A Little Different Festival


A Little Different Festival

I run an international film festival in a city few people can locate and even fewer pronounce correctly: Spokane, Washington. (It's Spo-KANN, as in Jean Hagen's pronunciation of 'Can't,' in "Singin' in the Rain.") We're probably the smallest of the six hundred or more recognized festivals around the world (and the hundreds not yet recognized). But our fifteen film programs over eight days (two a day after opening night) are the pick - my pick, anyway - of the best of each year's major world festival films. That includes Cannes, Toronto, Telluride and a few others as well. So how come a no-account little festival like ours can draw films and filmmakers from the big boys? And, second question, do we like being small when it seems as though everybody else is trying to be big?

There are a couple of answers to the first question. One is that we come in early February. We're like a midwinter ice-sculpture extravaganza: When it's cold, dark, and there's nothing else to do you can see movies at our festival. We schedule ourselves for the time that's right at the break between the last of last year's international festivals (Mar del Plata) and the first of the new year (Berlin). (Sundance, two weeks before us, gets many of the coming year's American hits, but doesn't count for us because a) it's as much a marketplace as a selective festival and we're neither buyers nor sellers; and b) our screening choices have to be made by December or earlier.) The second answer is that February is a terrible time to release a decent movie in the United States, and so festival-quality films that didn't get a fall or Christmas commercial release are generally held over until the following spring. And if you're a distributor, there's not much harm in letting Spokane have your film and make you a few bucks (we pay for screening rights) if there's nothing else happening. As in life, so in the film business: timing is everything.

The anwer to the second question is, we love it. We love it because, unless the filmmakers are working on a new film, they don't have much else to do but come and be honored, even if it's only Spokane that's doing the honoring. We invite our filmmakers to spend some time with us and our audiences. After the usual introduction, screening of the film, and question-and-answer session following, we all tend to go trooping down to the bistro downstairs, inviting the audience to join us for a drink, or coffee, or just to eat the snacks we provide. They meet the filmmaker, pester him or her with questions and comments and requests for autographs, and end up learning more than they expected to about how the film was made and why. And the filmmaker gets some nice compliments, good reinforcement, and sometimes even hears some imaginative critiques. In seven years I've yet to have a filmmaker turn down the chance to do it. And they even ask to stay longer so they can watch other films and talk shop with those filmmakers. Since nobody's buying or selling - we're not Toronto or Sundance, after all - there's no pressure on anybody to look great or sound snooty. We're all friends here. Over the course of the festival I've noticed friendships being made, affairs being started, and once even a marriage break up (not our fault). We do follow the usual 15-minute rule, where festival pass-holders are guaranteed admission as long as they're in the theatre fifteen minutes before the screening; after that, it's everybody for him- or herself. Open seating is the rule throughout. What I like about our structure is that there are no class distinctions. Not only can I spend an hour with a filmmaker who's just flown in from India, so can you. In fact we can even have dinner together.

Another nice thing is that nobody misses a film because they were in one place but the movie played in a venue across town, or at 11PM, or at 8AM, or was a special-tickets-only, gala-invitation screening. We take over a theatre at the downtown AMC multiplex, a big enough one to hold everybody, and we show one film at 5:30PM and another at 8:30PM each evening. Our audiences don't even have to miss a day of work, or schedule their vacations around us. To paraphrase "The Commitments," we're small and we're proud. Actually, we started even smaller, as one long weekend stuffed full of independent films by northwest United States and Canadian filmmakers. Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and Calgary were our gene pool. But from the start we invited the filmmakers and stars to come and spend the weekend with us. When it got time to grow and go full international we just kept the same structure. So far so good.

Obviously we didn't invent this. We have two models, and they're the two anchors of the fall festival season. The first is Telluride, the most prestigious festival in North America, where people who care the most about movies - and have the three thousand or more dollars to spare for a weekend trip - go each year. Telluride screens fifteen or so new films over the four days and nights of Labor Day weekend. It also hosts tributes to a number of actors, directors and writers, screening examples of their work. And it schedules forums and colloquies with some noted names in the business. At Telluride 2004 you could see everything from Pedro Almodovar's "Bad Education" to Ousmane Sembene's "Moolaadé," from "The Motorcycle Diaries" to "Kinsey" to "Finding Neverland" before anybody else in America; and you could enjoy sidebars like a tribute to Laura Linney, and even get to see the great 1932 comedy "Million Dollar Legs."

Our second model is the New York Film Festival, still the purest of all in the world, with just twenty-five new films over seventeen days in October. New York is a festival by and for people who believe in film as an art form, and aren't much interested in movies as diversion. You go, you think, you cry, you laugh, you go home. You come back tomorrow and do the same thing. At New York 2004 you could see most of what played at Telluride, and also at the Toronto and Vancouver festivals, the other September biggies. International festivals, whether inclusive or selective, seem to agree each year on a core of the same dozen or so new films. No matter where you go, you'll see them all. And some of them in Spokane.

So how do we get the goodies? Like other festival directors, I have a wonderful board, which pays me to go to festivals and look at movies. Not a bad life. My year starts in May, when I go to the Seattle International Film Festival to get an idea of what's around. It's still eight months till my own festival, which is too far away to commit to any features - I only have fifteen slots, after all, and why fill them up so soon? But in Seattle's three and a half weeks (it's the longest festival in the world) I can see a lot of the coming year's festival crop. Seattle is almost day-and-date with Cannes, so it loses out on a lot of the hottest international films (who would want their film to go to Seattle when it can premiere at Cannes?). But I'll see those later, at Telluride and Vancouver, so I'm not worried about missing anything. Instead, I look for sleepers, the quirky, unheralded films that don't have marketing muscle behind them but deserve to be seen. And I look for shorts, the all-but-forgotten equivalent of poetry in the publishing world. That is, there's no market for shorts. Last year at Seattle I found two witty gems: "Dysenchanted," by the American Terri Miller, about a therapy group session for fairy tale heroines, who vent about things like being locked up in a castle for a hundred years, and having to live with seven dwarves, and so on. The other was Eric Champnella's "The Old Man and the Studio," which is a riff on the story and script conferences about Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea," after it was bought by a studio and chopped to ribbons, and then put in turnaround. I committed to both of them for our festival, thinking it might be a good year for shorts. I hoped so.

Seattle can be difficult for the festival-goer; three of its five venues are an adventuresome hill-climb from each other, unless you're willing to drive up and down Capitol Hill every couple of hours. Most people try to pick one venue and stay there from morning till midnight, taking in whatever is programmed that day at that venue. I can't afford to do that, and so while schlepping up and down the hill all day every day I found two features making the festival rounds that seemed right for me. One was Ivy Meeropol's documentary "Heir to an Execution," about her grandparents Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed in 1953 for conspiracy to commit espionage. Through interviews with her father Michael Meeropol, the older of the Rosenbergs' two sons, she tells the story of how the family was torn apart by the case. We wanted to bring Ivy to our 2005 festival to introduce the film, but she was seven months pregnant and didn't want to fly. Instead, we brought Morton Sobell, the third defendant in the case, who had served nineteen years in prison. I managed to hook him up with a friend, another old Commie, and the two of them had a great time together. I felt like a matchmaker.

The other film I chose at Seattle was Gaston Biraben's Argentine drama "Captive," about a girl who discovers at age 15 that she is not the biological daughter of a retired police official and his wife but of a 'disappeared' mother who was executed in 1976 by the junta as they went after liberals and opponents of the regime. I made tentative agreements to book both films, though I was less sure about "Captive," because I had opened my previous year's festival with another brilliant Argentine film, "Kamchatka," by Marcelo Piñeyro, about a family on the run from the junta, whose story is told through the eyes of their 10-year-old son. I thought then and think now that "Kamchatka" is one of the great overlooked films of the decade, but I worried about repeating myself in subject matter from one year to the next.

The Thursday before Labor Day I flew into Telluride, at 8,500 feet up in the dramatic San Juan mountains certainly the most stunning location of any festival I know, as well as the most difficult to get to. And Telluride is noted for not announcing its selections until opening day; you pays your money (a lot) and you takes your chances. I was expecting the unusual, but this year's selections surprised me for their commercial bent. The festival opened with "Being Julia," and included "Finding Neverland," "The Motorcycle Diaries," "Enduring Love," "House of Flying Daggers" and "Kinsey," all of which had major distributors and were likely to open commercially soon. But it also had Todd Solondz's "Palindromes," a piece of weirdness with enormous problems (the heroine is played by eight different actresses, ranging in age from seven to forty, and in color from black to white), but a perfect festival film because it would likely generate pitched battles in the aisles afterwards. I knew I had to have it. (I didn't get it because the distributor thinks it will do well commercially when it's released this spring, and who knows where Spokane is anyway? We'll see.) The Hungarian film "Kontroll," a very, very black comedy about the ticket takers in the Budapest subway, intrigued me as a possible backup, though not enough to commit to it. But the powerful Japanese drama "Nobody Knows,"which had won for its 12-year-old lead the Best Actor award at Cannes, was essential for me. And I did get it. I thought about "Moolaadé" but decided not to take it because even though Sembene is an acknowledged master and the subject - female circumcision - is timely and powerful, his approach in the film seemed to me too deliberately pastoral for any but a devoted fan.

At Telluride I also spent time sulking. Although everybody from Roger Ebert to Gael Garcia Bernal to Laura Linney to Jean-Claude Carriere was there, I could never find them anywhere but at their public appearances. Were they afraid of being seen with someone from Spokane? That must have been it, because when I asked at the press tent to meet with Mr. Ebert - I wanted him to do a program at my festival - I was told that no contacts, with anybody, were possible. Umm, okay, but then why have a press tent? As I say, I took it personally.

Then, in late September, it was on to Vancouver. It's my favorite festival. Vancouver comes two weeks after Toronto, which is the big bopper in North America. Like Sundance, Toronto is the locus of distribution deals, but this time on the international market. Stars, directors, agents and paparazzi fill the streets and screening venues. But where do festival films go when Toronto ends? Why Vancouver, of course. Most (though not all) of Toronto's films move over to the west coast, this time without the hype or the deal-making. I go just to look at movies. And Vancouver is so easy - nine of its ten screening venues are within a block and a half of each other, which gives the festival a feeling of intimacy. In actuality, though, it's enormous, screening more than 250 features and 115 shorts. At Vancouver I get serious about my films.

In sixteen days I watched all or most of a hundred features and two dozen shorts (there's a video room for industry people, where you can book time to screen the films you didn't get to see in the theatres). Like Toronto, Vancouver has a big Canadian section - the federal and provincial governments help underwrite productions across the country - but it's also known for its strength in Asian films, thanks to its resident critic/historian/programmer Tony Rayns, who seems to be acquainted with anyone who ever made a film west of the International Date Line.

I want to balance my festival with a mix of films, and as always I look to build around a big hit. Last year I had both Guy Maddin's "The Saddest Music in the World" and Denys Arcand's "The Barbarian Invasions." But 2004 didn't seem to have any breakout films. I had looked forward to new work by three icons of the French New Wave: Eric Rohmer's "Triple Agent," at Seattle, which turned out to be a forgettable rehash of old spy movies; Alain Resnais' "Not on the Lips," at Vancouver, an unwatchable operetta set in the 1920s; and Jean-Luc Godard's "Notre Musique," also at Vancouver, which, though it had its moments, seemed to me not quite finished. "Bad Education" was as close as it came, and that would open commercially long before my own festival in February of 2005. So what to do? I picked up an absolutely charming first film from India, "Hari Om," to open my festival, and committed to "Nobody Knows." I also got the superb Chinese drama "Green Hat," about a brave police captain who is being cuckolded at home, and a witty South Korean parody of martial-arts films, "Arahan." Then I saw a wonderfully offbeat coming-of-age film from Slovenia, of all places, called "On the Sunny Side." It's the story of an 11-year-old Bosnian boy whose parents have been killed and now must move in with his aunt and uncle in Ljubljana. No tears, just a great kid followed with love and respect and delicious humor by writer-director Miha Hocevar. Why it hasn't gotten U.S. distribution is a mystery, but all the better for me. I got the American premiere.

At festivals I keep three lists - Yes, No and Maybe. An unexpected Yes at Vancouver was Maryte Kavaliauskas's documentary "David Hockney: The Colors of Music," about his work designing sets, costumes and lighting for opera productions. Elegant, smooth and gorgeous, the film was perfect for me. But now I had two documentaries out of fifteen programs. No more docs, even though I would desperately love to have "Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire," the return of the UN commander to Rwanda ten years after he had been left dangling during the genocide with a force of just 300 and instructions not to do anything. As it happens, the producers were waiting for Sundance and wouldn't commit to me anyway.

I remembered two films I'd seen at festivals the year before and couldn't get at the time. The Japanese film "Vibrator," about a troubled woman who picks up a long-haul truck driver for a long weekend's trip across the country, had been promised to me but pulled at the last minute because the much more prestigious San Francisco festival, coming in April, wanted the American premiere. But I could get it this year, and I booked it. And I got the amazing "Angel on the Right," a first film from Tajikistan of all places, which had been bought for an American tour by a non-profit distributor in 2003 but was now available for me. I also booked the Austrian Gotz Spielmann's dark and sexually explicit "Antares." My festival was coming together.

And then I found five other shorts. One thing I've learned is that programs of shorts never draw an audience no matter what the festival, so I no longer put them into that ghetto. Instead, I play them prior to the features and they do very well. 2004 was a particularly good year for shorts, and I was delighted to add them to the mix.

Each year I also include a classic film. Last year it was Jean-Pierre Melville's "Le Cercle Rouge," and this year I chose "The Thin Man." But that added up to only twelve films. I had lots of titles on my Maybe list, but nothing jumped out at me as being essential. I looked hard at "Up and Down," Jan Hrebejk's new film, because his earlier "Divided We Fall" was so powerful, but in the end I decided against it. So I added a three-film tribute to one of my favorite filmmakers, TomTykwer. I began with "Run Lola Run" and then chose his two subsequent films, "The Princess and the Warrior" and "Heaven." Both had of course played commercially in the United States but hadn't done well at the box office ("Heaven" was a financial disaster, in spite of having been written by Krzysztof Kieslowski and starring Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi.) But I love both films and I scheduled the tribute to close the festival.

I'm sometimes asked if I take into account Spokane's naivete about films when I program the festival. Well, not consciously. My choices were also Telluride's, and New York's, and Vancouver's and Toronto's and Cannes' and a lot of other festivals in more sophisticated towns than Spokane. My festival draws almost as many people per screening as they do. And unlike some of them, we're seeing a lot of people in their twenties at our programs. Maybe it's because we're cheap ($8 for a single ticket, $35 for a five-film pass, and an incredible $80 for the full fifteen programs). What is interesting, though, and depressing, is that in Spokane the colleges are a dead zone when it comes to films. Although a couple of them even have film departments, neither the students nor the faculty members show up at the festival. In part, of course, for students, it's the ubiquity of DVDs and the ease of watching movies at home or in the dorm. But most festival films aren't available on DVD, so what seems to be lacking is curiosity about, or interest in, films as an art form. Notoriously, bad money drives out good; maybe entertainment drives out art. Let's hope not. Anyway, there's always next year. * * *