There were no celebrity DJs spinning at after-parties for the Brooklyn International Film Festival. Christina Ricci and Steve Buscemi were nowhere to be found. In fact, the one boldfaced talent scheduled to appear (for the East Coast premiere of his latest, Hotel), director Mike Figgis, bailed at the last minute, leaving event planners with unused plane tickets and potentially bruised egos. Now in its fifth and most crucial year, the former Williamsburg Film Festival has arrived at pubescence—sprouting a new, global name and trying on a higher-profile venue, the Brooklyn Museum of Art (leaving the Commodore Theater behind). Organizers acquired more corporate sponsors than ever before; the program culled its 80-film lineup from 1,000 submissions, from 63 countries.
Despite this growth spurt, the festival remains an underdog, thanks largely to the daunting arrival of the Tribeca Film Festival. With major industry (Tribeca Entertainment) and stars (DeNiro, Scorcese) launching that inaugural event, a David and Goliath scuffle was inevitable. When Tribeca announced its schedule, overlapping with Brooklyn’s already-established dates, the outer borough’s group cried uncle, pushing up its calendar by a week. DeNiro’s posse certainly inflected flesh wounds, as suggested by the sometimes-spotty attendance at screenings and Brooklyn-based fetes (Yabby’s, Planet Thailand, Superfire, Lunatarium).
Of course, this gawky, misunderstood-teen schtick helps the Brooklyn festival maintain the same edge that kickstarted it in 1998. When Williamsburg filmmaker Marco Ursino couldn’t find a festival to show his film, he turned rejection into opportunity. Scraping up $15,000, he organized a grassroots showcase for local directors. Today, even in the bullyish shadow of Tribeca, the event has matured handsomely, awarding $54,000 in cash, film services, and equipment to its winners, who come from all over the world to submit features, documentaries, shorts, experimental, and animated films. Now the black-clad, goateed director of a rapidly expanding enterprise, Ursino has “no problem whatsoever” with building a bigger, economically successful festival that plays with the big kids. “The only thing I’m unwilling to compromise on any level ever is the programming—the choosing of the films and how we want to schedule and deliver them,” he says.
Appropriately dubbed “Progress Edition,” this year’s festival (April 29 – May 5) included several world, U.S., and/or East Coast premieres, and offered overwhelming breadth, a film geek’s encyclopedia of cultures, genres, media, and philosophies. Mindful of the oft-mentioned theme of flux and “progress,” I sampled the following highlights from the expansive menu of features, partaking of free Stella Artois (event sponsor) whenever I could.
Off To the Revolution By A 2CV (Italy)
Cynics might call it Y Tu Mama 2, but familiar plot points aside (two guys and a girl on a photogenic, non-violent road trip), Off To the Revolution By A 2CV revved up opening night in a breezy, sunny style all its own. Not just a petrol-fueled romp through the French, Spanish, and Portuguese countryside, Italian filmmaker Maurizio Sciarra’s film neatly personifies the fest’s global, progressive aims. In April of 1974, a pan-European trio reunites and hits the road in France, bound for Lisbon to celebrate the fall of Portugal’s long-reigning dictator, Antonio Salazar. The boisterous college friends are stagnating in early adulthood. Marco, the Italian womanizer, and Victor, the sentimental Portuguese, are both aimless exiles in Paris; Victor still pines for his ex, Claire, the luminous Frenchwoman now reluctantly settled down with husband and child in a French suburb.
Suddenly inspired by the fall of Salazar to see Victor’s liberated homeland, the threesome crams into Marco’s yellow Citroën. As in any self-respecting road movie, hijinks ensure: car trouble, quirky roadside encounters, pot-smoking, skinny-dips, border-patrol standoffs. Yet Off To the Revolution has more on its mind than the suggestive landscape, the classic rock score and the inevitable “will-they-three-way-or-won’t-they?” question. While Victor et al cling to romantic notions about self-discovery and political revolution, Sciarra tempers their spirited pilgrimage with skepticism and ambivalence—gingerly toppling expectations without spoiling their vacation.
The Princess Blade (Japan)
Martial arts epic of Zen tragedy? The Princess Blade sports the sharp, graphic edges of its comic book origins, its elemental design evoking a flattened emotional landscape and a bleak future—Japan, ca. 2500 A.D. By birth, protagonist Yuki is part of the Takemikazuchi, an ancient, exiled band of assassins, which has outlived the monarchy it served. Lacking a larger purpose, the cultish tribe kills (for money) on auto-pilot, delivering death with gravity-defying, ballet-like flourishes of swordsmanship and martial arts.
An elegant, ruthless killer orphaned at an early age, Yuki discovers the true circumstances of her mother’s death on the eve of her 20th birthday. This devastating revelation demands revenge against the Takemikazuchi itself, uncoiling Yuki’s tightly wound existence; beneath the mechanized exterior, she’s delicate, questioning, and full of longing. Abandoning the tribe, she finds refuge with Takashi, a gas-station attendant living a similarly hollowed-out life, a countercultural terrorist who’s forgotten his mission. As both begin to imagine a way out of the cyclical, violent void, it may already be too late. Director Sato Shinsuke rhythmically volleys between ingeniously choreographed, gory fight sequences and stark, contemplative moments of stillness. Like a minimalist anime film sprung to life, The Princess Blade distills its stunning visuals, sketching Yuki’s destructive, enlightening saga with economy.
Black Picket Fence (USA)
Although Sergio Goes’s transfixing documentary Black Picket Fence focuses on Tiz, a rapper, ex-con, and expectant father withstanding the pressures of life from the ghetto (East New York, Brooklyn), it’s the peripheral, less hopeful characters that haunt you. His lifelong “blood brother” Mel, in and out of jail since age 13, enjoys playing “the game” of street life, selling crack to his mother without remorse. One of Mel’s clients, a strung-out addict, uses her brief screen time (during a deal) to perform a sloppy, drug-addled striptease. Then there’s Ill-Tech, a menacing, gravel-voiced figure who challenges Tiz to a rap duel at a party, brandishing his gun throughout his rhymes. Tiz likens the hood to an icebox—“nothing moves.” Mel disagrees, pointing out the ironic choices in ghetto life: “You can take yourself out in two seconds if you really wanted to.” As captured by Goes’s often lyrical camerawork, Tiz’s world, just a few stops away on the half line, is hermetically sealed, teeming with violence and poverty. But startling, encouraging glimmers nevertheless manage to seep in: Tiz records with established artist Kool G Rap; while his commitment to girlfriend I’Eisha, pregnant with their first child, seems genuine and unwavering. Astute and poetic when he raps, Tiz has a preternatural gift for rhyme and optimism. He appeared onstage with Goes and an enormous entourage following the screening, a testament to his own survival beyond celluloid. Black Picket Fence also took home BIFF’s prize for Best Original Score in addition to its Spirit Award.
With a bulging arsenal of cutting-edge digital video equipment, an international ensemble of A- through C-list talent, and a reckless improvisational streak, Mike Figgis’s Hotel initially seems a tricked-out sequel to his 2000 film, Timecode. Figgis divided Timecode’s screen into quadrants, following four interconnected plots as they play out simultaneously in real time. The discombobulating “quads” return for occasional interludes in Hotel, accompanied by other tech-enhanced atmospherics, from time-elapse photography to scenes shot in infrared. Yet Hotel, shot kamikaze-style in Venice, Italy, takes audacious narrative risks—albeit slightly familiar ones as well.
Figgis aims his newfangled gadgets behind the scenes of a chaotic film production, a Dogme-ish adaptation of John Webster’s The Dutchess of Malfi. (Frequent collaborator Saffron Burrows stars as the actress in the title role.) The Jacobean revenge tragedy, a grisly saga of narcissism, ambition, perversity, and murder in a dysfunctional royal palace, predictably resonates among the modern-day cast and crew, a bloodthirsty, scheming horde. (What could be more corrupt and cannibalistic than Hollywood?) When the enfant-terrible director (Rhys Ifans) narrowly escapes a murder attempt, the fiendish locals, lurking in the hotel basement, seem the culprits—or are they?
If the film-within-the-film isn’t self-referential enough, there’s also a glam documentary-crew (headed by Salma Hayek) and an exasperated hotel tour guide (Julian Sands) shadowing the embattled shoot. Despite the dense visuals and semantics, the all-star Hotel offers unexpected guilty pleasures, including a Salma Hayek/Lucy Liu catfight, Cathering Deneuve/Marcello Mastroianni-spawn Chiara Mastroianni as a creepy lesbian seductress, and David Schwimmer as a schmucky, Machiavellian producer. The visionary, ever-experimenting Figgis may be the elder indie statesman at this year’s fest, but he’s not above having a little fun. Hotel was also among the four winners of the festival’s “Spirit Awards.”
Operation Midnight Climax (USA)
The stunt-pulling movie star at this fest—at the local, cheeky level, at least—was Will Keenan, the co-writer, co-director (along with Gadi Harel) and central figure of Operation Midnight Climax, winner of the Audience Award for Best Feature. Decked out in Billburgish specs and a customized, expensive-looking sleeveless T (“D.A.R.E. To Keep Kids Off Drugs”), Keenan fielded post-screening questions, first while hanging from the auditorium balcony and then while standing on his head. Keenan and Harel shot Operation on location at obscure-to-tourist spots in the East Village and elsewhere (Religious Sex, the 2nd Avenue Dallas BBQ, Meeker Ave.); the home-town heroes accordingly get away with more slapstick absurdity then they probably should.
Keenan plays Will Snitch, a spastic conspiracy nut bent on blowing the lid off of a convoluted worldwide plot against women, involving men in black suits, tantric sex, and male foreskins. (Snitch keeps his affectionately in a jar, calling medical offices at random to request foreskin-reattachment surgery.) To spread the gospel, Snitch (get it?) attempts to organize an all-female powwow, dodging insidious surveillance and “pratfalling” wherever he goes. He enlists the help of the many women in his life, all of them stunning, testy, and slightly abusive. As the top-secret rally threatens to degrade into a downtown rave, Snitch’s crackpot theory may just turn out to be true. Based on the lively audience response at the screening, this whacked-out urban sex comedy bears instant cult status.
Getting My Brother Laid (Germany)
Goodbye, Forrest Gump. Go to hell, Nell. Scram, I Am Sam. The reign of the cloying, side-stepping idiot-savant picture has ended, if mainstream filmmakers take Getting My Brother Laid’s brash, unapologetic cue. Josh, the mentally disabled brother of the title, does not commune with the trees, nor does he spot Hallmark-ready adages. Instead, the comely 29-year-old fancies himself a bloodsucking vampire, meticulously tending to a collection of fangs, which he wears, brushes, and stores in jars. Like his 15-year-old sister Nic (the film’s narrator), Josh also fervently wants—needs—to lose his virginity. Base, frank sexuality is all in the family; the virgin siblings spy on their brother, Mike, as he makes clumsy love to Nadin, a sexy dogcatcher. With his 30th birthday quickly approaching, Josh sets his obsessive sights on Nadin, much to Mike’s chagrin. Meanwhile, Nic takes a scientific approach to her own defloration, tracking her intended prey (a local, foppish hoodlum) with camera, notebook, and elaborate Darwinian theories. A vision in baby fat and braces, with a pharmacy’s worth of lubes and prophylactics at the ready, Nic won’t soothe skittish audiences any more than her horny man-child brother. Yet their shared adolescent urgency—as well as Mike’s complicated involvement—is a raw and very funny family portrait. Director Sven Taddicken’s German comedy, winner of the Best Cinematography Award, has the eclectic look of a Wes Anderson film, shot in vibrant, modish color, with carefully colored screen compositions. None of Anderson’s detached preciousness remains, however—thanks to a singularly shocking conclusion.
Despite the staggeringly worldwide scope and the high quotient of attractive, geek-chic filmgoers, the week of screenings and events was intimate, relatively unpretentious, and, ultimately, local. After all, the Best of Festival prize went to a neighbor, Anne Paas. A Brooklynite, an NYU grad student, and Best New Director winner at last year’s festival, Paas wrote and directed the short Gas Up & Save .The 25-minute film combines archival and documentary footage with narrative filmmaking to weave a harrowing Midwestern fable of a U-Haul-driving mother and son obsessed with the second coming—and Liberace. An up-and-coming filmmaker and seasoned festival participant, Paas’s priorities remain refreshingly basic and grounded, despite the growing accolades. “This is the first time my parents have seen this,” she says, “I hope they liked it.” Like the Brooklyn International Film Festival itself, Paas’s parents, along with the rest of the audience, seemed right at home.
Justin Ravitz is a writer and web producer living in Manhattan.