Sunday, April 29, 2007

Film Fest Snapshots

If you count the first screening of Peter McAlevey’s documentary Screamers at the Westcott Theater almost two Sundays ago now, this year’s Syracuse International Film Festival – the fourth edition – stretched to a full week. SIFF typically screens a selection of features and shorts a second time, usually films expected to be award contenders. But Screamers was one of two “pre-festival events” so popular that people who didn’t get here till the official opening at the Landmark Theater downtown on Wednesday finally convinced organizers to schedule them again.

There’s no doubt this was a transitional year and that post-festival debriefings will have to include some shifts. But even with multiple screening venues, you didn’t have to read the numbers in the paper this year to envision the crowd you were part of. Four screenings sold out and turned people away. This meant, for example, that getting the whole crowd into the Bristol IMAX on Saturday night for the special Experimental Film and Music program - with returning filmmaker Elka Krajewska, Syracuse's own Carrie Mae Weems and others - delayed its start by about half an hour.

This year’s SIFF also had some obvious trophy catches – Michael Haneke’s Caché with Juliette Binoche, Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaadé from Senegal (both part of a special French-language cinema section from Africa, Quebec and France), Doug Block's 51 Birch Street (set to debut in early May on HBO) and Armenian Harutyun Khachatryan’s Return of the Poet. Here is a sampling of several other gems beneath the more obvious glitter.

Tuesday night at the Westcott

One result of SIFF’s growth was the presence of Argentine director Eliseo Subiela, who screened a roughcut of his new film Don’t Look Down at the Westcott Theater the night before SIFF officially opened. Since making Man Facing Southeast (1986), Subiela has won nearly 30 major international prizes – a trip to will get you four of them on DVD – and Mellen Press has just released a major retrospective study of his film career. Maybe most viewers last Tuesday night didn’t know that background, but entranced we were anyway. Subiela came to Syracuse to serve as an SIFF judge for feature-length entries and was a panelist on Thursday’s all-day forum on genocide in cinema. He says he made Don’t Look Down as a gift to his children, to reclaim the spirit of Eros in an age of commercialized, dehumanized sex. Don’t Look Down portrays a young man in mourning who takes to sleep-walking, falls into a girl’s bed through her skylight, and accepts her literally transporting lessons in intimacy. Once finished later this year, expect Don’t Look Down to premiere amidst great fanfare – though it probably won’t show up at Carousel Mall’s mutiplex.

Thursday at Lemoyne College

Sparsely attended in the morning, this all-day forum entitled “Images of Genocide in World Cinema” got the crowd it deserved after lunch. Syracuse University’s Beverly Allen, herself a screenwriter and scholar-activist (her book Rape Warfare influenced the Hague Tribunal’s decision to declare rape a war crime following Yugoslavia’s break-up), moderated with Lemoyne’s Barron Boyd. Panelists included Subiela, Senegalese filmmaker Ben Diogaye Beye (he screened clips from Raoul Peck’s film about Rwanda, Sometimes in April), Czech director Milan Cieslar, legal expert Diane Orentlicher and her husband, Clinton-era policy-maker Morton Halperin, and Native American actor Sonny Skyhawk.

Reflecting the next day about this panel, Allen commented, “It’s more clear than ever that where Eros – creativity, intimacy, contact – occurs, genocide cannot be there too. That is the real message of a film like Eliseo’s and the reason it’s such a gift.”

Three Films to Look Out For

Despite the brisk luncheon business spilling onto the sidewalk outside Alto Cinco on Saturday’s sunny afternoon, it was all happening in the magical dark inside the Westcott Cinema. Here are three films to watch for down the road on DVD.

The Professor and His Beloved Equation induced unembarrassed tears among many. Beautifully shot by Shoji Ueda –Kurosawa’s sometime cinematographer – this film is already available online in a Region 3 DVD if you have a zone-free player. After taking five SIFF prizes this year, it could wind up on the Facets label through SIFF’s fledgling DVD distribution project. This refined Japanese import has in common with the Adam Sandler comedy Fifty First Dates a major character’s daily amnesia, suggesting that modern desperation to get into the present moment goes beyond cultures.

Laura Muscardin’s Billo, Il Grand Dakhaar, fresh from taking the Jury Prize at Pierre Cardin’s Italian Film Festival in Paris, won SIFF’s best musical score (by Senegal’s acclaimed Youssou D’Nour). Based on his own story, the film stars Thierno Thiam as an immigrant to Rome who bridges two cultures and whose Muslim faith allows him two wives. The Rome-based Muscardin’s 2001 HIV-related film Days, available on DVD locally at Emerald City, won prizes at LA’s Outfest and Seattle LGBT festival.

Kujtim Çashku’s film Magic Eye brought many in Syracuse’s Albanian community to Westcott Street last weekend, playing to crowds both days. Çashku runs a film school and annual human rights film festival in Tirana. With accomplished performances and sustained suspense, centering on the media’s role in provoking violence in Albania’s 1997 civil war, this thriller is a major new addition to films about propaganda and its cost.

Next Year in Prague

Mary Angiolillo lives in the Czech Republic and teaches at FAMU, the National Academy of Film and Television in Prague, along with her husband, cinematographer Marek Jicha. A former Fulbright scholar to Paris with a doctorate in theater, she also grew up in Syracuse. During a family visit several years ago in April, she and her husband saw a storefront poster advertising a new film festival here. From this coincidence has grown a particularly strong partnership, with more trips to Syracuse every April, film entries in the festival, speakers like award-winning director Milan Cieslar for SIFF forums and, on a visit to Prague last summer by an SIFF-led group, the quiet but far-reaching beginnings of an exchange program between Syracuse University and FAMU film students.

“We are able to offer SU film students experience working with 35-millimeter film, which Syracuse doesn’t offer,” said Mary, “and we have the same approach to teaching film – that is, developing the total filmmaker to be able to handle all aspects of filmmaking. And I’ve been very impressed with the Syracuse students.”

Besides showing up all week at screenings and events, Mary went to the day-time forums on Thursday and Friday on genocide, animation and youth. She is an attentive listener who stays for the whole program and takes notes. Outside Eastwood’s Palace Theater on Sunday night before the closing ceremonies, she reflected on her week here. She said this year’s forums were timely. “You know, when our flight landed in New York, the first thing we saw was the big video monitor with the news crawl about Virginia Tech and the shootings there. This is so important, what’s offered here – the chance to talk about these topics.”

Published in the 4/26/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly.