The festival is finished. For a little while, Halifax felt like a city unconditionally in love with the movies, whether a potential blockbuster starring Jennifer Lopez or an obscure international co-production no one on these shores is liable to ever see again. The Park Lane cinemas were clogged with line-ups as cinema-goers waited for the post-screening Q & A sessions to be completed so they could get in and see their own eagerly anticipated films. Panels convened, players schmoozed and 220 features and 50 shorts flickered in the dark.
It was the ultimate test of the Atlantic Film Festival’s staff and volunteers and they came through, despite funding delays and big expectations.
“It’s a combination of physical and mental,” says AFF executive director Gregor Ash. “It may sound like life on easy street, but I had to attend almost 35 different receptions, shaking hands and telling the same stories. It felt exponentially bigger this time and it was incredible the way the staff pulled it together.”
“We were all put to the test and we all rose to the occasion,” says senior programmer Lee Ann Gillan.
The highpoint for Ash was opening night two Thursdays ago, with Thom Fitzgerald’s 3 Needles as the gala premiere film and the event given a touch of glamour by actress Chlöe Sevigny’s attendance.
Those gathered at the press conference before the film had a chance to speak with the lovely Sevigny and enjoy the director’s wit. When Sevigny’s fashion-plate image came up she pointed out, with a little indignation, that she never takes glamourous roles in independent films. Fitzgerald added, “She’s never made a movie where the costume department could afford the clothes she wears in real life.”
There were three simultaneous screenings: the gala at The Oxford, as well as two more showings at Park Lane, and not a spare ticket for 3 Needles—the ultimate winner of the direction and cinematography (for Tom Harting) awards—to be found. Then the party on Argyle, complete with red carpet, spotlight and music, and no rain to spoil it.
“The party was right out of the park,” says Ash. “We’d been picturing that event for a number of years. To see the people on the red carpet and on the jumbo screen, to watch their body language change as they saw themselves up there—I always wanted to create an event people in Halifax would want to go to. We did that.”
Ash says that the television coverage by Eastlink was another of the big successes of the festival.
“They covered everything,” he says. “It’s phenomenal the feedback we’re getting, and it’s only the first year of a multi-year deal.”
Of course, it would have all been for naught if no one came to the movies.
Ash concurs. “The full houses were great.”
A few of the movies surged ahead as clear audience pleasers. Phil Morrison and Angus MacLachlan’s Junebug, the exploration of cultural chasms between a Chicago outsider art dealer and the North Carolina family of her younger husband, was one of the best films of the festival, if not the year. Madeleine, the art dealer (Embeth Davidtz), and her husband George (Alessandro Nivola), are at the core of the picture, but it’s really an ensemble piece. George has been away from his family for three years and returns just in time for the birth of his sister-in-law’s baby. His arrival sparks lingering bad blood with his brother, and his mother doesn’t trust his new wife. This is a movie with a great deal of humour and moments of crazy intimacy. What impresses the most is the lack of judgement. The preconceptions of all the characters and the particulars of religious southern culture are laid out for the audience to assess. The movie just lets it happen and trusts that we will understand.
Other highlights amongst the features included the sword and sorcery yarn Beowulf and Grendel, the cinematic adaptation of the epic poem starring Stellan Skarsgaard, Gerard Butler and Sarah Polley. The Life & Hard Times of Guy Terrifico, a mockumentary starring Haligonian musician Matt Murphy, made a good impression, as did The Dying Gaul, the story of a screenwriter and the weird affair he has with a Hollywood executive and his wife. Manderlay, Danish director Lars von Trier’s follow-up to Dogville, split the critics panel that discussed it the day after the screening, though they could all agree the director was trying to engender debate, which made it worth seeing. These Girls, with former TV vampire David Boreanaz, had its fans, and Omagh was the best political thriller of the festival and one of the best of the year. How is it possible this fiercely personal and powerful film about a bombing in a small community in Northern Ireland was made for television? Me and You and Everyone We Know from writer-director-star Miranda July is one of the most original debuts in years. Most surprising was not its quality (it had, as they say, great buzz) but how the audience took to it. People laughed their asses off at the absurd and bizarre in the script.
Nova Scotia-shot The River King drew a big audience, particularly with director Nick Willing and star Edward Burns making an appearance. They spilled out of a stretch limo outside the Oxford just as the gala screening on Monday was finishing up, a little worse for the wear from a couple of bottles of wine at dinner with Gregor Ash.
“Spending six hours with Ed Burns was pretty cool,” says Ash. “Burns talked about making The Brothers McMullen, and Willing told stories about the old days when he directed videos for Culture Club and Boomtown Rats.”
Despite, or maybe because of the imbibing, Willing and Burns made for the best post-screening Q & A of the festival. Willing told a story about camera people falling through the ice on the riverside set and discussed the rocky road to complete the film in the face of multiple drops in funding. Burns worked the crowd like a pro, and when someone asking a question called him Mr. Norton, he was gracious and funny, jabbing back, “Mr. Norton is a fine actor, and I’d like his next paycheque.”
A solid cross section of documentaries screened at the festival as well. Among the best of them was Reel Paradise, directed by Hoop Dreams helmer Steve James, about an American family living on a remote Fijian island and operating a movie theatre. Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey was also excellent, an anthropological study of heavy metal music and the culture surrounding it, directed by Sam Dunn. Dunn did a short Q & A after the screening and sat on a music documentary panel the following day. The single most affecting piece was Townes Van Zandt: Be Here to Love Me, a heartbreaking history of a wildly talented singer-songwriter who let his demons best him at every turn, finally destroying him at age 52.
Lee Ann Gillan was pleased the documentaries were such a success this year.
“I went in to introduce State of Mind”—a film about gymnastics in North Korea—“not an easy sell,” she says. “I was expecting maybe 30 people in the theatre and it was almost full.”
Gillan was also thrilled the provocatively paired double bill Slut and best documentary winner Sluts: The Documentary screening was such a success, though she admits to a personal stake as she’s a friend of Sluts filmmaker Andrea Dorfman. The films explore the power of the word “slut” on women of all ages. Rina Barone and Patricia DiTillio, the two directors of Slut, came to the festival and were thrilled by how it was received. “They were pretty gleeful,” says Gillan.
According to The Movie Network and their People’s Choice Award for Best Picture, the Quebec box office king C.R.A.Z.Y. was the biggest hit here with festival audiences. Hopefully this will guarantee it an Atlantic Canada commercial release, along with news that it will be Canada’s official foreign language entry to the Academy Awards next year. Right now the poster for the film is up outside the Oxford cinema, though that’s no guarantee of it playing. (The South Korean thriller Oldboy was up there for awhile, and it never made it.)
AFF communications director Ivy Ho was also one of the filmmakers in the festival. She wrote and produced Focus Group Therapy, a short directed by Michael Melski. Actress Kristin Bell won Outstanding Performance by an Actor (Female) for her role in the film. Ho admits she found the attention around the award a little unnerving.
“It was surreal,” she says. “Being photographed and interviewed—I’m used to coordinating behind the scenes. I’m so glad Kristin won, Michael and I really enjoyed working with her.”
As usual, the Atlantic shorts programs were a solid draw, selling out very quickly. With so much appeal, it’s surprising we don’t get to see more shorts through the year in cinemas or on TV, but then there are plenty of things we only see here during the film festival.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get people to the Canadian and international programs, but they all did well,” says Gillan. “Maybe the Halifax audience is more sophisticated than the distributors give it credit for. The assumption that we’re living in the ’50s needs to be reconsidered.”