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Producer Ben Barenholtz to Make Directing Debut at Age 80 (Exclusive)

Producer Ben Barenholtz to Make Directing Debut at Age 80 (Exclusive)

Never underestimate Ben Barenholtz.

It’s normal for accomplished people towards the end of their careers to accept achievement awards, and New York exhibitor-turned-distributor-turned-producer Barenholtz is no exception. He took home recent tribute awards from the Hamptons International Film festival as well as Berlin, where his old friends the Coen Brothers presented him with the Berlinale Kamera Award.

But it is rare indeed for anyone to make their debut as a film director at the age of 80. After his Berlin moment, Barenholtz wanted to celebrate that birthday by making a radical move. “I decided that I was going to do the one thing that I never did in film,” he told me. “Direct a fiction feature.”

On April 25, the producer-writer-director will start principal photography on drama “Alina,” based on his original script. The ultra-low-budget New York film will be financed by Barenholtz, with help from friends he has helped in the past, he said. Cinematographer Eun-ah Lee will shoot on the Alexa; Nika award-winning Russian actress Darya Ekamasova’s work visa has come through. She stars opposite Pasha Lychnikoff and David Atrakchi in this mystery about a young woman who digs into the murky story behind her birth in America.

“It’s a very simple story about a Russian girl who comes to New York in search of the father she never met,” Barenholtz said. “Her mother had been in New York 20 years before, and brought her up strictly in Russia. All she has is an old photo. It’s a very human story. She moves in with wild Russian roommates and works in the club party scene. She falls in love with an Italian guy (David Atratchi) and meets a crazy Italian family who help her out. She finds out what happened to her mother. It’s my New York. It will make you cry.”

Barenholtz’s motion picture experience runs the gamut. He started out in New York exhibition, opening the specialty revival house the Elgin Cinema in 1968, where he reintroduced silent masters D.W. Griffith and Buster Keaton to cinephiles and pioneered the midnight movie in 1970 with “El Topo.” There I memorably watched the six-hour Russian “War and Peace” starting at midnight, as well as an intense double feature of Ken Russell’s “The Music Lovers” and “The Devils” that I will never forget.

Barenholtz went on to found specialty distributor Libra Films in 1972, which released French features from the likes of Jean-Pierre Melville, Claude Chabrol and Jean-Charles Tacchella, whose “Cousin, Cousine” was a breakout hit, as well as emerging American independents George Romero, John Sayles, David Lynch and Karen Arthur. In 1984 Barenholtz  joined Ted and Jim Pedas at Circle Releasing, who backed “Blood Simple,” the first film by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Barenholtz worked with the Coens again on “Raising Arizona,” “Miller’s Crossing” and “Barton Fink,” and with George Romero on “Bruiser.” As a producer he backed Romero’s “Martin,” Wynn Chamberlain’s “Brand,” and two movies yielding Oscar nominations for their actresses, Ulu Grossbard’s “Georgia” (Mare Winningham) and Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” (Ellen Burstyn).

On the directing side, Barenholtz’s first feature was 2005 jazz documentary “Music Inn,” followed by “Walkiwood: The Documentary” (2013) shot entirely in the slums of Kampala, Uganda.

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