29 June, 2010

Do Documentaries Really Matter?

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

After the intense (and enjoyable) experience of sitting through at least 15 documentary feature films over 4 days at the just concluded AFI-Discovery Channel Documentary Festival, the question organically arose: do documentaries really matter? As someone who trained in documentary filmmaking techniques (and who made a few, best to be forgotten non-fiction nothings) and an admirer of the stamina, grit and determination of the documentary filmmaker, my answer appeared more hopeful than determined. Yes, I hope that documentaries that shed light on complex subjects do other words, that they stimulate discussion, galvanize debate and incite passion in a world overloaded with trivia and unnecessary information generated by the insatiable hunger of the media beast.

To mention a few memorable films of the past few years that seemed to have made that difference.....did AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH light a fire under the dual threat of global warming and climate change? If it brought the issue to the forefront (and renewed the political career of its champion Al Gore) and created a tipping towards a more expansive energy policy, then it fulfilled its function. Even though the US Congress is still bitterly divided about whether the science holds up and a bill making its way through the legislature is becoming alarmingly watered down by special interests, the prescience of the documentary was an early alarm signal that has definitely influenced global (if not yet American) policy, made all the more pressing by the horrific oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. In years to come, the film will be honored as a first shot heard across the planet that changes minds and hearts.

Michael Moore's films, in particular FAHRENHEIT 911, SICKO and CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY, were also prescient wake-up calls in the areas of the deceptions of politics, the inequities of the health care system and the rampaging corporations that brought the world to the brink of economic disaster. While Moore may have been a little too in love with his own image on the big screen, the truth is that these films did get the conversation going about these critical topics and laid the groundwork for the substantial reforms brought into the system by the Obama administration. As documentary film's court jester and man-of-the-people populist, Michael Moore has served as a necessary balance to the rantings of the far-right populism of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.

This year's Oscar winner for Best Documentary, THE COVE, a harrowing tale film about dolphin hunting in Japan, is in the news again, with Japanese distributors (apparently under pressure from the Japanese government) refusing the give the film a theatrical slot. In a country that shudders at disharmony and remains wary of the far right's violent history, the nationalistic activists who have organized a boycott of the film have, temporarily at least, won out, frightening theater owners into canceling a planned distribution of the film. Not only depicting dolphin hunting in a cruel light, the film also warns about high levels of mercury in fish, a disturbing disclosure in the sea-food loving nation. However, despite these early setbacks, active debate is now ocurring about the practice of dolphin hunting and the safety of the sushi diet that Japanese depend upon. There is no question that the impact of the film goes far behind the question of whether it will find proper has generated debate in a society obsessed with concensus.

The film COUNTDOWN TO ZERO, produced by Lawrence Bender and directed by Lucy Walker, arrives next month in theaters, with the task of informing people about the pending disasters if nuclear proliferation continues unabated. The idea of a terrorist group getting hold of nuclear weapons has long been a noirish nightmare, and the possibilities of this ocurring in the post-Cold War age is made horrifically clear. The film is poised to be one of the more controversial documentaries of the year and should put the subject of nuclear policy on the agenda of both the US and international political establishment.

And what about films that premiered at the Silverdocs Festival.....will they follow these trend-setters and end up molding governmental policy? Of course, it is a little too early to say. However, the initial public response to RESTREPO, a you-are-there portrait of the fog of war in Afghanistan co-directed by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, is actively stirring debate about the war in Afghanistan and whether it is winnable. Another war story, THE TILLMAN STORY, detailing the tragic death of former NFL football star Pat Tillman by "friendly fire" in the early days of the Afghanistan war (and the military's campaign to cover it up) are reflected in the recent uproar over the published interview of Afghan War honcho Stanley McCristal, detailing a rift between senior military command and the office of the Commander In Chief, President Obama. Both these films will certainly be touchstones for a debate about the future course of a war that many are beginning to believe is not winnable.

Other films at this year's Festival also add mightily to the debate: BUDRUS and MY SO CALLED ENEMY to the Middle East conflict; THE ARRIVALS to growing European resistance to the wave of immigration; BARBERSHOP PUNK to the legalities of internet censorship; HOLYWARS to the culture wars of religious fundamentalism; ON COAL RIVER to the on-going safety concerns in the coal industry; PRESUMED GUILTY to the shortcomings of the American justice system; and Oliver Stone's SOUTH OF THE BORDER to international relations with the new leftist governments emerging in South America. Should any one film have the burden of generating debate and influencing public policy? Probably not, but they undoubtedly do, which is why they need to have a wide platform.

Just listing the above titles seems to answer my original question. Do documentaries still matter? HELL YES.....

European Documentary Award Winners at SILVERDOCS

By Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

The AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival announced its award winners at a typically low-key awards ceremony on Saturday afternoon, culminating the weeklong festival activities that included the screening of 102 films representing 54 countries, a free outdoor screening, live performances, and a five-day concurrent International Documentary Conference.. Several European films were awarded.

This year's Sterling Award for Best World Feature was given to the Swiss documentary THE WOMAN WITH THE 5 ELEPHANTS directed by Vadim Jendreyko, which chronicles eighty-five-year-old Svetlana Geier who has dedicated her life to language. Considered the greatest translator of Russian literature into German, Svetlana has just concluded her magnum opus, completing new translations of Dostoevsky's five great novels-known as the five elephants. The director will receive $5,000 cash.

The Writers Guild of America, West and the Writers Guild of America, East have named Yael Hersonski as the winner of the WGA Documentary Screenplay Award for the German-Israeli co-production A FILM UNFINISHED, the story of never before seen footage from a lost reel of an incomplete Nazi-produced propaganda film about Warsaw's Jewish ghetto in 1942. The film captures images of manipulated and staged ghetto life mixed with stunning photographic evidence and testimony-all making for a riveting experience.

Two European films captured the coveted Audience Award prizes. The Feature Film Audience Award went to MEN WHO SWIM directed by Dylan Williams. The film follows a British man living in Sweden on the brink of turning 40, who combats his mid-life crisis by joining a mens' synchronized swimming team. Composed of middle-aged men from all walks of life, what started as an escapist hobby evolves into a committed brotherhood as the team competes at the unofficial All Male World Championship in Milan.

The Short Film Audience Award was won by the Irish film BYE BYE NOW, directed by Aideen O'Sullivan and Ross Whitaker. The film offers a charming look at the gradual disappearance of phone booths in Ireland. With the advent of modern technology, the phone booth has all but vanished all over the world. In a loving tribute to this soon-to-be relic of the past, the film is a nostalgic reminder of yesteryear.

The Festival hosted over 25,000 attendees, including more than 1,000 filmmakers, film and television executives and media professionals exploring the documentary in action, with a particular emphasis on youth, education and next generation media artists. For more information on the films and the events, visit the Festival's website:

European Documentaries Shine At Silverdocs

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

This year's AFI-Discovery Channel Documentary Festival , the largest event of its kind in North America, boasted a strong showing of new European documentaries. The non-fiction tradition continues to expand with the arrival of new documentary voices from the "first world".

The Sterling World Competition section boasted strong films from Europe. THE ARRIVALS by French co-directors Claudine Bories and Patrice Chagnard examined the tensions in French society as more and more immigrants arrive to realize the "French dream" of a better life.

In the Swedish film FAMILIA, co-directed by Mikael Wistrom and Alberto Herskovitz, the emotional ups and downs of an impoverished Peruvian family becomes a universal story of overcoming diversity while trying to keep family ties strong and relevant. In the German/Israeli co-production A FILM UNFINISHED, a propaganda film shot by the Nazis in the squalid Warsaw ghetto of 1942 becomes a testament to man's inhumanity and the hardcore resilience of the human spirit.

by Finnish director Michael Madsen extrapolates what life and society will be liked 1000 years from now while also telling a cautionary tale of how we dispose of radioactive waste that will stay be lethal when future generations uncover it. In the film REGRETTERS by Swedish documentarian Marcus Lindeen, two men share a remarkable camaraderie (they are biological men who consciously changed their gender and then reversed the process) in a highly theatrical portrait of human sexuality and the desire to feel whole.

In SPACE TOURISTS by Swiss director Christian Frei, the crumblng infrastructure of the fomer Soviet space program engenders a unique entrepenurial streak, as private citizens pay up to $20 million for a chance to live out their fantasies to be cosmonauts and orbit the earth. A second Swiss film also competed for honors this week. THE WOMAN WITH FIVE ELEPHANTS by Vadim Jendreyko , which won the top International Film prize at the event, is a portrait of an 85 year old Ukranian woman who has dedicated her life to literature, including the translation of the five novels of Dostoevsky (thus the reference to five elephants).

These films demonstrate the continued variety and excellence of European documentary filmmaking.

Nordic Angst On The Big Screen

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

I am not sure if it was completely intentional or just one of those alchemic side effects of working with what was available, but one of the unintentional strands of this year’s AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival can only be described as “Nordic angst”, a unique kind of melancholy only found in the sun-starved nations of Scandinavia and northern Europe. A group of films from the region, of diverse subjects and filmic styles, share a common denominator of showcasing this moody determinism, a mix of gloom and absurdist glee.

In THE LIVING ROOM OF THE NATION, Finnish director Jukka Karkkainen unfolds brooding portraits of lives unfolding in a collection of living rooms, that are balanced between near-slapstick hilarity with the uneasiness of loneliness and desperation. The people who pass in front of the lens, an expectant young father, a retired priest, an alcoholic lover, a subway musician…..all have a mix of irony and pathos about them that stirs the soul and ignites the imagination.

Director Dylan Williams brings a similar mix to the Swedish/UK/Italy co-production MEN WHO SWIM, which won the coveted Audience Award here. A group of middle-aged men in Sweden, disillusioned and slightly lost, find an unexpected sense of purpose and the true meaning of cameraderie when they take up the sport of synchronized swimming. As they prepare to compete at the All Male World Championship in Milan, self-doubts, questions about masculinity and a nagging existential angst plagues them all. But ultimately this is a tale of the redemptive power of community and finding one’s own voice.

Regret and self-doubt also permeate the Swedish film REGRETTERS by Marcus Lindeen. The camera eye is pointed at Mikael and Orlando, two aging Swedes who have something unusual in common…..they are both biological males who have undergone sex reassignment surgery but now wish to “change back”. Using a deceptively simple theatrical style of having the two sit side-by-side against a black backdrop, their lives become a kind of existential theater, as they engage in poetic give-and-take, mixed in with archive footage, photographs and other ephemera. What emerges is a complex philosophical interrogation of gender and selfhood.

Something that unites the Scandinavian culture is the love of the sauna, a ritual that stresses camaraderie and a kind of spiritual purging. In STEAM OF LIFE by Finnish directors Joonas Berghall and Mika Hotakainen, it is revealed that Finnish men’s deepest secrets about life, love and family rise along with their sweat in the “safe zone” of the sauna. Offering a kind of sanctuary that even the church cannot rival, these naked men engage with one another in a very intimate way that reveals a human need for connection and a personal imperative for clarity and transcendent freedom.

21 June, 2010

2010 Troia Film Festival Award Winners

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

The 26th edition of FESTROIA, the oldest and most prestigious film event in Portugal, concluded last weekend with the announcement of the Golden Dolphin Awards. This has been a rough period for cultural organizations in Portugal, with an already uncertain economy facing new challenges from what could be a long period of austerity. However, despite this, Festival Director Fernanda Silva continues the traditions begun by Festival founder Mario Ventura to create an event that reaches high marks in terms of artistic quality and convivial atmosphere. No wonder people who have been to the Festival once with their films continue to ask about coming back....such is the sunlight, warmth and good spirits of the events in Setubal, about 20 miles south of Lisbon.

The big winner in the Festival's main competition section was A SOMEWHAT GENTLE MAN by Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland. The film won a Best Film Golden Dolphin, as well as nods as Best Director, Best Script and Best Actor (Stellan Skarsgaard). The intense drama focuses on a man who must decide after serving a prison sentence for killing a man for sleeping with his wife, whether he should try and reconcile with his family, or take revenge on those who turned him in. The film had its international premiere at the Berlin Film Festival.

This year's Festival continued its traditional competition sections for International Cinema, First Works and Man And His Environment, a critically important section that ranges from documentaries about ecology to strong dramas about globalization and international displacement. This year's focus country was Slovakia, and the Festival had a strong showing of emerging Slovakian talents.

For the traditional American Independents Competition, this year the Festival shifted focus. Rather than inviting a wide range of films from different sources, the Festival made the decision to honor a single company and highlight its output. American production and distribution company Elephant Eye Films, which had a major hit this past year with the intense urban drama PRECIOUS, was saluted, with a strong program of seven documentaries and fiction features, highlighting the company's eclectic interests and tastes.

Another important section added this year was Films of Resistance, which presented a mix of features and documenaries with the company theme of resistance to governmental and religious hierarchies. It was a diverse program of film styles from over 10 countries that highlighted a common bond of sacrifice and heroism under threat. The Festival also provided a showcase for recent Portugese cinema, bringing much needed attention to rising lights on the Portugese film scene.


A SOMEWHAT GENTLE MAN, by Hans Petter Moland, Norway

HEARTBEATS, by Saara Cantell, Finland

Hans Petter Moland, for A SOMEWHAT GENTLE MAN, Norway

Sylvia Hoeks, for THE STORM, The Netherlands/Belgium

Stellen Skarsgard, for A SOMEWHAT GENTLE MAN, Norway

Kim Fupz Aakeson, for A SOMEWHAT GENTLE MAN, Norway

Jakob Ihre, for A FAMILY, by Pernille Fischer Christensen, Denmark


SUBMARINO, by Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark/Sweden


LETTERS TO FATHER JACOB, by Klaus Haro, Finland

ELEPHANT EYE FILMS (Producer/Distributor, USA)

SEBBE, by Babak Najafi, Sweden/Finland

ALL THAT I LOVE, by Jacek Borcuch, Poland

A FAMILY, by Pernille Fischer Christensen, Denmark

ALL THAT I LOVE, by Jacek Borcuch, Poland

João Azevedo, Luis Lobo and Joana Cunha, (Screenwriters, ACT OF LIFE, Portugal)

Zvonimir Juric (Screenwriter, YELLOW MOON, Croatia)

14 June, 2010

European Sweep At Zlin Film Festival Awards

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

Films from Germany, Sweden and Romania dominated the award winners for the 50th edition of the Zlin Film Festival. Awards were announced at the Festival’s Awards Gala on Saturday, June 6th, which was televised live on Czech Television. Live presenters at the show included the now-grown talents of child stars whose films were honored in the Festival’s previous fifty years.

THE CROCODILES by German director and co-writer Christian Ditter was the winner of the Golden Slipper Award in the International Competition for Feature Films for Children category. The film centers on the attempts of a ten-year-old boy to break into his school’s most popular gang and the lessons he learns along the way. Ditter graduated from the Munich Television And Film Academy and has produced short films, music videos, television series and now feature films.

SEBBE, a Swedish-Finnish co-production written and directed by Babak Najah, won the Golden Slipper Award in the International Competition for Feature Films for Youth category. The intensely dramatic film follows the emotional travails of a teenage boy named Sebastian, Sebbe for short, as he grows up much too fast while being bullied at school and dealing with his emotionally unstable mother. Sebastian Hiort af Arnas gives a profound performance as the youngster who keeps his emotions locked inside while he copes with pressures at school and at home. Contrasting scenes of quiet intensity with emotionally complex and strident sequences, the film brings the audience to the conflicted center of a young man who must confront challenges that he is not yet equipped to handle.

An equally intense drama, which also mixes up silent brooding sequences with emotionally volatile ones, is the Romanian prison drama IF I WANT TO WHISTLE, I WHISTLE, directed and co-written by Florin Serban. The film, which is set in a prison for youthful offenders, won the Europe Prize in the International Competition of Feature-Length European Debuts section. The story centers on Silviu, a hulking youth who has less than two weeks left in his four year sentence. When his young brother comes to visit and tells him that their mother has returned after a long absence to take her younger son away, Silviu erupts violently. The emotional tension between Silviu and his wayward mother and the unexpectedly tender relationship with his female hostage create an emotional rollercoaster that twists and turns from emotional neediness to violent desperation. The cast, mainly non-professionals that the director hired on the basis of dramatic workshops held in similar prisons, brings a true authenticity to the proceedings, with lead actor George Pistereanu making a special impression in his role as the prisoner who uses violence to achieve a kind of intimacy.

Here is the complete list of award winners:

Golden Slipper - for Best Feature Film for Children:
MAGICZNE DRZEWO / MAGIC TREE (Andrzej Maleszka, Poland)

Golden Slipper - for Best Feature Film for Youth:
SEBBE (Babak Najafi, Sweden)

The City of Zlín Award - Special Recognition for Feature Film for Children:

The Miloš Macourek Award - Special Recognition for Feature Film for Youth:
DEAR LEMON LIMA (Suzi Yoonessi, USA)

Golden Slipper - for Best Animated Film:
LOST AND FOUND (Philip Hunt, UK)

The Hermína Týrlová Award - Award for Young Artists up to the Age of 35:
EL EMPLEO / THE EMPLOYMENT (Santiago Bou Grasso, Argentina)

The Europe Award:
IF I WANT TO WHISTLE, I WHISTLE (Florin Serban, Romania)

Special Jury Award:

The Czech Minister of Culture Award:
GALERIANKY / MALL GIRLS (Katarzyna Roslaniec, Poland)

The Don Quixote Award:
KARLA OG JONAS / KARLA AND JONAS (Charlotte Sachs Bostrup, Denmark)

Special FICC Jury Award:

DE INDIAAN / THE INDIAN (Ineke Houtman, Netherlands)

The Ecumenical Jury Award for Children:
DE INDIAAN / THE INDIAN (Ineke Houtman, Netherlands)

The Ecumenical Jury Award for Youth:
SEBBE (Babak Najafi, Sweden)

Main Prize of the Children's Jury - for Best Feature Film for Children:
ECHOES OF THE RAINBOW (Alex Law, Hong Kong, China)

Main Prize of the Children's Jury - for Best Feature Film for Youth:

The Golden Apple Audience Award:
STORM (Giacomo Campeotto, Denmark)

The Golden Apple - for Most Successful Animated Film:

Lifetime Achievement Award:
Zdenek Sverák

For complete information, visit the Festival’s website:

05 June, 2010

The Glories of Czech Cinema

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

For its 50th anniversary celebrations, the Zlin Film Festival, which climaxes with its Awards Ceremony this evening, has been a treasure trove of cinematic gems from the past 50 years. Aside from the better known films from the Czech canon (incuding such award winners as THE SHOP ON MAIN STREET, CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS, FANTASTIC PLANET, THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, KOLYA and the classic films of the celebrated animator Karel Zeman), the Festival has unearthed a king's ransom of film treasures from the 1950s to the 1990s, many of which were unknown to me. Unfortunately, many of the films were only shown in their native language without English sub-titles, but reading the Festival Catalogue descriptions has made me curious to see if I can find these films when I return to New York next week.

As wonderful as it is to pay hommage to the filmmakers of the past, a film festival must have a contemporary urgency to it, and this is more than demonstrated in the 20 Czech films and co-productions that have been unveiled this week. These films make it clear that the glories of Czech cinemas are not only in the past.

With its commitment to films for children and youth, it is not surprising that many of the new Czech titles are produced squarely for this market, thus reinforcing Czech cinema's celebrated history in the genre. Films that continue the Czech tradition of quality animation include IN THE ATTIC: WHO HAS A BIRTHDAY TODAY, HURVINEK ON THE SCENE, CHARLIE THE GOLDEN FISH, THE RATS, PAT AND MAT IN THE COUNTRY, GHOSTS AT THE KULIKOV and PURPLE RABBIT: A HOLE THAT LEADS TO AUSTRALIA.

More adult fare is displayed in the films THE SIN OF PROFESSOR SODOMKA, MEN IN A RUT, THE LONELY HEARTS CLUB, PROTECTOR, the Irish/Czech co-production FOXES and the Holocaust drama BROKEN PROMISE.

Fantasy films and those based on fairy tales have also been a Czech cinema staple. Adding to the rich history of this genre are such new productions as AT THE SIGN OF THE GOLDEN DAWN, LOVE THE CORNERED, LONG LIVE THE KNIGHTS and THE RAIN FAIRY. New Czech documentaries have been a revelation and include such fascinating titles as KEEP THE RHYTHM!!, BANANA KIDS, ON THE TRAIL OF CHILDREN, DON'T PULL ME OUT, and LIFE AND FILM: THE LABYRITHINE BIOGRAPHIES OF VOJTECH JASNY.

Full descriptions of all of the above films are included on the Festival's website: These new films are ripe for discovery and will certainly show up on the international film festival circuit in the coming months.

04 June, 2010

Zlin Filmmaker In Focus: Maryan I. Parwani

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

Manyar I. Parwani American Editor
, age 34, is an Afghan film director and screenwriter who is currently making films in Denmark. He was born in Afghanistan and has lived in Denmark for 23 years, but feels neither Afghan nor Danish. He just wants to be a creative filmmaker who tells stories that touch people across cultures. He has wanted to be a filmmaker ever since he worked as an usher in a Copenhagen cinema and dreamed about seeing his own name on a poster over the ticket counter. He didn’t take the well-travelled path through the National Film School of Denmark. Instead, he simply made a lot of movies and never stopped to ask himself, if he could.

He started out making short films, which he made as part The Danish Video Workshop, specifically THE POET (1998). He then turned to documentary film, making the film AVIATION (2003), which was shown at film festivals worldwide. After making several well respected short films, IN MY WORLD (2006) and IBRAHIM (2007), he ventured on his biggest project yet, a feature film, produced by Lars Von Trier's celebrated company Zentropa. His feature debut WHEN HEAVEN FALLS is being screened at the Zlin Film Festival in the European Debuts Competition section.

Parwani has made a sensitive and knowing film about the difficulties of returning home. In WHEN HEAVEN FALLS, a 28 year old woman decides to visit her original home in order to pay her last respects to her recently deceased mother. Even though she is determined to go immediately back to Copenhagen, she can't resist seeing her family - her brother Danni and father Kjeldat - at least for a while. Her fleeting memories of a difficult childhood and being abandoned come up strongly for her. Her feelings of self-image have been relentlessly intertwined with her bitterness over ancient wrongs. When she discovers that she actually has two much younger sisters, her next steps are harshly affected by her memories.

In the handling of this explosive subject, Manyar I. Parwani had no intention of sneaking out a polite debut feature. He wanted to make a splash and shake up the audience with a movie about an important issue. Inspired by true events, the film's dramatic showdowns seem inspired by his own past.

The screenplay for WHEN HEAVEN FALLS began as a multi-plot story titled DK-LAND in the vein of films like 21 GRAMS and SYRIANA. But as the script was being refined, another story kept elbowing in. It was a story inspired by an ongoing Danish criminal case, the so-called Tønder case, involving the sexual abuse of two sisters in a small provincial town.

Parwani wrote the script over two years based on extensive research into the criminal case and on studies of neo-Nazi milieus, which also play a prominent part in the film – both of which he knew nothing about at the time. A major challenge was getting close to people he had no immediate understanding of, plus finding the right way to tell a very tough story.

In a recent interview published by the Danish Film Institute, Parwani described his approach to filmmakiing and in wanting to be a distinctive film atist. "I wanted to debut my first feature film with a splash", he said. "I wanted this film to advance Danish cinema. It was important for me to ask myself the question: What can I do for Danish cinema? How can I add something new? If you’re too afraid of doing something stupid, your film gets boring. You shouldn’t just play it safe. Instead, be challenging! I didn’t want to sneak out a polite debut film and be, like, ‘Thanks for having me.’ I wanted to make a film that makes a difference to those who see it.”

Elephant Eye Films Feted At FESTROIA

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

The New York-based production and distribution company Elephant Eye Films will be feted with a special at FESTROIA---The International Film Festival of Setubal, the oldest and largest film event in Portugal. From June 4 to 13, seven recent films from the company’s slate will be showcased. In addition, David Robinson, one of the company’s principals, will receive a special award from the Festival honoring the contributions of Elephant Eye Films in their support of American independent filmmaking.

This has been a banner year for the five-year-old company. They helped nurture a special project about a young black girl with an abusive mother who finds her own inner voice. That film, of course, is the Oscar-winning PRECIOUS, which won top awards and Oscars for its screenwriter and for supporting actress Mo'Nique, and was nominated for Best Film and Best Director Oscars (the passionate Lee Daniels). PRECIOUS is a milestone film for everyone involved with it. And to top it off, the company also represented a second Oscar nominee, the sardonic Chilean film THE MAID directed by Sebastian Silva, which also won two major prizes at the Sundance Film Festival.

Kicking off the program on Friday evening, June 4, the Festival's Opening Night, is PASSING STRANGE: THE MOVIE, the first musical documentary directed by award-winning director Spike Lee. He has adapted the Broadway musical PASSING STRANGE, a chronicle of the musician's itinerant lifestyle, written and performed by the singer/songwriter Stew. The film captures the energy and essence of the live stage musical, while offering an interesting cinematic twist from one of the true innovators working in film today.

The program includes two other excellent non-fiction works. PLANET B-BOY is a kaleidoscopic look at the five incredible breakdancing crews from America, France, South Korea and Japan as they make their way to the breakdancing world championships in Germany. Director Benson Lee brings a kinetic style and a lot of warmth to the stories of these urban youth who have found a creative way to express their inner energies. In AUDIENCE OF ONE, director Michael Jacobs tells the provocative story of a Pentecostal minister who receives a message from God to produce a Biblical epic. The clash between the ideals of the religion and the vulgar realities of the movie business are expertly captured in this entertaining and enlightenting film.

The program also includes a healthy dose of drama. That is certainly the world to describe PRECIOUS, an adaptation of the novel PUSH by Sapphire....the chronicle of an overweight Harlem girl who is abused by her alcoholic mother. With the help of a supportive teacher, the teenage girl finds her own innate courage to stand up to her abusive parent and to find her own path. The director Lee Daniels has been widely praised for the intensity of the performances he wrung out from first-timer Gabourey Sidibe (nominated for a Best Actress Oscar) and comedienne Mo'Nique, who deservedly won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her blistering portrayal of the abusive mother, who is fueled by her own inner pain.

In DON'T LET ME DROWN, another award-winning urban drama, two teenagers in post-911 New York City find tenderness and hope in one another amidst the devastation of their families and their city. Using non-professional actors who speak the true language of the streets, director Cruz Angeles brings an extreme intensity to this harsh story, while also imbuing it with a hopefulness born out of desperation.

In the family drama TENNESSEE, produced by PRECIOUS director Lee Daniels, two teenagers decide to go on a road trip from their native New Mexico in search of their father, fueled by the urgency of one of them discovering he has cancer. Along the way, they join forces with an aspiring singer, played by the musical diva Mariah Carey. Director Aaron Woodley gives his ensemble cast an opportunity to shine in exquisite vignette sequences that bring out the tension and the humor in this voyage of discovery.

For his work on the satirical comedy GREAT WORLD OF SOUND, debut director Craig Hobel won the Gotham Award for Breakthrough Director, marking his emergence as a talent to watch. In the film, a blistering satire on the recording industry, a young man answers an advertisement that promises to train him as a record producer. What he discovers is a shady con game where all the rules are invented on the spot and integrity has flown out the window. However, his won ingenuity and sense of integrity is able to redeem him from the sleazy cesspool of lies, ambition and greed that make up this particular world.

Not content to rest on its laurels, ELEPHANT EYE FILMS has a number of exciting projects in the pipeline. After the success of THE MAID, the company is representing the director Sebastian Silva with several projects, including OLD CATS, a Spanish-language drama, and SECOND CHILD, a film being executive producer by PRECIOUS director Lee Daniels. There are several features on their 2010 development slate including FRAT GIRL (director Nate Meyer), COUNTRY SONG (Tim Kirkman), THE WORLD TO COME (Dara Horn), LEAVING THE CAPE (Matthew Brown) and I THOUGHT ABOUT YOU (Noah Buschel).

In an uncertain sea, ELEPHANT EYE FILMS is keeping a clear-eyed commitment to the kind of independent films that tell compelling stories and give their audiences an understanding of deep emotion and conflict, and of that most elusive and necessary need of all, a sense of hope. Company representatives David Robinson and Kim Jose will be attending the Festival. For more information on the film and to view trailers, visit their website:

03 June, 2010

European Films In Competition at FESTROIA

SUBMARINO (Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark)

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

It is good to know that European film festivals are so supportive of their fellow European filmmakers. Another example that is showcasing the best of new European cinema is FESTROIA, the leading film festival in Portugal.

Twelve of the best European films produced during the last year are competing for the main award of the 26th edition of FESTROIA. The prestigious Gold Dolphin will be determined by an international jury and announced on the final night of the Festival on June 12.

The film directors of the above films are a mix of newcomers to Portugal, as well as directors long admired here. Amongst the returnees are the Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, who comes back with SUBMARINO, and Finnish director Saara Cantell with her film HEART BEATS.

Three more films from Northern Europe are represented in the Main Competition section, iincluding A FAMILY by Danish director Pernille Fischer Christensen; A SOMEWHAT GENTLE MAN by Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland; and THE APE by Swedish director Jesper Ganslandt.

Eastern Europe is strongly represented, including the films SOUL AT PEACE by Slovakian director Vladimír Balko; ALL THAT I LOVE by Polish director Jacek Borcuch; and three co-productions: ST. GEORGE SHOOTS THE DRAGON (Srdjan Dragojevic, Serbia, Bosnia and Bulgaria), IN THE LAND OF WONDERS (Dejan Sorak, (Croatia, Hungary), and METASTASES (Branko Schmidt, Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia),

The last two films competing in the Official Section are also a result of co-productions: the Belgian-Dutch production THE STORM by Ben Sombogaart, and JAFFA, Keren Yedaya’s most recent work, made with money from Israel, France and Germany. Included on the Official Section, but screening out-of-competition, are the Greek film CANTEEN by Stavros Kaplanidis and CASE UNKNOWN by Polish director Feliks Falk.

For more information on this year's FESTROIA, visit:

01 June, 2010

Honoring Czech Legend Zdenek Sverák

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

Few European film stars have a topical resonance outside of their native countries. However, for many, the Czech actor/screenwriter Zdenek Sverák is the face of contemporary Czech cinema. For this year's 50th anniversary Jubilee edition of the Zlin Film Festival (, held in the UNESCO Heritage City of Zlin in northeastern Czech Republic, several programs heralding Czech cinema of the past and the present are among this year's highlights. This includes a special sidebar for actor/writer/composer Zdenek Sverák, one of Czech cinema's best known faces and talents.

Zdenek Sverák is a true renaissance man, having scaled the heights of the film, theater and television worlds as both an actor, composer and award-winning screenwriter. However, he was not groomed for a career in the arts. "My father planned for me to study electrical wiring", he was quoted as saying in the Festival Catalogue. "At the last moment I managed to change my university application towards the field of Czech language and literature."

But what can one do with a degree in literature? At first he became a professor known for his pedagogic excellence. That eventually led to a stint as a broadcast editor and author . At the same time, he discovered theater and his natural acting ability. However, it became clear to the young man that audiences were more enraptured with film than they were with live theater, so he decided to conquer yet another medium. In 1968, the same year as the famous "Prague Spring", he made his film debut in CRIME IN A MUSIC HALL, where he played a highly unlikeable character.

He continued acting in Czech films, while also becoming a highly respected screenwriter, working in genres from comedy to tragedy, with a working class edge. He eventually was employed by the famed Barrandov Film Studios in their screenwriting department and penned many of the important screenplays of the 1970s and 1980s, while continuing his acting career.

His best known work came a decade later as he collaborated with his son Jan Sverák on the films that have made his international reputation. In THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL (1991), a semi-autobiographical film, he mines the poetic and melancholic moments of his own childhood, while playing the role of his own father. Five years later, he played another father in the Oscar winning film KOLYA, which he also co-wrote with his director son. KOLYA was a major international hit, while also winning double Czech Lions for his performance and the film's screenplay. He recently was again nominated for his dual role as an actor and screenwriter for the celebrated film EMPTIES in 2007. At the age of 74, he continues his acting career, last appearing in the family film KOOKY, again directed by his son Jan Sverák.

The celebrated actor/screenwriter will be in Zlin later this week to be feted by the Festival and be heralded for a career unique in the cinema of any an award-winning actor, writer, composer and film legend.