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BIFF - a Festival Journal
Brooklyn International Film Festival
April 29 - May 5
At the Brooklyn Museum of Art

Brooklyn Film Fest Blooms…

Invisible Cities

The Brooklyn International Film Festival, previously known as the Williamsburg Film Festival, is launching its 5th year as an international draw including films from over 20 countries. The festival's popularity has even surprised its director, Marco Ursino, who started the festival initially to promote his own film. The boom of artistic activity in Brooklyn over the past decade has augmented the quality of work the selection committees have seen. At the same time, digital filmmaking has increased the quantity of filmmakers submitting to the festival. International attention to the festival has increased its scope and popularity, making it a powerful destination for filmmakers wanting their work to be seen.

The change of name brings with it a change of venue - the majority of the festival's films will be shown at the spacious Cantor Auditorium at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. A new sponsor, Stella Artois, the Belgian beer brand known for it's avid interest in supporting the international independent film market, signed on this year as well. The name change broadens the scope of the festival from being an exclusively Williamsburg event to what is expected to become a Brooklyn staple in the years to come. Combining BMA and BIFF brings the art and film worlds together in a uniquely outer borough fashion.

Festival director Marco Ursino sat down with me to talk briefly about the festival and allowed me to screen a few of the films being shown this year. While he reluctantly only chose one from each category (feature, short, animation, experimental and documentary), he made it very clear the choices were made from a field of equally wonderful entries.

FW (Melissa Ulto): How many films will you be showing this year?

Marco Ursino

BIFF (Marco Ursino): We have 80 films from 23 countries, out of 1000 film submissions, from 63 countries.

FW: How do you select the films for the different categories? Are there different criteria for each?

BIFF: Each category has a different panel, with different curators. We have a few people watch all the shorts, but it's difficult - we cannot have people in every day watching all the films, so films are watched all year long. Out of all the films that are viewed, we have the panelists select their favorites to submit to the committees. The criteria is different, of course, because we cannot have people watch hours and hours of documentary. Panelists come in and watch a few films at a time. We have the panelists select their favorites to submit to the committees. The selection process is broken down into categories - Absolutely Not, Maybe and Definitely.

FW: How do you select the winners? Is there a Grand Prize winner, followed by different winners in each category?

BIFF: First of all, the jury precedes the presence of the festival, it's a panel judgment, meaning that we invite four external judges and we have two judges from the festival, two people who are working for the festival. So, the panel is always in majority. The way we discuss doing the screenings always results in trying to get a unanimous decision on one film. We score the films and we put the scores aside. Then we open a discussion and the films everybody feels are the best wins. It is a very open discussion. If we can't absolutely agree based on their opinions then we go with the numbers, and let the numbers decide.

FW: How many times have you had to go to the scores?

BIFF: We pretty much decide every time - even this year, there was a debate over the shorts and we ended up coming to a unanimous decision, it just took a while - we finally found an agreement.

FW: Based on the films you have seen this year one, not based on the score, basically based on your own aesthetic, which films would you say are the highlights of the festival?

BIFF: The films this year are very solid, technically and in storytelling. For example, there is a film from Germany I like very much - "Getting My Brother Laid" - a very unique story, extremely honest. Another film, "Missing Persons", is an animation done by two guys with a computer. And this thing is beautiful. A film called "Invisible Cities" is beautiful - it's a work of aesthetics. But this a very short list, off the top of my head and really not representative of all the great work in the festival this year. Just a few of the films I found interesting.

FW: Do you have a requirement for projection at the festival?

BIFF: We project HD, DVD, DV, 16, 35, etc…we never put a restriction on the format. We will find a way to the screen…whatever it takes…if we get a great submission that is on IMAX, we will rent a projector show it. The emphasis is on the films, not the format.

FW: How has the increase in digital filmmaking affected the entries this year?

BIFF: There has definitely been an increase in digital format entries, which is, like I always say, in a way good because, you know, behind the camera is one of the best filmmakers of tomorrow. But it is bad because you kind of lose the standard of the style. You know, anyone can buy the camera…it's about "I am a filmmaker"…but there are certain rules in filmmaking. It can be great but it can also mean, for the panelist, they have to sort through a lot more entries to get to the best material.

FW: How did you become involved with the festival?

BIFF: I am a filmmaker, like most of the people who work here, and basically in 1998 we were trying out a feature film. We had sent the film out and it was rejected at a few festivals. So we decided to start a festival to show our film and the films of a few local artists. BIFF is the result of that and it has grown must faster than expected - it's a fulltime effort here to select the films, set up the festival and put it on each year. We've created a machine. The machine goes, its fine and the filmmaking is put aside. We are part of the same clan, and this festival is an excellent tool to create relationships and credibility, an element you need as a filmmaker. And it's also a growing process for me, regardless of putting my filmmaking career on hold. The networking ability of the festival has created projects between festival attendees and it is very much a workshop environment.

FW: How would you gage the success of the festival so far? Is the direction of BIFF going to include workshops, screenplay readings and other elements of larger festivals like the New York Film Festival?

BIFF: This festival, if you think about it, in five years we have shown about three hundred and fifty films. Great relationships were built out of this event so far. A hundred and fifty good actors, thousands of people a week coming to Brooklyn for this event, filmmakers, writers, distributors, and artists. I really have a feeling we are going in the right direction. I know we did a lot of good for people in the realm of international filmmaking - getting their work seen here and American independent films seen abroad. I feel we have been very successful - beyond our original expectations, and interest grows in this event every year. We have been thinking about adding additional elements to the festival, but we really want to focus on what we do well - showing great films. Eventually, we might add screenplay readings and structured workshops, but that's not in our plans as of yet.

FW: Will you be streaming any of the festival content this year off your website,

BIFF: We were the first festival in the US to broadcast to the web. We did that in 1999 and we promoted in countries where films came from - in Austria a film was being streamed at a local party while it was screened here at the festival. It was a very exciting time. We were the first to do that, but then again, that is not our focus. Eventually, we are hoping to decide on a self-distribution model or co-sponsor with another site, and sell copies of some of the films through the site. That a long way off, but a discussion we are starting to have. This year, we aren't streaming content or events - the growth of the festival has really required a focused effort on the event itself.

Preview of the Festival

After the interview, I settled in to watch the following films. I would highly recommend trying to see all of them during the festival. Each was unique, unsettling, moving and entertaining in its own way - the total experience was very rewarding.

Film One - Gas Up and Save!
Category: Short
Director: Anne Paas
United States, 2002, 25min
Screening: 35mm - Shooting: 35mm

It begins with a random smattering of interviews, very much a slice of life on the roadsides of America. Jezebel is the first interview, relating her fascination and love of Liberace. And from there, the story winds around the relationship of Jezebel and her dutiful son, Georgie, whose strange antics include collecting his nail clippings for safe storage. The narrative is a gentle look at the quirky underside of Middle America that turns sharply to a gruesome and bizarre end.

Beautifully shot, the film captures the wide landscapes of highways, motels and the outer edges of Las Vegas. The strong acting of the two lead characters, Jezebel and Georgie, is balanced by the lighter documentary style interviews spread throughout the film. Captivating and disturbing, director Anne Paas creates a parable of insanity and obsession.

Film Two - Invisible Cities
Category: Experimental
Director: Julio Soto
United States, 2002, 6min
Screening: DigiBeta - Shooting: 16mm

Julio Soto's three part experimental film captures the city in aspects of memory, the dead and desire. The muted palette of grays, blues and browns, paired with the blurred edges and unique method of pulling focus, give this work a very dreamlike quality. The surreal nature of the items Soto's camera focuses on switches from the grand scale of buildings to the minute details of the dirt and detritus of the city. The Hitchcock-like soundtrack of twanging guitars and sudden, emphatic sounds, partner well with the unusual imagery of Soto's city landscapes.

Film Three - Dog
Category: Animation
Director: Suzie Templeton
England, 2001, 6min
Screening: 35mm - Shooting: DigiBeta

Suzie Templeton's animation stuns the viewer with its visual richness of this melancholy tale. The stop motion animation is astonishing - her characters emote and move deeply their dark little world. The film lets the storyline unwind itself slowly. It's a sad, mysterious piece, with imagery that lingers in the mind long after viewing. A definite must-see in the animation category.

Film Four - Getting My Brother Laid (Mein Bruder der Vampir)
Category: Feature
Director: Sven Taddicken
Germany, 2001, 94min
Screening: 35mm - Shooting: 35mm

A coming of age tale for three siblings punctuated by scientific facts about sex that romps delightfully around its German town setting. The story opens with mentally handicapped Josch, dressed as a vampire, being led around the rooftops by his 15-year-old sister, Nic, as they watch their other brother, Mike, have sex with his girlfriend. This scene is full of the kind of sweet humor, honesty and visual lushness found throughout the film. As the days count down to Josch's 30th birthday, the hunt is on for Mike and Nic to help Josch become a man. Nic pursues her own desire for deflowering in a local thug who lip-synchs to Eartha Kitt and hustles school kids for money. From the start, the three amble toward their first "Big Love", while madcap destruction tumbles around them.

A poetic tale that rawly depicts the awkwardness of sex and love, the movie is comical and weirdly wonderful. The actors swing from deadpan to clowning and the rhythm of the film is superbly buoyant. Colorful imagery punctuates the scenery, while this average family struggles with the ways of passion.

Additional Press Screening - Hotel
Dir: Mike Figgis
England/Italy, 2001,
35mm, 93 min Feature
Friday, April 26
Festival Director: Marco Ursino

In Mike Figgis' flick "Hotel", we follow a Dogma 95 filmmaking crew, as they shoot their DV production of "The Duchess of Malfi", while an annoyingly precocious video journalist Charlie Poo tries to capture impromptu interviews on the side. Arriving in an Italian hotel, the cast simulate the actual production of the filmmaking director Figgis uses in creating this film - no script, limited character outlines, everything improvised and captured with available light and location. A subterranean story exists, dark and deadly, with the hotel staff and their unusual hungers. The lines between reality and nightmare blur as much as allegiances do.

The format being digital video, the images are striking in their exaggerated color or muted tones. The cameras move rapidly around the scenes, the nature of reality shows meets cinema verité, and at times has a dizzying affect. The usage of the infrared mode on the digital cameras gives the basement and dark scenes an eerie green tone, the actors becoming lupine beasts that loom out of the darkness.

The cast is incredible - from the cameo of John Malkovich to the strong performance of Rhys Ifans, we are taken on a gambol in and around the hotel, as the film jars from vain good fun to downright scary at times. I hate to give away any of the story here - it really is a must-see film for the plot alone. Each storyline criss-crosses the other, and friends switch masks as foes quite quickly and randomly. Yet overall, there is an order here that feels inevitable and terrifying.

A great follow-up to "Timecode", Mike Figgis seems to have really embraced the medium he chooses to work in. The film will be shown at the Brooklyn International Film Festival and will be released for distribution sometime this spring across the country.

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By Melissa Ulto
© 2002

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[email protected] | May 2002 | Issue 26
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