave Trades: Across the Indian Ocean.”

“These are difficult times for Africa,” says Bonetti, “but they can be exciting times as well. We’re seeing so many new things come out, things that may relate to the Hollywood model but are really home-grown stuff. We have Nollywood and Hillywood, and Rwanda is really building up a national film unit. It’s a good way to try to have a reconciliation dialogue.”

The festival continues through Tuesday.

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