Stars In Newport

by Rahul Gairola


Plowing the Future

The third annual Newport International Film Festival transformed the quiet seaside city of Newport, Rhode Island, into a kind of media storm from June 6 to 11. Those who — like this writer — had never before attended a film festival, were taken off guard by the spectacle. The Festival offered a variety of events, including premieres, shorts and feature films, panel discussions, screenplay readings, “First Call” forums with filmmakers and industry professionals, the “Newport Film Project,” evening galas in magnificent seaside mansions, and even motorcycle tours of the town’s historic sections.

On several nights, rain spilled from the sky as people poured into the streets to catch a flick or perhaps a glimpse of Kenneth Branagh, whose Love’s Labour’s Lost made its East Coast premiere in Newport and opened the Festival. So many flashes were going off around Branagh that I would have caught a tan if I wasn’t wearing a long-sleeved shirt. It was during the opening night event that I learned the difference between being a freelance writer and having press credentials from NBC and Cox Cable. But the amiable Branagh is as charming in person as he is on the screen, seeming both surprised and amused when I ignored his publicist and squeezed in front of a Fox Cable correspondent. I quickly asked him what he had in mind by translating Shakespeare into film, and a ‘40s-style musical at that. With a wry smile, Branagh answered, “Well, it’s basically a classical approach that tries to combine a contemporary cultural medium — film — with something traditional yet timeless — the language. My intent is a fusion between words and picture, between traditional and contemporary mediums.” And how, I asked, would he advise aspiring young filmmakers? “Practice, practice, practice anytime you can, be it in acting, filmmaking, producing. Stick with your own visions, stop trying to make stories and allow them to come together,” he said.

Following the screening of Love’s Labour’s Lost — inspired by dreamy classic films — the Festival hosted an evening gala in a mansion that seemed just such a dreamy setting for a classic film. While gawking at an ice sculpture almost as tall as I am, I bumped into chatty filmmakers with every turn of the heel. When I met the production crew of North Beach, a 21st-century San Francisco slacker film with a beatnik-ish screenplay and impressive cinematography, I spent some time with star and writer Casey Peterson. He emphasized the importance of allowing the actors to be an integral part in the shaping of North Beach. “A lot of the dialogue came out of my head,” he said, “but the actors made the film very real because they made the dialogue their own — everybody made it his or her own.”

Jed Mortenson, who co-directed North Beach with Richard Speight, Jr., said that when he met the other members of the crew at the University of Southern California and read the screenplay, he knew he had to direct the film. “In terms of making an independent film with a low budget,” added Mortenson, “the film was a jewel.” When I asked how the Festival was treating them, Mortenson and Peterson both said they were thrilled that Newport chose to world-premiere North Beach, and that Branagh’s notable presence on opening night hadn’t caused festival staff to treat indie filmmakers with any less respect. “Some film festivals are an assembly line, but the ‘customer service’ here is great — everyone is very receptive and kind,” concluded Peterson.

I asked Michael Rauch, whose film In the Weeds also world-premiered at the Festival. The film traces the interwoven, intense experiences of servers in a Manhattan restaurant as their personal struggles are hilariously showcased on the floor of the restaurant. Most viewers will recognize a familiar, beloved face: Molly Ringwald is part of the film’s ensemble cast. When I asked In the Weeds producer Peter Glatzer how Ringwald became involved in the project, he replied, “I showed it to Molly and she loved it and trusted me. That gave me confidence.”

Showcasing films like In the Weeds, that depict the hilarious and tragic aspects of day-to-day life in visually striking ways, was a particular goal for Festival organizers. “The line-up this year feels like the best yet,” said Christine Schomer, the Festival’s executive director and co-founder. “There were a lot of strong films to consider, and there’s something about the mood of the year 2000 that has had an impact on filmmaking. This precipice of time that we are on is generating rich, complex ideas, and these qualities are reflected in our line-up.”

Nowhere is this intention more evident than in Nelson Hume’s Sunburn and David Gordon Green’s George Washington, which won three awards at the Festival. Sunburn follows several Irish teens who come to work and party in Montauk, Long Island for a summer. Hume told viewers during a post-screening discussion that he cast many kids he met on Long Island as extras. The film was not strictly scripted, but rather, structured according to stories of real experiences. Hume said that for the leads, “We sort of had a road map of each character — who they are and where they are going — and that determined dialogue.” He added that the Irish teens he met in Montauk were thrilled about the production of a movie concerning their subculture. “I hung out with them — I went out there and met them and started to think this would be a great story for a film,” said Hume. With a mischievous smile, he added, “I actually just went out to bars.”

Another story that examines daily life in a small community, David Gordon Green’s George Washington, won three awards for Best Dramatic Film, Best Director, and Best Actor for its ensemble cast. Shot entirely in Cinemascope, which suggests a panorama of depression and poverty in rural North Carolina, the film uses subtle images to tell the story of a group of children feeling trapped in a dumpy town. The narrative takes a dark plunge when a crisis forces the children to band together. while their fears simultaneously tear them apart. The film, which I found to be a disturbing yet enlightening evocation of my own childhood in the South, helps viewers to remember that, regardless of age or race, one constantly struggles to make sense of depression and guilt. Green told me that the film’s low budget actually added to his vision: “I wanted to make something that brought new emotion and atmosphere to film — what I tried to do was bring actors to the characters and use the scenery and landscape to parallel the actors.”

The Festival named Amir Bar-Lev’s Fighter Best Documentary (and most of us who attended the closing night party also praised Bar-Lev’s prowess in the kitchen, where he grilled hot dogs with onions). Bar- Lev’s film documents the intertwined stories of two Czechs who fled their homeland during World War II. Another notable documentary was Arlene Donnelly’s Naked States, which poignantly captures the antics of acclaimed nude photographer Spencer Tunick. Trucking from Boston to Fargo to the Burning Man Festival in Nevada to a Phish concert in Maine, Donnelly’s movie gracefully captures the essence of Tunick’s mission, to liberate the human body of stigma and shame, by finding willing nude models in all 50 states.

Donnelly told viewers that the nude subjects’ stories inspired the documentary’s structure. “Spencer’s the one pulling the documentary through, but the models make it happen,” she said. “The themes and issues of the models are reflected in the photos -– what really excited me was the stories of the models.” Tunick himself appeared at the film’s U.S. premiere in Newport, and offered me some of his views on the virtue of the human body in his art. “I often see the location and imagine shape — sometimes I prefer not to see shape,” he said. “It’s hard to create a cohesive body of work, but I treat the body as a substance, a landscape juxtaposed against a concrete world.” Tunick also pointed out that “the body has been attacked by rightwing conservatives. Bringing individuals into an awareness of the body as an art object rather than a sexual object brings about a new awareness of the self in a world that is filled with electronic information and technology.” To commemorate the premiere and his visit to Rhode Island, Tunick shot approximately 70 nude subjects on a beach in Newport on the morning of his screening. While Naked States did not win an award, it definitely caused a buzz by bringing a group of nude strangers to Newport and inspiring Schomer to introduce the film in nothing but a towel.

The Swiss documentary La Bonne Conduit (The Driving School) won the New York Times Claiborne Pell Award for Original Vision. The film is a funny and honest portrayal of interactions between teacher and pupil in and outside of the car. The Festival also awarded Leon Desclozeaux the Jury Award for Best Director for his work on Chittagong: Last Stopover, and Long Night’s Journey into Day captured the Jury Award in the Documentary Competition. The jury awarded The Eyes of Tammy Faye a special award, the Honorable Mention Documentary. Tom Shankland’s Bait and Alexandra Kondracke’s Ice Fishing were honored as the Best Short Films.

In addition to these prize-winning films, the Festival featured about 25 shorts that covered the short films category. One such film, Julie Weinberg’s What Happens Next…, is a seven-minute whirlwind through a blur of cocktails, cups of coffee, and levels of sexual discovery. “I really wanted to do something that was reflective of the here and now of 20-somethings that wasn’t so specific that people couldn’t relate to it,” said Weinberg, who also served as Associate Festival Producer. “The twenties is a confusing time in which you are running away from something, whether you are aware of it at all. My film is not necessarily about sexual identity; it is about overall identity,” she said.

Aside from shooting What Happens Next…, which screened at New York University and the Rhode Island School of Design before coming to Newport, Weinberg also produced the ambitious “Newport Film Project: Five Actors in Search of a Movie.” Led by independent director and New York University Film School teacher Adrienne Weiss, the project was designed to be a collaboration among the audience, director, and actors, to result in a short film by the end of the festival. “We want to work without anticipating results,” said Weiss before the film was made. “We’ll go through the organic process of choices being a fresh, spontaneous experience instead of an intellectual exercise.”

With this and other innovations, Weinberg observed, the Festival is “holding true to the vision it has of itself — to be the Cannes of the East coast. We have top of the line films, a great location and amazing sponsors — everything is high end. In that respect, the Festival has grown tremendously in the past three years.” Weinberg emphasized the fact that many of the Festival’s events were free and open to the public, like the outdoor screening of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and the Groove party.

The Closing Night Clambake followed a screening of Jeremy Podeswa’s The Five Senses, and couldn’t have taken place at a more elegant location in Newport, the Eisenhower House, perched upon a hill overlooking Newport Harbor and the Narragansett Bay. Here one could slip in and out of heated debates about the films shown and talk with new directors genuinely seeking different perspectives and constructive criticisms.

The Festival closed by linking its commitment to innovative film to the city’s love for jazz. Following a Sunday night screening of Bravo Profile’s Little Jimmy Scott: Why Was I Born?, Scott himself appeared for a legendary live performance and a Q&A session. Later, in the lobby of the Hotel Viking, Scott jubilantly offered his insights into the “secret of music”: “Music is passion. You can’t have one without the other. We all just need to learn to see the beauty in the everyday and everyone, and that is what music, jazz, tries to give people.” With this in mind, I nodded to Mr. Scott and got ready to return home to Providence. As I made my way to the door, I bumped into Christine Schomer with piles of papers in hand. “What are you going to be doing now until the next festival?” I asked. “I’m consumed with weddings, and then I’ll start reading books again,” she said, with an exhausted smile.

* * * * * * * * * *


Rahul Krishna Gairola received his B.A. in English and Film & Media Studies from George Mason University and his M.A. in English from Rhode Island College. He has also studied at the College of Charleston, Syracuse University (London) and Cambridge University, U.K. An avid traveler and lover of pop culture, he will comb the mysteries of the Southwestern U.S. in a cross-country trip that will end in Seattle, where he will begin a Ph.D. in English and Critical Theory at the University of Washington on fellowship.

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