26 June, 2008

UK Documentary Wins At SILVERDOCS

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

SILVERDOCS: AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival announced its distinguished award winners this past weekend, culminating the weeklong Festival activities that included screening 108 films representing 63 countries, free outdoor screenings and live performances, and a five-day concurrent International Documentary Conference attended by over 650 filmmakers, film and television executives and media professionals. Winning filmmakers received over $70,000 in combined cash and in-kind prizes.

The Festival made a commitment this year to honor international documentary production with the SILVERDOCS Sterling Award for a World Feature. The winner this year was The English Surgeon directed by Geoffrey Smith. The film tells the story of British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, who performs surgery in the Ukraine with the crudest tools. The director will receive $10,000 cash and $5,000 in film stock from Kodak. The jury acclaimed the film as “the most poignant and inspiring film we saw - a film that profiles two human beings who dare to step outside the system to do something extraordinary, and becomes a delicate, deep, and respectful exploration of life, death friendship and hope."

British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh resides in South London and has a practice at the local hospital nearby. But over the past 16 years, he has spent several weeks annually in Ukraine performing brain surgeries. In a country where neurosurgery barely exists, he passes on his knowledge—and suitcases of equipment—to his friend Dr. Igor Kurilets.

The English Surgeon follows Dr. Marsh on one of his visits, documenting the steep challenges to, and need for, improved care in Ukraine. The doctors treat patients with extraordinarily dangerous diseases under grueling conditions. They are often forced to improvise for a lack of equipment, such as performing one surgery with a Bosch cordless home power drill. Marsh’s extraordinary surgical skills are matched by his ability to teach; he is passing on knowledge that can save and improve hundreds more lives.

The film was produced by Evelene Productions of Leeds, UK and was distributed in the UK by the British Broadcasting Corporation. The film had its world premiere at the London Film Festival and has been seen on television in the UK and other European territories. For more information on the film, visit the official website:

25 June, 2008

EFP Screenings In New York

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

Wednesday, June 25------European Film Promotion (EFP), the pan-European association of governmental promotion agencies that represent the film industries of 25 European countries, continues its New York Industry Screenings as a way of targeting New York-based distributors, programmers and press. Over the past two days, EFP presented a program of 4 critically acclaimed European feature films with special screenings and receptions at the Tribeca Cinemas in lower Manhattan.

Films Distribution partner, François Yon believes that the screenings will offer distributors an all important follow-up opportunity to see films which have just been presented at major film festivals, including the recent Cannes International Film Festival. The four films getting the New York treatment include: No Network (Iceland, Ari Kristinsson), The Stranger In Me (Das Fremde In Mir, Germany, Emily Atef), Private Lessons (Eleve Libre, Belgium/France, Joachim Lafosse) and Eldorado (Belgium, Bouli Lanners).

No Network tells the story of Kalli, a young boy who is brought up by a single mother in the suburbs of Reykjavik. He thrives in a world of imaginary characters, where he gets most of his life experiences through screens: movies, television shows and computers. The film has won several major awards at children’s film festivals around the world, including Sprockets International Film Festival for Children, Kristiansand International Children’s Film Festival, Taiwan International Children’s TV and Film Festival, Stockholm Film Festival Junior and the Audience Award at the Zlin Film Festival. The sales agent for the film is Nonstop Sales,

The Stranger In Me offers an emotionally devastating portrait of post-pardum depression, as a young mother plunges into the depths of despair after having her baby. As her relationship with her husband unravels, she is advised to go to a clinic, where her maternal instincts are aroused and she learns to appreciate her role as a mother. The film had its premiere at the Semaine de la Critique section of the Cannes Film Festival and is represented internationally by Bavaria Film International,

Private Lessons is a provocative story of a troubled teenager who finds emotional sustenance with an older tutor. The young man, an aspiring tennis player is taken under the wing of an established player as his family life falls apart. The relationship verges on the physical and offers an intriguing portrait of male bonding. The film had its world premiere at the Director’s Fortnight section of the Cannes Film Festival and is represented internationally by French-based sales agent Films Distribution,

Eldorado is a worthy addition to the European tradition of the “road movie”. In this tale, a 40-something man who is facing a mid-life crisis takes under his wing a young man who he discovers breaking into his home. The two head off on a road trip to reunite the boy with his family, and in the classic tradition of this genre, both learn valuable life lessons on the journey. The film premiered at last month’s Cannes Film Festival in the Director’s Fortnight section, winning the Europa Cinemas Label Award and the Regards Jeures Prize.

The promotion effort is occurring at a pivotal time for foreign language cinema in the U.S. In the past month, three distributors who had been very active in taking on European films (New Line, Picturehouse and Warner Independent Pictures) have announced that they will cease operations by year’s end. Another distributor who has championed European projects (THINKFilm) has been making headlines this past week as it faces economic hardships and lawsuits filed by various filmmakers who have not yet received their promised royalty payments.

Despite the recent box office successes of such films as The Lives Of Others, La Vie En Rose, Persepolis, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and The Counterfeiters, the landscape for foreign language films in the American market is as challenging as it has been in many decades. “We are rethinking how many sub-titled films we can really release into the market”, one prominent distributor shared with me. “The truth is that the audience for sub-titled films is aging and younger people seem far less interested in films from France, Italy, Spain, Scandinavia or other important meccas of cinema. That does not mean that a well made film can have crossover appeal, but it is definitely becoming a major concern since the cost of releasing films is at record levels.”

However, recent activity at the Cannes Film Festival, although very modest by previous years’ standards, demonstrates that there is still an appetite among U.S. film distributors for well-made European films that tackle subjects or themes that are not as heavily explored in American cinema. The continued advancement of digital download technology and the new release strategy of “day-and-date” (making films available on the same date in theaters and on Video On Demand platforms on cable and satellite television) will hopefully provide enough economic incentive for more activity in the future.

As an alternative to the summer blockbuster, there remains an appetite among American audiences for intelligent, mature and well-crafted films and European films of a certain stripe. EFP’s New York Screenings initiative provides a strong platform for European films seeking US distribution. Since the program first began in 2005, approximately 25% of the films screened in this series have subsequently secured US distribution. The NY Industry Screenings are financially supported by the MEDIA Programme of the European Union, Wallonie Bruxelles Images, German Films and the Icelandic Film Centre.

20 June, 2008

European Documentaries Compete At SILVERDOCS

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

The SILVERDOCS: AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival has, in just six short years, become the premium festival for non-fiction film in the United States. With documentary films on the rise all over the globe, tackling every subject under the sun and even revealing some considerable box office muscle, this event has become ground zero for appreciating documentary works from the U.S. and overseas and track the trends for non-fiction media of the future.

With the explosion of documentary work being produced outside the United States, this year SILVERDOCS inaugurated a competition category for international documentaries, the Sterling World Feature Competition. This significant development reflects the Festival's commitment to highlighting global perspectives and recognizing the richness of documentary storytelling worldwide.

Of the ten films competing in this competition strand (with winners announced on Saturday evening at the Festival's Awards Ceremony, and reported here in a future posting), five are European productions and two are co-productions with European partners. Most of the films are North American Premieres, giving audiences, critics and industry professionals their first opportunity to see these excellent films.

In Comeback from German director Maximilian Plettau, the focus is on German boxer Jürgen Hartenstein, a 35-year-old former middleweight champion hoping to re-enter the sport. The excellent cinematographic eye of Max Plettau’s camera follows Hartenstein as he struggles to revive his career. A roadtrip across Eastern Europe is the subject of Corridor #8, Bulgarian director Boris Despodov's chronicle of his journeys across Bulgaria, Albania and Macedonia on a highway that was commissioned by the European Union to connect the Black and Adriatic seas. Designed to lift the economic hopes of the working-class residents along its route, the film makes clear that one decade and millions of euros later, little progress has been made.

UK director Geoffrey Smith offers a more hopeful vision of life in the former East Europe in The English Surgeon. The film tells the inspiring story of British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, who practices medicine in an idyllic English village, but spends several weeks a year in the Ukraine performing delicate surgeries. Working with the crudest of tools in a country where neurosurgery barely exists, his skills have saved innumerable lives.

Denmark boasts two films in the competition. In Mechanical Love, director Phie Ambo explores the intriguing question of how far we are prepared to go when human intimacy becomes a rare commodity. Robots promise to make ourlives easier, but for some people they can be a stand-in for human affection. This fascinating film explores the intimate and complex relationships between people and therapeutic robots. In the blistering Milosevic On Trial, director Michael Christofferson brings us into the courtroom as former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic is on trial for crimes against humanity. The director captures the trial, in all its mundane and blood-chilling detail, and its defendant, a complex and deluded man who insisted on defending himself and ultimately died from a heart attack before facing any judgment.

Two European co-productions are also included in the competition section. In the Iran/Sweden co-production Four Wives-One Man, director Nahid Persson, an Iranian-born woman who now works in Sweden, has created a poignant, occasionally hilarious, glimpse into polygamous marriage. As the title suggests, this is no conventional union, with four wives, dozens of children, and one domineering mother-in-law, all competing for the attention of one man.

In anticipation of the upcoming Summer Olympics in Beijing this summer, the Chinese/German co-production The Red Race by Chao Gan is especially timely. Against the backdrop of preparations for the mega-event and escalating international condemnation over Chinese policies from Tibet to Darfur, the film chronicles the Chinese passion and obsession for gymnastics. In training centers, there’s no time for childish games as these aspiring Olympians carry their parents’ and their country’s dreams on their tiny shoulders.

These films, with their various subjects, themes and presentation styles, is evidence to a new "golden age" of documentary film that has the capacity and potential of generating audience response and serious box office monies.

18 June, 2008

Chantal Akerman: A Heroine of the Avant-Garde

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

Tuesday, June 17-----Chantal Akerman is a heroine of avant-garde cinema. Her most fmaous film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) devotes more than three hours to observing a woman's domestic routines before climaxing with an act of shocking violence. Since 1995, Akerman has been experimenting with video installation and exhibiting her work in museums and galleries, rather than arthouse theaters. This week, an exhibition entitled "Chantal Akerman: Moving Through Time And Space" has opened at the List Visual Arts Center at the Massachussets Institute of Technology in Boston.

The exhibition is the first museum show devoted to the Belgian-born director and presents five projects, two films and three multichannel video installations, dating from her most recent work from 1995 to the present. The rogram was organized by the List Center, the Balffer Gallery at the University of Houston, the Miami Art Museum and the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis.

Akerman's work demands alot of concentration and attention from her viewers. WFilled with long, mostly silent scenes and minimalist storytelling, her cinema is one that comments on the elasticity of time....sometimes seeming very long indeed and sometimes remarkably swift and speeded up. She also takes on controversila themes, like racism in the American South (South, 1999), illegal immigration (From The Other Side, 2002), and terrorism in the Middle East (Down There, 2006).

In From The East: Bordering On Fiction (1995), she records a journey across Eastern Europe, with its many lingering nighttime views of people walking on sidewalks, waiting for buses to arrive and other normal activities. The somber light and the anticipation of something about to happen gives the piece an eerie atmosphere, haunted by the heavy legacy of World War II and the Holocaust.

The most recent piece in the show is called Women of Antwerp In November, a noirish meditation about women, smoking and the movies. Shown on several large screens, the piece features professional actresses shown smoking, waiting, looking forward. The 20 minute piece is a short one for this artist's oeuvre, but communicates everything it needs to about sorrow, joy and anticipation of either the best or the worst. It presents a tableau of soulfulness, melancholy and the essential aloneness of its subjects. It sums up her great themes and allows for a striking visual poetry. The exhibition, which will travel to museums and art centers throughout the United States over the next few months, continues through July 6 in Boston.

16 June, 2008

A Focus On European Cinema At Festroia

Saturday, June 14-------Although my “beat” on this site is generally to report on European cinema in North America, I am currently in Europe attending the Festroia in Setubal, Portugal. My job here is to program and coordinate the American Independents Competition, which this year presented 8 new films from American directors.

But this Festival is remarkably European in focus, with nearly 80% of the films coming from all the countries on the continent. The Official Section, where films compete for Best Film, Best Director and Best Acting prizes, was dominated by European talents, including Free To Leave (Peter Payer, Austria), Worlds Apart (Niels Arden Oplev, Denmark), Estrellita (Metod Pevec, Slovenia), The Class (Ilmar Raag, Estonia), Black Ice (Petri Kotwica, Finland), The Bird Can´t Fly (Three Anna, The Netherlands), Mirush (Marius Holst, Norway), Empties (Jan Sverak, Czech Republic), Mermaid (Anna Melikyan, Russia), The Trap (Srdan Golubovic, Serbia) and All Will Be Well (Tomasz Wiszniewski, Poland).

In fact, Polish cinema was very much in evidence here. This year´s country spotlight, a showcase of 9 new films, was on Poland. In addition, films screening out of competition included Just Like Home (Lone Scherfig, Denmark) and The New Man (Klaus Haro). The Festival´s First Works competition, dedicated to debut directors, also was strongly European, including the films: Family Rules (Marc Meyer, Germany), Karoy (Zhanna Issabayeva, Kazahkhstan), Thieves (Jaime Marques, Spain), Out Of Bounds (Fulvia Bernasconi, Switzerland), The Art of Negative Thinking (Bard Breien, Norway), Preserve (Lukasz Palkowski, Poland), Megapolis (Ella Arkhangelskaya, Russia) and Darling (Johan King, Sweden). Short films from European filmmakers and film schools were also featured, as well as 13 short films competing for the Prix UIP, sponsored by the European Film Academy.

European star power is also being honoured at the Festival tonight. As part of the official Awards Ceremony of the 24th edition of Festroia, the Festival will honor the career achievement of Spanish actress Assumpta Serna with a Gold Dolphin award.

The talented actress has won more than 20 Best Actress prizes and has acted in more than 60 films in six languages: Spanish, Catalan, Portugese, Italian, French and English. Born in 1957, she has acted in theater and fiilms in over 20 countries. She is a board member of the European Film Academy and both a member of the American Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences and the Spanish Academy of Cinema. She was recently elected President of AISGE, the organization in Spain that deals with the task of managing and protecting the intellectual property rights of 4600 actor members.

A few of her many films are: Almodovar's Matador, the 1993 Spanish Oscar entry The Fencing Master, Maria Luisa Bemberg's film, I, the Worst of All, The Craft, Sam Fuller's Day of Reckoning, Wild Orchid, opposite Mickey Rourke, Nostradamus, with Rutger Hauer and F. Murray Abraham, Circle of Passions, with Max Von Sydow, Short Cut to Paradise with Charles Dance, and stars opposite British actor Sean Bean in the Napoleonic epic Sharpe´s Rifles, a British film-series. She recently starred in the American independent film Uncertainty, directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel.

In 1997 Serna took up writing. Her first book, Screenacting, was followed by Monologues in V.O and her third book is in the works. After the release of her first book she began teaching workshops in Universities and Film Schools on the subjects of "Acting for Camera", "Directing Actors" and "The Script and the Actor".

She is also the founder of first team, an institution for film educaton that features the contribution of professionals like Phillip Noyce and Emma Thompson and aims to promote team work in the filmmaking process. Since 2000, first team has given courses in Spain, Portugal and Argentina, reaching more than 1200 actors, directors and screenwriters from all over the world.

For this American, coming to Portugal (with its beautiful countryside, abundant sunshine, sparkling waters and superb cuisine) has also been a tour of the European continent, and of contemporary European cinema. I look forward to reporting on these excellent European films as they make their way to North America in the coming months.

By Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

11 June, 2008

Open Roads To Italian Cinema In New York

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

Tuesday, June 10-----The Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York welcomes some of Italy ’s finest directorial talents to New York for the eighth annual Open Roads: New Italian Cinema, at the Walter Reade Theater, June 6–12. The series highlights 13 new features, a special retrospective screening of Franco Piavoli’s Blue Planet, and a selection of popular short films. Directors Gianni Zanasi, Ferzan Ozpetek, Andrea Porporati, Salvatore Maira, Wilma Labate, and actors Jasmine Trinca and Valerio Mastandrea are among the filmmakers expected to attend screenings during series.

The 2008 edition of Open Roads opened on Friday, June 6, with Silvio Soldini’s Days and Clouds, a brilliantly rendered domestic drama by the NYU-educated director of Bread and Tulips (Open Roads 2001). Starring Margherita Buy, the film follows a woman as she struggles to keep her family afloat after her husband (Antonio Albanese) is edged out of the company he co-founded. Buy won this year’s David di Donatello Award for Best Actress for her performance.

Also featured in the program are Riccardo Milani’s Piano Solo, a biographical exploration of the troubled personal life of legendary Italian jazz musician Luca Flores; Andrea Molaioli’s The Girl by the Lake, starring Toni Servillo, winner of the Pasinetti Award for Best Actor at the 2007 Venice Film Festival; and Andrea Porporati’s The Sweet and the Bitter, the story of a young man’s seduction by the Mafia, starring Luigi Lo Cascio (The Best of Youth).

Also featured in this year’s unique mix of cinematic road trips is In the Factory, a documentary celebration of the vibrant and influential world of the Italian factory, a vital heart of postwar Italy; Night Bus, debut filmmaker Davide Marengo espionage film noir with a young woman enlisting the help of a bus driver (Valerio Mastandrea) to evade the vicious gangsters trying to track her down.; and Don´t Think About It, also starring Mastandrea as an aging punk rock guitarist.

Open Roads hosted the New York premiere of filmmaker Franco Piavoli’s Blue Planet for a 25th anniversary, one-night-only screening on Tuesday night. The 1982 film, by one of Italy ’s most important experimental filmmakers, is built on rhythms that present the harmony and the contrasts between human activity and the physical world surrounding it. Legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky subsequently labeled it a “poem, concert, journey into the universe, nature and life. Not a documentary…Truly a different vision.” Godfrey Reggio, director of Koyaanisqatsi and a great admirer of Piavoli introduced the screening of Blue Planet. Anthology Film Archives will host a retrospective of four of Piavoli’s feature films from June 12-15, and Blue Planet will have a weeklong theatrical run at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater beginning June 13.

The 2008 edition of Open Roads: New Italian Cinema has been organized by the Film Society of Lincoln Center together with the Ministero per i Beni e le Attivitá Culturali (Direzione Generale per il Cinema), Filmitalia, Cinecittá Holding in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute of New York and SNGC.

06 June, 2008

Gay and Lesbian Film Festival Season In North America

The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

Friday, June 5-----This being June, otherwise known as Gay Pride Month, it is the heart of the gay and lesbian festival season. Currently in New York and next week in San Francisco, the best new gay-themed films will be featured at the NewFest (New York) and the San Francisco Gay And Lesbian Film Festival, part of a year-round gay and lesbian film festival circuit that continues through the summer and into the Fall in such gay meccas as Los Angeles, Seattle, Vancouver, Chicago and at least 50 other cities.

This festival circuit is not only an important event for the local community, but an opportunity for filmmakers to showcase their works for their core audience and to possibly find greater distribution among the U.S. distributors who specialize in gay and lesbian films (including Stand Releasing, Picture This Entertainment, Here! Films, Frameline, Wolfe Media and TLA Releasing).

Several European titles are currently circling the circuit. The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela is by Icelandic director Olaf de Fleur. This unique film won the Berlin Film Festival’s Teddy Award (considered the “gay Oscar”). Blurring the lines between fiction and reality, the film focuses on Raquela, a transsexual Filipina prostitute who dreams of escaping her harsh reality for a fairy tale life in the West.

From UK director Adrian Shergold comes Clapham Junction, an episodic film in which a number of separate stories weave together over the course of one long night. The film brings together the intimate stories of the celebration of a gay wedding, a young man devoted to his grandmother, a schoolboy lusting after an older man and a shocking hate crime. Intersecting in surprising ways, these strands form a provocative portrait of modern day gay life in London.

In German/Israeli co-production Japan, Japan, by director Lior Shamriz, a gay teenager settles in Tel Aviv, but dreams of moving to Japan. In his off hours, he cruises for boys and surfs porn, which creates an exotic, sexually graphic cyberspace landscape in parallel with his mundane daily routine. Japan begins to represent all his dreams, desires and aspirations.

Italian/Turkish director Ferzan Ozpetek follows up his acclaimed film Steam with Saturn In Opposition, a bittersweet ensemble drama. In the finely acted film, a group of friends re-examine their lives and relationships in the wake of an unexpected tragedy. Partners Lorenzo and Davide host regular dinner parties for their diverse group of gay and straight friends – their chosen family. When the group faces a terrible loss, each deals with it in a unique way.

Set in South Africa in the 1950s, the UK/South African co-production The World Unseen by Shamin Sharif is a drama about a taboo love affair that develops unexpectedly between two Indian women. Rebellious café owner Amina defiantly dresses in trousers and shirts and makes her own rules. When she meets the more traditional Miriam, she is immediately smitten. The film won the Audience Award at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and is certain to be one of the most talked-about of the gay and lesbian film season.

The season for gay cinema is on and European films are among its most interesting discoveries.