Jun 16, 2009

Minding the glut: On New York's June film festival proliferation

How many film festivals can one city, even a metropolis that can legitimately claim to be one of the capitals of world cinema culture, support? The greater San Francisco area has long been the American and perhaps the world leader in its capacity to support niche film festivals - Asian, South Asian, Black, Jewish, Latin, Italian, Arab, Irish, Armenian, Native American, LGBT, Tranny, Short, Fantastic, Documentary, Silent, Noir, Labor, Environmental, Ocean, Bicycle, Gay Black, Gay Black Women, Black Women, you name it, in San Fran, you got a film festival. Although New York City doesn't boast the 55 film festivals that San Francisco does, the New York festival landscape is a crowded one and we're in the middle of its busiest month.

Only a month and change after the almost pubescent, would be behemoth Tribeca wraps up, NewFest and the Brooklyn International Film Festival run side by side (June 4th-11th versus June 5th-14th). They are normally overlapped by Lincoln Center's Human Rights Watch Film Festival (June 11th-June 25th) and the New York Asian Film Festival (June 19th-July 5th) which this year will overlap with BAMCinemaFest (June 17th-July 2nd), a retooled Sundance at BAM that will expand the slate of films on display beyond Sundance approved American indies, to a broad cross-section of new independent works that have world premiered at a host of the fall and winter's more prestigious foreign and domestic fests as well as a few repertory selections, shorts Sunday and an all night screening series.

In short, its a dizzying time to be a cinephile in New York, and as someone who spends a good deal of time writing about, going to and occasionally exhibiting work at film festivals, it gets me pondering a few obvious but difficult questions, chiefly, are all of these events worth having in the first place?

With the best of world cinema reserved yearly for the fall's New York Film Festival, with edgier international work usually finding its way to Film Comment Selects or the Hamptons, many of these festivals, especially Tribeca, have struggled to find their identity. While the two oldest of the bunch, Human Rights Watch and NewFest, are well established among their clearly defined constituencies, the other fests in the late spring/early summer grouping are all in flux. Despite rumors that it may be moving to the fall and the yearly complaints issued about its brazen, often false marketing, Tribeca has been getting steadily better the past few years. BAM's revamped, rebranded fest is perhaps the most hotly anticipated new film event of the year.

Having spent a good deal of time at the recently wrapped Brooklyn International, I can say unequivocally that although there are some interesting films amount the 100 plus that found their way into the selection, its clearly a fest that is desperately trying to brand itself as hip and relevant, despite its somewhat rarefied, Brooklyn Heights local and uninspiring roster.

From its expensive animated pre-film sequence showcasing a twisty, shifting abstraction that gives way to images of brownstones, LP spinning DJs and the looming Brooklyn Bridge before morphing into a tree to its kitschy, genre heavy selection, one feels BIFF's desire to draw hipsters west from Park Slope and South from Williamsburg, but its Dumbo/Brooklyn Heights locale seems too far and its selection too benign and bloated, to court them effectively. Among the few highlights for me was Landscape No.2, a captivating slovakian bloodletter that particularly stuck out - it feels like a low frills Eastern-European answer to No Country for Old Men.

Still, nothing about the program as a whole seemed at all cohesive or compelling. The world premieres were few but the New York premieres were plenty, including a few by local filmmakers. Daryl Wein & Zoe Lister-Jones' opening night film and best narrative feature winner Breaking Upwards has some actors I find compelling, among them the co-writer/director/producer/stars, but its conceptual desire to craft a mainstream rom com at a DIY budget seems to not necessarily be the best use of the filmmakers' clear intelligence, which will be better suited in other contexts. Craig Butta's Sea Legs, who's DP Sean Williams seems to be given co-billing, was one of a handfull of world premieres in Brooklyn, but was unseen by me.

The boatload of independent European and American narrative filmmaking on display felt, for the most part, like fairly derivative stuff (oh, here's the Haneke rip-off. Boy, this guy sure has seen alot of 80s American horror movies) that probably got rejected by SXSW and Rotterdam's often lenient, often unadventurous competition programming. At the best festivals, the selections are constructed so that various films inform the programming of others in a balanced and legible manner. While "Open Source" was the festival's theme and slogan this year, it the context of this festival it felt like a pejorative, an example of the festivals lack of curatorial vision.