Each spring, New York gets film festival fever. Late March and early April bring the New York Underground Film and Video Festival and the New Directors/New Films series. And by May, the Avignon/New York Film Festival, the Gen Art Film Festival, and our own Williamsburg Brooklyn Film Festival (WBFF) all will have showcased new films from around the world. What is it that sets the local Williamsburg Film Festival apart from other sorts of film festivals? Perhaps it is a sort of idealism and conscience about the way films are made and viewed.
Now in its fourth year, the WBFF was created by and for independent filmmakers with the intent of attracting worldwide attention to the creative and cultural diversity of Brooklyn. The festival focuses less on industry discussion panels or elaborate premiere parties than on packing in as many different films as possible over the course of its five-day run. The program’s size and its international scope have grown exponentially since the festival’s inception in 1998. This year, over a thousand films were submitted from around the word, and of the 80 chosen for the program, 25 countries are represented. This is an impressive amount by any standards. While the festival has tried to promote the work of Brooklyn filmmakers in this international forum, it has aimed to feed to local community with the best of international filmmaking as well.
There has been a good deal of discussion recently about the revolution in digital filmmaking. As a result, the 2001 WBFF has been titled the “Brainstorm Edition,” and many of the films try to question the uses of new technologies and offer new strategies of storytelling. As Marco Ursino, the festival’s director, says, “The festival is founded on the simple basis of good taste, international curiosity, and respect for the natural progression of the independent film industry.” Obviously, in order to respect the development of the cinema towards new digital technologies, one first must try to understand this change. While respecting the highest standards of film as an art form, the festival’s organizers believe that embracing new technologies in filmmaking is crucial for the survival of the independent film industry. But there is also a fear that new technologies might only serve to detract from the integrity of film as a storytelling medium. The festival thus seeks work that has new ideas about how technology can both represent and shape the lifestyles of the future.
The aim of all this brainstorming is ultimately to reward innovative filmmakers with the opportunity to make more films. Within each of the four categories—feature narrative films, documentaries, short subjects, and experimental films—a panel of journalists, film festival directors, and film-related professionals will award a chameleon statuette. Of those four winning films, the festival board will then choose the best film of the year, the makers of which will receive the Grand Chameleon award of $30,000 in film services.
The program of experimental films offers an exuberant array of styles and forms. Judith Doyle is a Canadian filmmaker and media professor whose cutting-edge work has found a natural home at the festival. Having won a Chameleon award at the 1999 WBFF for her documentary the last split second, she will return this year to show two more of her films. One is the experimental film Fox: Future, which presents a rigorous monologue about the role of animals in media-saturated urban spaces Weaving together stock footage and DV, she creates a film somewhere between a confession and documentary poem.
Among the narrative feature films that will have their New York premieres at the festival are two noteworthy directorial debuts. The actress Asia Argento, daughter of the Italian horror film director Dario Argento, and a celebrity in her own right through much of Europe, wrote and directed Scarlet Diva. The film tells the story of a young woman’s quest for purity and true love as she ventures through a morally corrupt world, revisiting painful childhood memories. Table One boasts an ensemble cast that includes Stephen Baldwin, Luis Guzmán, and Burt Young, and is the first film directed by veteran producer Michael Bregman (Sea of Love, Carlito’s Way).
Celebrating Brooklyn in the festival are two shorts that depict different versions of Coney Island—its mythic past and colorful present. Mermaids of Brooklyn is a short but raucous ride recently through Coney Island’s annual Mermaid Parade, directed by Brooklyn native Maddy Lederman. Meanwhile, The Greatest Show on Earth combines 16mm black-and-white images with archival footage of mid-‘50s Coney Island in order to tell the story of a dwarf who tries to abandon his life at the sideshow. Directed by Anne Paas, the short film paints a lyrical portrait of a mysterious carnival culture of the past.
Sitting in the landmark 1920s Commodore Theater where the festival is held, it is difficult not to marvel at the rich history of Brooklyn. And, in watching new and original films culled from diverse cultures around the world, viewers will be able to contemplate Brooklyn’s bright future unspool before their eyes.
The WBFF will run from May 1 through May 6 at The Commodore Theater at 329 Broadway. For a schedule and trailers, go to www.wbff.org/2001—or call 1-888-573-6250. For information on the current Brooklyn Film Festival, please visit the updated www.brooklynfilmfestival.org—or call 1-718-388-4306.