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Stranger Than Fiction Inhales Documentaries

In the immortal wisdom of comedian Robin Williams, "Reality is just a crutch for people who can’t cope with drugs." Judging by the high that Stranger Than Fiction has been delivering its audiences since the documentary showcase began in 2004, reality is quite the opiate (though perhaps less mutually exclusive than Patch Adams would have it).

Each STF screening — whether a sneak preview, special tribute or retrieved classic — is punched up with commentary from its filmmaker(s). The moveable feast resumes at the nearby Alibi bar, letting participants swap thoughts with a film’s creators, or hit them  up for professional tips, without a couple hundred other pairs of ears intercepting.

Programmed by Thom Powers and Raphaela Neihausen and hosted by New York’s IFC Center, Stranger Than Fiction opened its 12th season on January 12, 2010, with a preview of Vikram Jayanti’s Snowblind, about a blind dogsled racer in Alaska.

Upcoming titles are The September Issue, which deconstructs Vogue and its editor, Anna Wintour; The Cove, Louie Psihoyos's baring of Japan's dolphin racket; and Dan Klores’s sports-rivalry epic, Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks. Other entries in the series, which convenes every Tuesday night through March 16, are listed below and at

On offer last night was Weijun Chen’s kitchen and class portrait, Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World, followed by a Q&A with editor Jean Tsien. It played to a sold-out crowd of mostly filmmakers, including such industry grandees as Barbara Kopple and Michel Negroponte.

"We turned away 10 pretty unhappy people in the wait line," faux-lamented Powers.

As vying entertainment platforms hack away at theatrical box office, interactive, personality-driven forums like STF assume an increasingly prized place in the cinema cosmogeny. Attendance for the hosted documentary series has grown incrementally with each season, making it a top performer for the IFC Center and fueling the amoeba-like division from two annual editions to spring, fall and winter trimesters.

"I could see these movies on Netflix, but the reason I come is because the filmmakers are here," said Bill Gallagher, associate producer of Marshall Curry’s forthcoming Earth Liberation Front exposé, If A Tree Falls.

Fellow STF regular Anne Checler is also drawn to the industry fold and its networking possibilities. "As an editor, I sometimes feel isolated, and here you really get that sense of community that I was missing."

To promote STF as a place to "meet accomplished people" in the New York scatter, "Passholder" bios are posted on the festival website, explained artistic director Powers, who also programs the documentary section of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Beyond providing the glue for current encounters, STF celebrates the "continuity of documentary filmmaking," per Powers. On January 19, cinema verité legend Albert Maysles joined Powers in retro-examining Running Fence, his 32-year-old portrait of Christo and the recently deceased Jeanne-Claude’s vast fabric fence along 24 miles of California soil.

On February 2, Sherman’s March director Ross McElwee will show two of his rarely-seen short works, Charleen and Backyard; and the February 9 session features Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim’s 2001 study in Silicon Alley hubris,

For the spring lineup, Powers is keeping tabs on current Sundance favorites. Though on a far more modest scale, the ongoing West Village series has begun to serve as a distribution platform not unlike a film festival.

"We are one of many incubators trying to find ways to bring documentary films to larger audiences," said Powers. A key impetus behind STF’s launch was to provide filmmakers with a venue to show their work to decision makers — without having to rent screening rooms — after failing to secure distribution on the festival circuit, he explained. Rather than pay to showcase their creations, filmmakers receive a $250 honorarium per STF screening.

Several of the series’ selections have gone on to commercial runs at its host multiplex. "The IFC Center has used our series as a barometer of how a film might perform," said Powers, citing Erik Gandini’s Videocracy as an example. Having sold out at STF, the documentary about Italian celebrity worship is now slated for a week’s run at the IFC Center in February. 

Still Bill is another title whose STF sellout swayed IFC Center programmers. Music fans have the series to thank for the currently extended showing of Damani Baker and Alex Vlack’s filmed biography of soul great Bill Withers.

As Powers put it, "The series is sometimes used as a buzz builder." STF screenings accommodate either 114 or 210 voluble cinema mavens, depending on the IFC Center plex.

In today’s glutted content marketplace, credible arbiters of taste command an increasingly important role, both viewers and curators alike, Powers opined. "Because you can’t stay on top of all the work that’s out there now, you look to other people to help you decide."

That glory once fell to film critics, he pointed out. "Film critics have been reduced to giving thumbs up or down or four stars," he said. "They haven't been supported by their publications."

What's more, film critics don’t run theaters. Said Powers, "If I see something at a festival, I can bring it straight to an audience."

With today's competition for public screens to exhibit documentaries, some might say that gratifying scenario is stranger than fiction.

Stranger Than Fiction: Spring 2009 Season
January 5: Pre-Season Special – Which Way Home (2009, Q&A w/ dir. Rebecca Cammisa)
January 11: Pre-Season Special - Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008, Q&A w/ dir. Matt Tyrnauer & editor Bob Eisenhardt)
January 12: Opening Night - Snowblind (2009, Q&A w/ dir. Vikram Jayanti)
January 19: Running Fence (1978, Q&A w/ co-dir. Albert Maysles)
January 26: The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World (2008, Q&A w/Jean Tsien)
February 2: A Night with Ross McElwee (Q&A w/ dir. Ross McElwee)
February 9: (2001, Q&A w/ co-dir. Chris Hegedus)
February 16: The Art of the Steal (2009, Q&A w/ dir. Don Argott)
February 23: Winning Time: Reggie Miller VS. The New York Knicks (2010, Q&A w/ dir. Dan Klores)
March 2: A Healthy Baby Girl (1997, Q&A w/ dir. Judith Helfand)
March 9: Best of Orphans Film Symposium (Q&A w/ curator Dan Streible)
March 16: Closing night - David Holzman’s Diary (1967, Q&A w/ L.M. Kit Carson aka David Holzman)

Julie Taymor's "The Tempest" Unveiled

In director Julie Taymor's film adaptation of The Tempest, the role of banished-duke-turned-sorcerer Prospero goes to Helen Mirren – with a twist. Dame Mirren isn’t playing a man. Rather, the lead character in William ShDirector Julie Taymorakespeare’s last play now bends gender, and the result is named Prospera.
During a press conference at the 14th Capri Hollywood Film Festival (Dec. 26-Jan. 2, 2010), Taymor explained that no currently working male actor was up to the task. What began as a frustrated quest became an exhilarating commentary on the driving spirit of Shakespeare’s fabled magician -- and how female powers of intellect can settle a struggle such as Prospero’s with the “savage and deformed slave” Caliban.

Come to think of it, as Taymor did, Prospero is Shakespeare’s only character who loses nothing by losing a Y chromosome. Further relieving her casting dilemma was the nod from 16th- and 17th-century history, a time when women practicing the art of alchemy were frequently exiled or worse as witches. By the time Taymor saw pink in Prospero’s soliloquy to the Medea of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Prospera was granted the artistic green light.   
Djimon Hounsou, Russell Brand, Alfred Molina, Ben Wishaw, David Strathairn, Chris Cooper and Tom Conti hold onscreen court with Oscar-laureate Mirren as she rules over the magical Mediterranean island.
Alfred Molina and Djimon Hounsou
In Taymor's interpretation, Prospera is trumped by her brother Antonio (Cooper), and set sailing with her young daughter, Miranda (Felicity Jones). She shipwrecks on an island, where her efforts to protect the now teenaged Miranda thrust her into a power joust with Hounsou’s Caliban.

Shakespeare’s The Tempest has the potboiling pulse of a thriller, the special effects potential of a fantasy and the gossip of a romance. Advancing the action are spirits, monsters, a mournful king, a sage, two scheming brothers and a roiling sea frothed into a fabulous conspiracy that crosses the stars of two unlucky lovers.
Taymor’s version freshens up Prospera’s odyssey of vengeance and self-embrace in an era when forgiveness and love are arguably saner strategies than the cycles of violence-eye-for-eyed in our daily headlines.  

For fans of Taymor’s three feature films – an 1999 adaptation of another Shakespeare play, Titus; 2002 biopic, Frida; and 2007 Beatles rock opera, Across the Universe -- her newest production is an ongoing tribute to her eclectic style. At very least, this means a phantasmagorical swirl of theater plays, musicals and operas reinterpreted but not dumbed down for cinema.

Taymor toyed with film only after a couple of decades of live performance, including two stage productions of The Tempest. The Lion King launched her theatrical comet in 1997 and signaled the arrival of a visual innovator with global inspirations to match the gathering zeitgeist. Artistic wanderings had brought the 1952-vintage Bostonian up through French pantomime Jacques Lecoq, experimental stage legend Peter Brook, ensemble director Herbert Blau and the shamanistic traditions of Asian theater using dolls, shadows and masks.
For the Miramax release shot in Hawaii (and not, to the chagrin of her Capri Hollywood Film Festival hosts, right there or in another island connected to the Italian setting of Shakespeare’s play), Taymor made some tough concessions to the medium. Reluctant to break the four walls of cinema, she killed Prospera’s epilogue beseeching the audience’s “release…from (her) ban,” and clinching the loss of her magical charms. She opted instead to roll credits over images of drowned books, a visual quote from the earlier Metamorphosis scene referencing sorcery.  
Still, if you listen up, you may hear Prospera – and Taymor – close with the appeal, “Let your indulgence set me free.”    

Director Paul Schrader's Controversial Holocaust Film at the Israel Film Fest

For veteran director/screenwriter Paul Schrader, seeing his film Adam Resurrected appear in this year's Israel Film Festivalalt in New York is a little like coming around full circle. Originally released here almost a year ago, his strange surreal little black comedy of a film stars Jeff Goldblum as a concentration camp survivor recovering his sanity in an Israeli psychiatric hospital in 1961. Goldblum's character Adam has tried coping with surviving.

Though the film received mixed reviews and limited exposure, Schrader will not only receive a special presentation of it at the 2009 Israel Film Festival in New York -- which kicks off Saturday evening -- but he will be honored with the IFF's Achievement in Cinema Award during the opening night Awards Gala being held at the SVA Theatre (23rd Street and 8th Avenue) -- where the other screenings take place as well.

Read more: Director Paul Schrader's...

A Visit With Israeli Director Eran Kolirin

Eran Kolirin is the director and writer of The Band's Visit, a fable about the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra's star-crossed visit to Israel to perform at an Arab Cultural Center.

Kolirin's debut feature swept Israel's Ophir Awards and had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. It was also Israel's official entry for the Best Foreign-Language Oscar—until it wasn't.

Film Festival Traveler catches up with Kolirin and finds out why getting lost can sometimes be a find.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
EK: The inspiration came from an image I had of the commander and also from Journey to Israel, a book by Ali Salem, an Egypt playwright who came to Israel and wrote about his experience.
Q: Did such an Egyptian band ever visit Israel?
EK: No. The one official cultural exchange was in 1981: the national Egyptian dance group.
Q: How does The Band's Visit connect with your early experience of watching Egyptian movies on Israeli TV?
EK: For me it's a nostalgic thing, it connects with a personal nostalgia and also with a nostalgia for a more naïve Israel, at least in the eyes of the child that I might have been back then. Egyptian movies were the soap operas of my childhood, like the old Hollywood cinema of big love and big gestures--bigger than life.
Q: Common human foibles unite the Arabs and Israelis in your film. Are you saying something about the path to peace?
EK: No, I didn't finely tune myself in that way. I didn't think about those mistakes as something that unites Arab and Israelis, just as I didn't write from any starting point that they were different and needed to find a path that connects the two. Small or big human mistakes are the basic things for any human drama; it's not interesting if they don't have those mistakes. It's what instinctively draws me to even architecture or scenery, if there's a mistake in the place.
Q: From your opening disclaimer that the band's visit "was not that important," to Dina's remark that there is "no culture" in her town, to the characters' small moments of self restraint, you strike a modest note that lets us envision breakthroughs on a higher level. Talk about how the film aims high by aiming low.
EK: I wanted this kind of tension running throughout the movie as something very high and very low. So a character might sit in a shwarma or shiskabab restaurant but would speak about a poem or art, in the same way that there'd be a contradiction between something stupid and reciting an old Sufi poem in the roller disco. The idea was to bring those elements together in every frame so the simple tones of the film would exist and give something which is high. Eitan Green, a screenwriting mentor I had a lot of conversations with, said you should write simple and aim for the complex.
Q: The band has long managed on its own, and proud band leader Tewfiq is loathe to call for help. Are there other institutions that you're alluding to here?
EK: No, I was writing from my own self. A very simple man that I am I would never ask for directions, and would never be the one to stop the car and admit I'm lost. It's about getting lost and about something that could happen once you're off your formal self and off your road and your usual expectations. This mistake was essential for the flowers to grow.
Q: Do I detect a note of fatalism?
EK: I wrote this because of hopes and dreams, and part of it is this hoping that you could go wrong and find a better way by choosing the small road and not the big road. But I cannot say that by making a mistake you will find the right path.
Q: Language—and an error in interpretation--launches the characters on a path to closer mutual understanding. Is the fussed-over language of diplomacy unequal to the task of peacemaking?
EK: I would say that the emotional side of things is also important, when the conversation becomes feelings and not a conversation of commerce, as in: How much do we give, get and put in? It may be that what is very obvious is getting lost from the language of diplomacy and commercial conversation.
A lot of people in Israel are frustrated by the peace process. They want to meet people from the other side, but it's considered a weakness. There's this constant pressure to ask, What can we get for ourselves out of an agreement?  It's more like a divorce agreement than a marriage agreement. The film explores the feeling of wanting to connect with the region to people you don't know and are apart from, of having a yearning for peace and also of being a part of what can make it happen. The question of how and why are important but they don't stand alone. In recent years I have the feeling it's become more about the negotiation. Something is lacking from this conversation. It seems (the emotional) element is forgotten.
Q: From Simon's unfinished concerto to singing Summertime around the table to Khaled's us of Chet Baker to flirt, how does music serve as a means of communication in your film?
EK: All the characters have a deep emotion deep inside of them they cannot express, something they cannot call in its name. Each could have had another life, but they cannot go back and take another turn in the road. They are all living inside of themselves, but are unable to express this feeling. In the film when they get to this point of being unable to express this feeling, this is where the music comes in for me. Silence also takes it, or hand gestures take it.
Q: Itzik advises Simon not to reach for grand themes in his concerto but to stay with realistic nuances, as in the room where his child sleeps. Who else can benefit from this advice?
EK: This was about myself. I had trouble finishing this script. For me it was a kind of a self-reflexive thing, and I could only finish it when it wasn't from the perspective of the great concerto. It's about letting go. This also reflects a lot of questions about the concept of finding a final solution, including in the relationship between nations. It's all in the here and now and not necessarily in the grand finale--not trying to solve all the problems in one stable solution.
Q: One of the funniest scenes is Ronit Elkabetz's Dina splitting open a blood red watermelon with the aggression of a fighter and independence of a man but with the sultry sex appeal of a self-possessed woman. What are these Egyptians thinking while watching their Israeli hostess rip open this watermelon?
EK: How would I know? I just told her to open the watermelon and let them look. These are men observing a woman.
Q: Personal storytelling, and not political reporting, is a hallmark of Israeli cinema in recent years. (Instead of discussing politics, your Arab and Israeli characters chat about their personal lives.) Is there such a thing as the Israeli New Wave, and if so, how does The Band's Visit complement the trend?
EK: I don't know if I can draw a line and say there's a New Wave in Israeli cinema. You cannot draw a line of aesthetic approach. For me the movie is a political movie, and it's only in the way that it deals with the political question that is different. First and foremost I set out to write characters that have their own lives and personal pains and personal truths and hopes, and these things come before the political agenda. It's also a realistic approach since for me, since what moves me first when I meet someone is the personal and not the political. I feel uncomfortable when I feel expected from the world to treat characters in the films just as a political idea and not as a human being first and foremost. Politics is in the background, but first a character has his mother, his family, his job. Politics is important but it's not the first thing that drives you.
Q: Dina's empathy and warmth thaws band leader Tewfiq's rigidities so he is able to accept her hospitality. What compelled you to explore this basic act of kindness?
EK: Hospitality, like getting lost, is going to disappear from the face of the earth. With all those GPS devices out there no one will get lost, people will always get to their hotels. This world is changing. In writing this script I was asked how come she takes them in? In a more dramatic script or a more classic Hollywood script, something would prevent her from bringing them in. But it didn't fit for me. I thought she'd take a very simple human decision on the spot. It worked, you believe it, because of the woman she is. Because of her character she was able to make a very simple decision of: Why not? I think there 's a kind of genetics in the very basic idea when you start writing a script, and it doesn't work when you try to force a formula. If you listen to the script enough you see it's her truth. This was in the grain of the script and I couldn't change it even if I wanted to. It's about following what it dictates for you, you cannot dictate to it. In this case it was the more gentle and simple approach. Let's take them in.
Q: Khaled's pointers to the shy and romantically inexperienced Papi at the roller disco brought welcome comic relief. Tell us about your use of comedy in this bittersweet drama.
EK: I'm not the kind of man who'd only talk with wine in his hand and talk dogma. I would also say something with a smile. It's an instinct for me. I never tried to put a joke inside. I just tried to make a situation accurate according to a certain tone of the movie. Sometimes the situation has something basically funny, with a kind of awkwardness or tension, but I never thought, "This would be funny."
Q: Has the film been shown in an Arab country?
EK: No, it hasn't. It was invited to the Abu Dabi film festival, but was disinvited at the last moment. Why exactly I don't know. The papers said it was coming from political pressures in the Arab world.
Q: Do you believe your film's Oscar yanking was politically motivated?
EK: I don't know if it was political. More it was a big establishment that has their own strange rules and they apply these rules without a lot of interpretation but rather cause they're big.
Q: Did you ever think to cast Egyptian actors?
EK: In the beginning I wanted to cast Egyptian actors, but in the early stages it was clear I could not. Sasson Gabai, the Israeli actor who plays Tewfiq, comes from Iraqi family and knew Iraqi Arabic. We had lots of translators, including a dialogue coach from Alexandria, who worked with the Palestinian and Israeli cast.
Q: What can you tell us about Pathways to the Desert, your next film?
EK: Nothing yet!

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