06 December, 2010
by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor
For the third year, POFF: the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, the largest and most influential festival event in the Baltics region, is opening its arms to embrace American and Canadian independent films. Eleven recent gems from such prestigious film festivals such as Sundance, South By Southwest, Montreal and Toronto were showcased in the North American Independents Competition.
While the group of films is certainly eclectic and showcase a wide variety of talents and filmic styles, the tone is a bit more anxious than in recent years. While comedies are still Hollywood’s most profitable commodity, the anxiety surrounding The Great Recession has given birth to a more serious tone in most independent films coming from North America. The tension is not just economic…..the uncertainty of jobs and personal security has unleashed a perfect storm of emotions that has distanced people from their governments, from their valued institutions and from one another. As in any sort of crisis, both the best and the worst of human behavior comes to the surface.
Perhaps because the American Dream long prized (in North America and elsewhere) has become more elusive or because scandals on Wall Street, in the church and at the highest levels of government have created a cynicism and helplessness that strangles our hopes for the future, the films in this year’s North American Independents Competition have a more serious tone, even when they are working to make us laugh.The downsizing of American life and the uncertainty of family loyalty or personal fulfillment provides the uneasy sub-text in such films as 3 BACKYARDS (Eric Mendelsohn), HELENA FROM THE WEDDING (Joseph Infantalino), THAT EVENING SUN (Scott Teems), THE LAST ESCAPE (Lea Pool) and TWELVE THIRTY (Jeff Lipsky).
As the rules of what is acceptable and unacceptable keep shifting, an underlying tension touches at the core of self-identity in the films GROWN UP MOVIE STAR (Adriana Maggs), THE FREEBIE (Katie Aselton), THE IMPERIALISTS ARE STILL ALIVE! (Zeina Durra) and WHITE IRISH DRINKERS (John Gray). Our growing awareness that problems in one part of the world can easily infect our own is emotionally explored in the Middle East family drama INCENDIES (the Canadian contender for the Oscar by director Denis Villeneuve). Even a comedy about a young woman’s inappropriate sexual education, THE YEAR OF THE CARNIVORE (Sook-Yin Lee), contains the seeds of feelings of low self esteem and the power of the media to shape our most intimate desires.
Several guests from the United States were among the 300 plus professionals who were in attendance in Tallinn. Joseph Infantolino is the director and writer of HELENA FROM THE WEDDING, which explores the fragile psyches of thirty-something professionals who are trying to survive during the Great Recession. Infantolino employed a terrific ensemble cast of New York theater talents to bring to the fore the male libidos and female insecurities that assemble in an upstate New York cabin for New Year's Eve. The film represent Infantolino's feature debut, following a decade-long stint as a film producer on such celebrated indies as OUR SONG (2001), FACE (2002), A HOLE IN ONE (2004) and RUN, FATBOY RUN (2008), the directorial debut of actor-turned-helmer David Schimmer. HELENA FROM THE WEDDING is currently in its theatrical run in the United States via indie film distributor Film Movement .
Also attending this year was Jeff Lipsky, who presented the International Premiere of his fourth film project, the family drama TWELVE THIRTY. Clearly influenced by European observational cinema, this terrific ensemble film takes on the nuances of family life and the unique conplexities of the relationship between mothers and daughters. Veteran character actress Karen Young, who was also in attendance, stars as the strong-willed mother whose relationship with her daughters (Portia Reins and Mamie Gummer) explodes when a handsome confident young man (played by Broadway sensation and GLEE regular Jonathan Groff) walks into their comfortable but dysfunctional world. Lipsky, who cut his teeth in the business as a film distributor, overseeing the American releases of such European titans as Malle, Fassbinder, Godard and Leigh, is etching out a parallell career as an insightful film director with a strong sense of atmosphere, a passion for actors and the glories of the spoken world.
Karen Young brought her considerable charm to the proceedings this year in the Estonian capital city. She is a veteran actress of almost 30 films, ranging from big-budget extravaganzas (JAWS: THE REVENGE) to edgy thrillers (NINE AND A HALF WEEKS, HEAT, CRIMINAL LAW) to intense dramas (BIRDY, HEADING SOUTH, FACTOTUM) and edgy comedies (TORCH SONG TRILOGY, ALMOST YOU). She has been a consistent contributor to indie American cinema, with such career highlights as THE BOY WHO CRIED BITCH, THE WIFE, PANTS ON FIRE, JOE THE KING and HANDSOME HARRY. She can currently be seen on screen in TWO GATES OF SLEEP, one of the only American indie films shown at last year's Cannes Film Festival, and CONVICTION, the Hilary Swank-starrer directed by Tony Goldwyn. Her role in TWELVE THIRTY is generating buzz for awards consideration in 2011 when it receives its theatrical release following its world premiere this past September at the Montreal World Film Festival.
Other American titles shown out of competition in the parallel sections of POFF included 127 HOURS (the Oscar contender directed by Danny Boyle), BLACK SWAN (the similarly Oscar-bound ballet film by Darren Aronofsky), CYRUS (Mark Duplass), KABOOM (Greg Araki), THE KILLER INSIDE ME (Michael Winterbottom), A LETTER TO ELIA (Martin Scorsese's tribute to director Elia Kazan), SOMEWHERE (the international hit from director Sofia Coppola), TRASH HUMPERS (the latest provocation from Harmony Korine) and WINTER'S BONE (the "indie it" film of the year by debut director Debra Granik). Canadian titles included HEARTBEATS (by enfant terrible Quebec director Xavier Dolan), the award-winning documentary LAST TRAIN HOME, FIG TREES by acclaimed queer filmmaker John Greyson and the Belgian/Canadian co-production MR. NOBODY by Jaco Van Dormael.
The anxieties expressed in almost all of the above films are reflections of this moment in time in American and world history. While the current economic crisis will surely come to an end and the social tension that has marked the first decade of the 21st century may turn out to be a brief period of adjustment, there is no question that a new world order is asserting itself. Technology is leading us ever faster into vast terrains that are unknowable and for which we may not yet be prepared for. History will record this as a pivotal moment when one century gave birth to its successor and the hard-and-fast rules began to change at an alarming rate. When people in years to come want to understand this particular moment in time….its promise, its disillusionment and its conflicts, they need look no further than the films presented here.