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NY NY | “Stranger” Takes a Bow with Maysles, Sundance Goes Brooklyn and NewFest Turns a Twink 20

NY NY | "Stranger" Takes a Bow with Maysles, Sundance Goes Brooklyn and NewFest Turns a Twink 20

June is busting out all over, and NYC programmers have been going into overdrive as the temperatures start to soar. Sundance returned to Brooklyn this week, with a full 10 days of programming at BAM, while Albert Maysles helped see “Stranger Than Fiction”‘s season to a close at IFC Center downtown with rare screenings of some classic work. And this week, NewFest helps launch pride month during its 20th blow out.

Sundance does BAM

On Thursday night, Sundance programmers traded in their Uggs for flip-flops for the third annual “Sundance Institute at BAM” series, which features 22 full-length and 36 short films from the festival (including all four Grand Jury prize winners), screenplay readings, installations by New Frontiers artists, and a performance from heavy metal also-rans Anvil (subject of the much loved documentary “Anvil! The Story of Anvil!,” screening in the series). Highlights of the film selection include, Gonzalo Arijon‘s Argentinian documentary “Stranded: I’ve Come From A Plane on the Mountain,” Lance Hammer‘s magnificent portrait of a damaged Mississippi family “Ballast,” Margaret Brown‘s exploration of race and Mardi Gras “The Order of Myths,” and Jordanian filmmaker Amin Matalga‘s beautiful ode to storytelling “Captain Abu Raed.” As with the official festival, most of the filmmakers are in attendance.

“You have all summer to sit in the sun,” said BAM president Karen Brook Hopkins, fighting against the good weather in her opening remarks, “but only the next 10 days to experience Sundance here in Brooklyn.”

The decision to hold the mini-Sundance in Brooklyn was apparently an easy one. Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz proudly proclaimed it is “the city with more independent filmmakers per square mile than anywhere in the world.”

Sundance Institute director Ken Brecker backed this up, mentioning that at last summer’s filmmaker labs in Utah, “I asked — to about 125 filmmakers in the room –‘how many of you live in Brooklyn?’ Over half of them did.”

Brooklyn residents (and BAM members) Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Photo credit: Jemal Countess/WireImage

With all the hometown pride, it’s a pity the opening movie, Nanette Burstein‘s “American Teen,” wasn’t better. Ostensibly a documentary about typical Indiana teenagers, this felt more like “The Hills“-style scripted reality. Burstein has burdened the film with her own expectations of what she’d find — the stereotypical ‘types’ (the jock, the nerd, the rebel) have stereotypical complexities (the jock actually is too sensitive to really like being an athlete), and lily-white middle America is just like a New Yorker might imagine (the students are encouraged to attend junior business colleges and become secretaries, but darn it, some of them have dreams!). It was a baffling choice for the documentary section of the festival, but hey, at least its presence enabled BAM to hold a prom for the after-party. That’s a plus.

The Sundance at BAM series continues through June 7.

“Stranger”‘s Audience with Maysles

It seemed like every blogger in town was at the IFC Center on Tuesday night for the season finale of programmer Thom Power‘s weekly doc series “Stranger Than Fiction,” in order to get a glimpse of documentary pioneer Albert Maysles present his rarely-shown first films, the 1955 short “Psychiatry in Russia” and the 1963 feature “Showman” (the first film he made with his brother David), a portrait of 1950s Hollywood mogul Joseph E. Levine. Maysles himself is hardly a reclusive figure. The octogenarian is still active in filmmaking, and has recently opened a new studio in Harlem that includes a community cinema which shows repertory documentaries for a suggested donation. Crowds always show up to hear him speak, as his ideas of verite filmmaking (eschewing narration and other devices in favor resulted in the classic films “Grey Gardens,” “Salesman” and “Gimme Shelter,” and have inspired an entire generation of filmmakers.

“A revolution took place in documentary filmmaking between the ‘Psychiatry’ film and the film on Joseph E Levine,” said Maysles, specifically referencing Robert Drew’s 1960 “Primary” (on which he was a cameraman) and the birth of the verite movement. “The first film had to explain everything, words word words… By [Showman], I’d built my own camera so that I could shoot in synch sound with only two people, my brother and myself.”

The Maysles brothers funded “Showman” with money they’d earned making commercials, and seemed neither surprised nor bothered by its lack of commercial availability. “It’s a little easier now, to get shown,” he said. “If not theatrically, or on TV, at least you have DVDs and the internet and so forth.”

Asked about the state of contemporary documentary, Maysles responded, “I’m an optimist, so I think things are changing for the better,” adding a critical follow-up. “Michael Moore, to my mind, is a person who…abuses the viewer by presenting only his point of view. To me, the best kind of film is one where the authors of the film distance themselves as much as possible from a point of view.”

Stranger Than Fiction will return again in late September, when Powers is back from programming the Toronto International Film Festival‘s doc section. The Maysles Cinema’s calendar is available at http://www.mayslesfilms.com/companypages/institute/cinema.htm.

NewFest marks two decades

This Thursday, (June 5) marks the opening night of NewFest, New York’s LGBT film festival, currently celebrating its 20th anniversary. “We’re really happy we’ve been able to stick around for so long in this environment, which is not always good for non-profits” said festival director Basil Tsiokos. “It’s a real testament to the festival that the audience keeps getting bigger, year after year.”

Sundance Programmers Bird Runningwater (L) and Shari Frilot (R) with Newfest programmers Cameron Yates and Basil Tsiokos. Photo by Charlie Olsky.

NewFest’s 20th sees several additions to the festival, chief among them the addition of a festival lounge, located at the HK Lounge in Hell’s Kitchen. “One of the ongoing problems in New York is finding space,” says Tsiokos. “We’re excited to have a home base. The lounge will serve as a gathering point for filmmakers, industry and audience members between screenings. We’ll be holding our filmmaker’s forum series there, as well as daily happy hours.”

Being in New York, explains Tsiokos, allows him more programming freedom. “We’ll take chances on films that other LGBT festivals wouldn’t screen. Films that are more experimental, films that will aggravate people, or aren’t as LGBT as they “should” be… It’s harder to sell those films in other cities, but in New York we have an audience that supports being challenged.”

The festival opens and closes with high school movies. The opening gala is Stewart Wade’s high school comedy “Tru Loved,” centered around a girl in a fake relationship with a closeted quarterback. Tom Gustafson‘s terrific “Were the World Mine,” a Shakespeare-by-way-of-“Donnie-Darko” musical retelling of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” closes the festival out. The centerpiece films are Kyle Schickner‘s “Steam,” about three women who forge a friendship in a gym steamroom (stars Ally Sheedy and Ruby Dee who are expected to be in attendance), and “Chris and Don,” Tina Mascara and Guido Santi‘s touching portrait of the 30-year relationship between writer Christopher Isherwood and much younger artist Don Bachardy (also expected to attend).

Tsiokos encourages audiences to check out a few of his other favorites, including Taylor Greeson‘s “Meadowlark,” in which the filmmaker examines an intense summer when he was 12 and lost his virginity, converted to Mormonism and lost his older brother in a drug deal gone sour. “I loved this movie,” says Tsiokos, “it’s just a smartly constructed film that does something very different with the personal documentary.”

Tsiokos is also excited about “What Love Means,” an epic French miniseries that follows an extended family following the outbreak of the AIDS pandemic. “It’s like an amazingly gripping soap opera,” he says, “you have to keep watching to see what happens next.”

NewFest continues through June 15.

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