International Stories Find Audiences at L.A. Film Fest

Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE July 3, 2007

"People in this town are coming to realize that Los Angeles needs a world-class film festival," proclaimed Rich Raddon, a former film producer who has lead Film Independent’s Los Angeles Film Festival since 1999 when it was still known as the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. "We need it in our backyards," he added, thanking attendees and touting the event during Thursday’s Spirit of Independence event in Westwood. Of course, the 10-day festival isn’t the only international festival in Los Angeles, LAFF shares that stature with AFI FEST, the AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival in autumn as well as Outfest, opening later this month.

[ editor’s note: This article appeared originally in indieWIRE on July 2, 2007.]

The differences can sometimes be a bit confusing for everyday Angelenos, but with LAFF and AFI FEST now anchored on opposite ends of town — one in June and the other in November — the distinctions are coming into focus. Casually chatting with indieWIRE at the LA Film Fest this week, an L.A. based filmmaker who has participated in both events called the Westwood-based LAFF "glitzy," saying it feels a bit more tied to the Hollywood studios (noting this year’s "Transformers" premiere), while director described AFI FEST, based in Hollywood, as more international in scope.

The two festivals, which seem to co-exist fairly well in the sprawling collection of regions that comprise Los Angeles, provide locals with a concentrated spectrum of American and international filmmaking twice a year, AFI FEST generally teases awards season and LAFF ushers in Summer moviegoing. Both festivals also showcase independent and foreign fare, but it’s when audiences are faced with a plethora of world premiere work that things can start to get a bit dicey.

Much has been written about the increased focus on premiere status that drives American festival programmers, and this year the Los Angeles Film Festival boasted seven out of eight titles as world premieres in its narrative competition and seven out of eleven world premieres in the documentary competition. Winners of each section, this year Chris Eska’s "August Evening" in the narrative competition and Jennifer Venditti’s "Billy The Kid" in the documentary competition, received a $50,000 unrestricted grant from Target. Despite the smaller fiction section this year, a close industry friend of the LAFF approached indieWIRE to note that the quality of the documentaries far exceeded that of the narrative work.

That said, LAFF’s fiction competition was not without its highlights. Audiences chose Stephane Gauger’s "The Owl and the Sparrow" — which debuted in Rotterdam and screened at Cinequest in San Jose — as the top narrative title. Set in Vietnam, the first feature is the story of of young girl who runs away to Saigon. And another first feature, this one set in Texas in Spanish and English, also stirred attendees. Eska’s "August," about an immigrant and his daughterin-law, won the aforementioned jury prize and also announced a distribution deal with Moctesuma Esparza’s new Maya Releasing. Also shot in Texas, Scott Prendergast’s "Kabluey" — profiled last week in indieWIRE — was a narrative standout and Tony Stone’s "Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America" was highlighted as, "a visionary work from one of the most promising new American narrative filmmakers in recent years," in an indieWIRE Critics Notebook by Michael Lerman.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Jess Manafort’s "The Beautiful Ordinary" and Rodger Grossman’s "What We Do Is Secret" fell short. Grossman’s "Secret," in particular, was a disppointment. Despite the rich story of seminal L.A. punk band The Germs — and their frontman Darby Crash — strong performances by Shane West as Crash and Bijou Phillips as bandmate Lorna Doom, along with a striking soundtrack produced by former Germs founder member Pat Smear, couldn’t rescue a film that suffers from ill-conceived direction and writing.

In the non-fiction competition, Venditti’s aforementioned "Billy" won the Target jury award after also winning the top jury prize at SXSW where the film debuted back in March. In the indieWIRE’s Critics Notebook, Michael Lerman called it the best doc in the LAFF compeitition, but saved praise for Greg Whiteley’s "Resvolved," winner of the LAFF documentary audience award on Sunday night at the festival. Whiteley’s follow-up to "New York Doll" looks at race and class within the world of competitive high school debate. And also praised by Lerman was Oren Jacoby’s "Constantine’s Sword," a look at Christian anti-Semitism.

A handful of other documentaries deserve additional attention as well. International audience award winner on Sunday night, Stephen Walker’s "Young @ Heart" wins over its audience despite some filmmaking missteps. The story is of an endearing Massachusetts chorale group comprised of senior citizens who sing David Bowie, Coldplay, Sonic Youth and Ramones tunes that is an emotional and insoiring crowd-pleaser. Yet, it strikingly stumbles when the filmmakers employ droll made-for-TV narration and cutaway from their tender story to present staged music videos featuring the senior singers.

Almundena Carracedo’s "Made in L.A." is a homegrown film that drew an equally rapturous response at the Los Angeles Film Festival. It looks at immigrant women from L.A.‘s garment industry who waged a three-year ‘David v. Goliath’ battle against clothing retailer Forever 21. Aiming to halt unfair wages and inhumane working conditions, the Latina activists — Maura Colorado, Lupe Hernandez, and Maria Pineda — joined a full-house crowd for a rousing, bilingual LAFF community screening on the first Saturday of the festival. Set for a PBS debut later this year, Carracedo’s film and its subjects drew a standing ovation at the free festival screening. The film will air on television nationally the day after Labor Day — Tuesday, September 4th — with bilingual subtitles.

Finally, not to be missed by art aficionados is Morgan Neville’s "The Cool School," an expertly assembled, fascinating look at a group of acclaimed L.A. artists who made their name at Walter Hopps & Irving Blum’s Ferus Gallery during the late ’50s and early ’60s (the gallery famously first displayed Andy Warhol’ Soup Cans). Neville swifty captures the era and recaps the art that emerged from L.A. and even reunites many of the artists for a climactic contemporary dinner party.

At a time when the L.A. scene is gaining international acclaim, the film strikes a postive note for those artists who aren’t involved in the movie business at all. "Art history is a very peculiar field," noted Neville during a post-screening Q & A, noting that writers tend to follow those with "the biggest megaphones," though he sees a bright future for L.A.‘s robust art scene long eclipsed by New York. "It’s time to be more optimistic than ever before. (Reprinted with permission, copyright Eugene Hernandez , indieWIRE 2007.)