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After Challenging Year, Denver Film Festival Sets 2009 Event

After Challenging Year, Denver Film Festival Sets 2009 Event

Continuing its run of high profile festival runs, Lee Daniels’ “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” will open the 2009 Starz Denver Film Festival, launching a program that will screen over 200 films from 40 countries. Organizers have dubbed this year’s event with the theme “Destination: Anywhere,” and spotlights include “The Last Station,” which will screen as DFF’s “Big Night” on November 14, while Quebecois filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee’s “The Young Victoria” will close out the festival’s 32nd edition. This year’s event comes amidst a year that included some upheavel at the Denver Film Society which produces the annual festival and other popular local events. Its executive director was replaced in early summer after being appointed late last year, and the organization, founded by Ron Henderson, named Tom Botelho its new executive director at the end of July.

Like virtually every festival these days, the DFF has also experienced financial challenges this year, though organizers told indieWIRE Sunday evening that the fiscal fallout was mostly felt last year as the worldwide financial crisis hit last fall just as the festival was tightening up its 31st roster.

“We’ve been pretty steady [now],” Botelho said by phone. “We took the big hit last year, but our big sponsor, Starz, has always been there. Our [challenge] was that the groups who gave us sponsorship in the $20,000 range before the financial crisis were coming in with much lower amounts, but we were able to make up some of that with grassroot support.”

Botelho, and festival director Britta Erickson as well as artistic director Brit Withey said city residents rallied behind the event after the internal drama earlier this year hit the press. “Membership revenue is up over 20%,” said Botelho. “The publicity actually helped us. This is a highly anticipated cultural event… Everyone is going through tough economic times, but we have collectively 50-plus years of experience here.”

Denver also has its good reputation among festival circuit regulars going for it. Organizers have long paid attention to hospitality in giving the event a good repoire among filmmakers and other out of town guests. Erickson also credits the crowds with giving the festival a positive vibe. “The audiences are savvy. DIFF tries hard to promote its films, and our hospitality is great. We try to take care of our filmmakers.”

“Hospitality has been a key factor for us,” added Withey. “Even in an unfortunate year, when some other festivals have gone out of business, it’s been one of our continuing tenents to make sure to take care of our guests. It’s important to us.”

On the programming side, Withey says the crop of films have taken a darker turn generally, compared with recent years, but they have tried to reach a tonal balance, and they have also come across light comedies. But they have noticed particularly downcast work, especially when coming to youth. “The majority of films this ear have felt dark,” said Withey. “For some unknown reason, there seems to be a lot of films [portraying] children in danger or in odd predicaments. There have been a number of films with that theme, and they’re coming from a number of countries, which we found surprising.” “Precious,” as anyone who has had a chance to see the film can attest, particularly reflects that sentiment.

21 films currently without distribution will screen in the Emerging Filmmaker competition, while other festival favorites will play in DFF’s Special Presentations. Actor Al Holbrook will receive the festival’s “Excellence in Acting Award,” while Ed Harris will be feted with the “Mayor’s Career Achievement Award.” AnnaSophia Robb (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) will be presented with the event’s 2009 Rising Star Award.

Denver Fest sections with descriptions provided by the event:

Red Carpet Events

Opening Night: SDFF 32 kicks off on Nov. 12 with an Opening Night presentation of “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” a gripping story of a pregnant, illiterate 16-year-old teenager living in Harlem, whose life appears to have hit rock bottom until Clareece “Precious” Jones receives an invitation to attend an alternative school where her life could take a different direction.

Big Night: Screening on Nov. 14, Big Night features The Last Station. In this tale of two romances, one beginning and one near its end, The Last Station stars Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, Paul Giamatti and James McAvoy in a complex, funny, rich and emotional story about Leo Tolstoy and the difficulty of living with love and the impossibility of living without it.

Saturday-at-the-Movies: Bring the entire family on Nov. 21 for the Saturday-at-the-Movies screening of Turtle: The Incredible Journey. Narrated by Miranda Richardson, this is the true story of a little, Florida beach-born, loggerhead turtle who makes the journey of a lifetime – a voyage that only one in one thousand loggerheads survive.

For the first time, the Saturday-at-the-Movies program includes a feature-length film in Spanish subtitles, Up, as a special presentation of the Festival de Cine Mexicano. Up tells the story of Cranky old balloon salesman Carl Fredricksen finally fulfilling his lifelong dream of a great adventure when he ties thousands of balloons to his house and flies away to the wilds of South America. But he discovers all too late that his biggest nightmare has stowed away – Russell, an overly optimistic eight-year-old explorer.

Closing Night: The festival concludes on Nov. 21 with our Closing Night event featuring the film, The Young Victoria, the dramatization of 18-year-old Princess Victoria’s (Emily Blunt) succession to the English throne and those vying to win her favor, including her overbearing mother, the Duchess of Kent, her ambitious advisor, and her handsome cousin Albert – with whom an alliance may well determine the strength of her reign.

In Competition

“Children of Invention”
Two first-generation Chinese kids in suburban Boston find themselves on their own after their desperate mother is unwittingly involved in a pyramid scheme and arrested. Older brother Raymond takes a page from her marketing seminars to start creating a life for himself and his sister – casting a strange, pint-sized reflection on the American Dream.

A young woman awakens on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame with no idea how she got there, why she’s there – or even who she is. She must rely on the help of a mysterious stranger to discover and deal with the danger she’s in over the course of this metadramatic exploration of the power of personal narrative.

“Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench”
A surprising hybrid of the Hollywood musical and black-and-white cinema verité, this indie romance is part meditation on the loss of love and part high-spirited, original song-and-dance act.

“Son of the Sunshine”
Sonny, an angry young man afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome, finds that it’s precisely his debilitating disease that may prove the cure for his whole family’s afflictions. Actor Ryan Ward directs himself against a gritty Ontario backdrop.

“St. Nick”
A young brother and sister flee mysteriously through the fields of rural Texas, taking refuge wherever they can find it. Finally settling, as winter arrives, in an abandoned country home, they know they will have to move on eventually in this unsettling drama at the intersection of vulnerability and resilience, freedom and oppression.

“The Vicious Kind”
Embittered by a recent breakup, construction worker Caleb gives himself over to misogynistic impulses and diatribes, warning his younger brother Peter off duplicitous women. But when he meets Peter’s new girlfriend, he faces the dangerous irony that he may become an agent of betrayal himself.

“Applause” (Denmark)
In this Cassavetes-esque Danish drama, Dogme 95 darling Paprika Steen stars as Thea, a fiercely charismatic, alcoholic actress determined to turn her life around so she can reconnect with the two sons she lost custody of in her divorce.

“The Last Conversation” (The Netherlands)
For this stark, experimental drama, Noud Heerkens trained 25 digital video cameras simultaneously on the troubled face of his lone character, a successful lawyer named Anna (Johanna ter Steege) who drives through the Dutch countryside while running the gamut of emotions on the phone with the married lover who has recently jilted her.

“The Other Bank” (Georgia)
A 12-year-old refugee of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, unhappy that his mother has taken a lover, embarks on a dangerous odyssey in an attempt to find his father, crossing landscapes of unexpected beauty – and encountering scenes of lawless brutality – as he goes.

“Protector” (Czech Republic)
A Czech couple finds itself on opposite sides of World War II: while Nazis persecute Hana, a once-successful Jewish actress, her husband Emil, a journalist, becomes the radio voice of German propaganda. But that’s not the only twist of fate that threatens to tear them apart in this dark period drama.

“A Room and a Half” (Russia)
Sixty-nine-year-old animator Andrey Khrzhanovsky’s charmingly nostalgic, semi-fictional feature debut combines documentary footage, still photography, animation, classical music and poetry to depict the imaginary journey that Nobel Prize-winning, Russian exile, Joseph Brodksy takes back to St. Petersburg to relive his youth.

“Sweet Rush” (Poland)
From the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda (Katyn, SDFF 31) comes a complex, metafictional work of the heart that is, at once, a meditation on the magnetism between youth and experience, an homage to a longtime friendship, and an act of remembrance for a departed colleague.

Documentary competition

The deejay at Sidney, Ohio, radio station WMVR says it all: life in zip code 45365 is “simply the way it should be.” Through this intimate cinematic conversation with their hometown, fraternal documentarians Bill and Turner Ross capture the nuances of rural America, comic and tragic – from square dancing to dope dealing to piglet racing.

“American Faust”
In his scathing documentary portrait of Condoleezza Rice, British filmmaker Sebastian Doggart charges the former Secretary of State (and University of Denver alumna) with ruthless opportunism, incompetence, the authorization of torture, and lying – especially about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda.

“Big River Man”
This startling documentary follows Martin Strel – an aging, hard-drinking, bigger-than-life extreme swimmer from Slovenia – as he makes a 66-day journey through crocodile- and piranha-infested waters, enduring infections and risking death, in an attempt to become the first human being ever to swim the length of the Amazon River.

“The Good Soldier”
In a documentary that is as difficult to watch as it is to turn away from, five veterans of four different wars reveal with stunning honesty their part in the mundane brutality of combat, as they did the job they were trained for: killing people.

“My Neighbor My Killer”
Documentarian Anne Aghion captures the struggle for forgiveness in a remote Rwandan village where Tutsis and Hutus engage in the excruciating process of reconciliation following the slaughter of more than half a million in the 1994 genocide.

“October Country”
This quietly haunting documentary follows working-class American family the Moshers over the course of one year as they deal with the ills of rural poverty, postwar trauma, teenage pregnancy, and abuse-and reveal a steadfast determination to shoulder the burden of it all.

Special Presentations

“American Faust: From Condi to Neo-Condi”
In his scathing documentary portrait of Condoleezza Rice, British filmmaker Sebastian Doggart charges the former Secretary of State (and University of Denver alumna) with ruthless opportunism, incompetence, the authorization of torture, and lying – especially about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda.

“Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”
Filmmaking legend Werner Herzog’s thrilling remake of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 cult favorite features Nicolas Cage as a corrupt, drug-addicted cop, Val Kilmer as his paunchy sidekick, Eva Mendes as his prostitute/girlfriend – and post-Katrina New Orleans as a city in even more trouble than Ferrara’s New York.

Grab your backstage pass for Convention, which takes you on the historic, exciting, and downright complicated ride that was the 2008 Democratic National Convention right here in Denver, Colorado. SDFF favorite, AJ Schnack, (Gigantic, About a Son) directs.

“Happy Tears”
Jayne (Parker Posey) and Laura (Demi Moore) are about to take on the first man they just might not be able to handle: their elderly, irascible father. Returning to the house they grew up in, the sisters are forced to take a closer look at their own lives – through one another’s eyes.

“The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”
Delayed by the death of its star, Heath Ledger, the new phantasmagoria from Terry Gilliam (Time Bandits, Brazil) parlays the legend of Faust into an elaborate morality tale. In a real-life dramatic twist, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law all stand in for Ledger at various stages of a fantastic journey.

Academy Award-winning auteur Barry Levinson sets out to explore the collision and collusion between politics and Hollywood in this engaging and powerful documentary, which gives audiences a front-row seat and backroom access to the most significant presidential campaign of the twenty-first century. Interviews with both celebrities and politicos reveal the media’s influence over the democratic process.

“Two Spirits”
From the local producers of Iron Ladies of Liberia and They Killed Sister Dorothy comes this documentary by Lydia Nibley, who examines the murder of a transgendered teenager in Cortez, Colorado, in the light of the Native American tradition of honoring those who embody both the masculine and feminine.

“Youth in Revolt”
Based on the acclaimed novel by C. D. Payne, this coming-of-age comedy puts an outrageous spin on the timeless tale of rebellious young love. Michael Cera (Juno, SDFF 30; Superbad) stars as Nick Twisp, a quirky teen with a taste for the finer things in life, like Sinatra, Fellini – and the beautiful, free-spirited Sheeni.

Special Program

“The 400 Blows” (Le quatre cents coups)
Überauteur FrançoisTruffaut’s profoundly affecting debut feature is a frankly autobiographical drama about growing up absurd in 1950s Paris, where feisty Antoine Doinel channels his adolescent discontent into acts of rebellion that ultimately cost him what little freedom he enjoys. Variety film critic Joe Leydon pays tribute to the 50th anniversary of this Nouvelle Vague classic.

Shorts in a feature-length world:

“Inner Stories – Hidden Lives”
Films included: Ink, Curiosity of Penny Parker, Lowland Fell, Miracle Fish, Pockets, Steel Homes, Skhizein and Enter the Sandbox

“It Takes Two to Tangle”
Films included: A Mate, Slap, Sunshower, Terminated, Thompson, True Beauty This Night and Wunderkammer.

“Navigating the World”
Films included: Because There are Things You Never Forget, Bicycle, The Big 1-0, Dirty Girl and Why Sabreen?

“Short But True”
Films included: 575 Castro St., The Archive, Christmas with Dad, A Film from My Parish – 6 Farms, Four Questions for a Rabbi, More from Life, Patience of the Memory and The Solitary Life of Cranes.

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