December 3, 2008

posted by David Holbrooke
This year at Mountainfilm we will probably end up screening about 75 films or so (up from the 65 we played in 2008). How do we find those films – really, through any number of ways. More than 600 films will be submitted this year from people who know the festival and want to come to Telluride. An untold number of other films will come through tips from friends of the festival.

Another important way to find films is through other festivals, which is why I recently found myself on a plane to Amsterdam. The city is host to IDFA – the biggest documentary film festival in the world, where they play more than 300 non-fiction films.

I had always wanted to go and two years ago, submitted my film, Hard As Nails. Sadly it wasn’t accepted and I couldn’t rationalize the cost to just go to check it out. Now as Festival Director of Mountainfilm, I had plenty of reasons to be there and bring back some films for our festival.

What was I looking for? Keep reading and you will get a pretty good sense …

DAY 1
I landed in Amsterdam Thursday morning Nov 20 to wet, cold and nasty weather, which   isn’t so great when you are getting everywhere by bike. I had rented a great single-speed clunker from a cool bike shop recommended by Rob Story, where I convinced a former NYC bike messenger, Michel, to take the big piker-alert RENTAL BIKE sign off the bike.

The first film I actually managed to see (I was literally locked out of another screening because I was late after getting lost in the rain and dark despite asking nearly a dozen affable Dutch people for directions. Good start to the trip …) was Below Sea Level, about an isolated and desolate Californian desert community of unusual characters. The film was thoughtful and well-made, but I kept asking myself if it celebrated indomitable spirit (one of our Mountainfilm tag lines) or would inspire our audience at all.

The answer was a pretty resounding no. In fact, I couldn’t think of a film I’d seen that had gathered together such a group of domitable spirits. The film and its characters were certainly interesting and the film a worthy study of their broken down lives, but just not right for Mountainfilm.

I left early and wandered the theater to see what else was playing. I checked out a film called Gambling, Gods, and LSD, a three hour “transcendental” journey. The five minutes I saw had a series of shots from casino security cameras as well as some ‘interesting’ shots from inside a peep show. Maybe the five minutes I gave it was unfair, but again, it didn’t seem to be our kind of film.

I can’t say my next stop was a transcendental journey but a small bar with cold beer and Thank God I’m a Country Boy on the sound system was awfully pleasant.

DAY 2

It had been a few months since I’d been to a film festival (Telluride Film Festival was the last) so it took me a little while to remember my primary rule of film festival-going: eat when you can because you don’t know when your next meal will come.

With that in mind, I woke up, grabbed some sort of Dutch Danishes and went to see a lovely short film called Bronx Princess, made by Yoni Brook and Musa Syeed. The film follows a smart and sassy teenage girl from the Bronx who goes to visit her father, a Village Chief in Ghana.

Is Bronx Princess right for Mountainfilm? A film like this crystallized how tricky it is to define what a Mountainfilm movie is. I want people to be amazed and inspired and blown away by what they see in our theaters and this film doesn’t do that. It is however, original, carefully-crafted and certainly worthwhile. With a film like this, I will probably wait and see how our overall mix of films comes in before making a decision on it.

One reason to program it is Yoni Brook, a talented filmmaker, who I know from Tribeca when we both had films there. His film, A Son’s Sacrifice about a Halal butcher in Brooklyn who did not want to go into his father’s line of work, was an award-winner.

When I ran into Yoni at IDFA, he introduced me to Josh Weinstein who had directed a film called, Flying on One Engine, about a sick doctor who flies all over the world working on poor people for free – perfect for Mountainfilm, right?  When Josh heard what festival I programmed, his face crumpled. He said that he’d submitted to Mountainfilm and we’d rejected his film and it had made him really sad.

Awkward.

Filmmakers are a sensitive bunch (I know this firsthand from my own many rejections as a filmmaker). I felt particularly bad because I had not seen his film (we get so many submissions and I manage to see only about 200 films myself. Our screening committee had seen it however and passed) but told Josh I’d check it out myself this time and if it wasn’t going to be programmed, I’d tell him why – and not just send him the standard rejection letter, which was something I always appreciated as a filmmaker

The rest of the day was spent seeing more than a half-dozen films that were spot on topic for Mountainfilm (climate change, wild animals, indigenous cultures) but I found the films (which I am not going to mention by name because as you already know, filmmakers are sensitive creatures) thin or obvious or heavy-handed or way, way too long (probably like this blog post). A huge problem with docs is that filmmakers get too attached to their material and often don’t have the discipline to make a movie that is a proper length.

So after a long and lonely day of watching depressing docs in theaters, I came back to my hotel room tired and frustrated at my lack of success at finding something that worked for Mountainfilm. I turned on my television, flipped past the many soft-porn ads and found the perfect filmic tonic: Meet the Parents with Ben Stiller and DeNiro.

DAY 3

The freezing rain had turned to snow but the theaters were warm, especially when I finally found a film that worked for us called Back to Africa. I loved this story of a touring circus in Europe called Africa, Africa. The film follows a few of the performers back to their home countries where the acrobats, dancers, and musicians are comparatively affluent but struggle with being away from their homes and families.

First of all, it was nice to see a film about Africa that wasn’t totally depressing and had a different take on what Africa means. We have to work out the details with the filmmakers  – they want a screening fee, which we don’t have budgeted – but I hope to be able to play this film in May.

It was also exciting to be in the Tuschinski – IDFA’s marquee theater – which is remarkable. My crappy IPhone photo doesn’t do it justice but it is kind of like the Sheridan Opera House on steroids.

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After the screening, I met Andrew Berends who is pitching a film at IDFA called Delta Boys about a gang that has arisen in the Oil fields of Nigeria. Andrew had spent months photographing and filming this gang when he was arrested for ten days in Nigeria, a story that got international attention.Other than the sheer number of films, IDFA is also well-known for its IDFA Forum where filmmakers can pitch their film to a gathering of commissioning editors from around the world. It is a quick – but intimidating way of raising money.

Andrew was anxiously awaiting his turn at the Forum which sounded more stressful than the Nigerian prison. From everything I heard his pitch went really well and maybe we will see Delta Boys at Mountainfilm in 2010.

Later that day I saw another film that could work for us called Persona Non Grata. The film lays out the life of a defrocked Catholic priest and artist from Belgium named Francisco Wuytack who went to Venezuela to help the poor there. Having made several films about men of the cloth, I found it particularly compelling.

As I watched this really well-made film, I thought how there are so many great directors coming out of South America (like Stranded, by Gonzalo Arijon which won the Grand Prize at IDFA last year and played at Mountainfilm). It turned out that Persona Non Grata’s filmmaker is the subject’s son and Belgian but despite this so-called fact I’m sticking with my theory of an emergence of South American auteurs.

I had a great dinner with friends in Amsterdam, came home late and was pleased to see a piece on Mountainfilm 2008 guest Alexandra Cousteau on CNN International.

DAY 4

Just another day of asking myself, what is right for Mountainfilm?

After being at this for a year, you’d think I would have an easy answer by now. But it’s a question with many answers as I feel we are such a unique festival and I want our films to reflect that. Of course, I want the movies at our festival to educate and inspire, move and motivate, rattle and unsettle. I want them to take our audiences to a place they have not only not been to – but to a place they cannot imagine.

From the description, Togo looked like it had potential. One of the forty films they are screening here about Africa, it’s about the small country of Togo, which sent its soccer team to the World Cup as the African representative. The film gave a really nice sense of how much national pride was tied into the team but ultimately, did not make me feel like it was essential viewing for us.

The Sales Representative for Back to Africa told me that European broadcasters had told him that they had minimal interest in films about Africa since their viewers just don’t tune in. It’d be a shame if the Europeans stop helping to fund these films because there’ll be a major drop off in storytelling from this fascinating part of the world. As for American broadcasters picking up the slack, it’s just not going to happen.

The next film I saw was called Bloody Mondays and Strawberry Pies, which was quite something to try and figure out. It was a poetic rumination on boredom and so many other things that I still can’t clearly articulate what the film was about.

I quite like films that take you to someplace new and yet you are not quite sure how you get there. Bloody Mondays reminded me of What About Me  from Mountainfilm 2008 and its predecessor One Giant Leap. I kept trying to connect to the film (which starts out about the girl from the Boomtown Rats song, I Don’t Like Mondays) and found myself going back and forth on it for Mountainfilm but in the end, it was just too impenetrable for me. If somehow any readers come across it, I’d love to hear what you think.

I checked out a bit of Madonna’s documentary about Africa, I Am Because We Are, which was fine but kind of – for lack of a better word – obvious for our audience. It’s message that we are all connected has been well-told at Mountainfilm. It’s a strange high-class problem we have at Mountainfilm as our audiences are so well-informed and widely-traveled, I don’t want to provide something that people already know and understand.

That evening I went to a festival programmer’s party where I met David Wilson, the founder and director of the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri. He gave me a nice tip for navigating IDFA, which is to get a pass to something called Docs for Sale. Basically, you reserve a computer for a designated time and you can watch virtually every film off if a database. Generally, I can tell if a film is a possibility pretty quickly and this would short cut all that time going theater to theater.

When I came back to my hotel to write this, I turned on the television (something I don’t do at home but I like the company on the road) and a truly great film was on –  Naked Gun 2 ½  – The Smell of Fear. I was struck to see that the plot of this 1991 film was about a nefarious plan by the oil and coal industries to stymie the development of renewable energy … strangely enough, seems like a Mountainfilm kind of film.

DAY 5

I went to see Solo, which is even more of a Mountainfilm film than say, Naked Gun. The film follows the attempt of a guy named Andrew McCauly to kayak the notoriously rough Tasman Sea.

It’s a classic on-the-edge adventure story. Well-told and well-structured, the film is compelling as hell and I could see it being a part of our programming if it hasn’t already aired on television by Memorial Day.

That afternoon, I went to see Johnny Cash at Folson Prison, which is really quite good. It focuses on this one chapter in Cash’s life and uses it to help us understand how the prison shows were much more than performances for Cash. Besides capturing his constant flirtation with darkness (after all, he was the Man in Black) the film shows how he felt a very thin line separated him from being in the audience when he played at Folsom.

Again, is this right for Mountainfilm? The answer’s not an easy yes like Solo but it is my job to decide these things, and I feel a film that poses the questions asked – and answered – by Johnny Cash at Folson Prison, belong in a festival like ours.

That night I went to a party with my friends Kelly Devine of the Global Peace Film Festival and Sky Sitney of SilverDocs. They seemed to know everyone at the party – I felt like a hermit (a very tall one) by comparison – and it was easy enough to just meet people in their wake.

One of the people I met was Steve James, the acclaimed doc filmmaker who made  Hoop Dreams. Steve has become one of the major figures in doc filmmaking with a long string of strong docs. His latest, At the Death House Door, played at IDFA this year and I strongly considered for Mountainfilm 2008. I really liked the film, which followed a minister who was working on the Texas Death Row in Huntsville but in the end, I decided that it wasn’t – a phrase I seem to be using in this post a lot – right for us.

However, I do think one of his older films, Reel Paradise would be so that may be on the program in May.

Being immersed in docs at IDFA was a great experience and gets me ready to go for the upcoming viewing season. As I write this, we have 120 films submitted already (last year at this time, we had 24) and I am jazzed to check those out. We will also scour the Sundance lineup, which is being announced sometime this week for more films.

And what will I be looking for? Have I begun to answer that question?

I want to see films that are well-crafted and thought out. I want to see films that shake me to my core and make me reconsider previously held beliefs. I want films that make my jaw drop or make me jump up out of my seat because I have to tell someone about it. I want to see films of wondrous beauty and endless possibility, films that show me the harsh face of reality and the glorious journey of hope.

And I also want to see films that make me laugh … so I might have to check and see what the Naked Gun guys are working on.

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