Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Pressure's On

The pressure’s on to finish most of the programming. The Preview Guide copy has to go to the designer, Rick Montoya, on August 10. So I met yesterday with our writer, Sean McCord, to hand him a batch of titles to begin writing up. Usually, we drop in a lot of fake blurbs and give ourselves until early September to replace them with newer titles …but I’ve got this program mostly figured out. Some of the invited films have already announced their participation. Chris Hansen’s very pleased to have his Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah in the program, and I’m pleased we can present his hilarious and well-executed faux documentary. Avid readers of this blog will surely recognize Chris as a serial commenter here, but I swear his compliments didn’t sway me.

I’ve been hunting for prints of the classics. First, I checked the reliable distributors. Jessica at Kino had Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. Sarah at Janus provided The Seventh Seal. So much for the easy finds. Where are good 35mm or even 16mm prints of Ordet, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, The Miracle, and DeMille’s The King of Kings? Throughout the week, I was in touch with the kind archivists I know (including Bob Harris, Ray Regis, Steffen Pierce, and Caroline Yeager). The first three films are still elusive. Anyone else have any clues?

The best part of the week was working on panel discussion topics. I drove to Washington DC last weekend to hang out and brainstorm with Pat Aufderheide. We caught the Sugimoto, Christenberry, and Kiefer shows on the Mall, and A Scanner Darkly in Bethesda, and only stopped talking while the movie was running. I first met Pat when she was writing film reviews for In These Times in 1980. We’ve crossed paths many times since then, and her Center for Social Media at American University has become an annual organizer of panels at our festival. This year, we think we want to gather a panel of media makers who reach beyond preaching to the converted, and now we’re calling around to gather the ideal panel members we imagined, including David Van Taylor and the Jesus Camp directors.

Pat also led me to some old friends--Bobbi Abrash, her Research Director, who also helps run, with visual anthropologist Faye Ginsburg, the Center for Religion and Media at NYU. Their NYU center is likely to host another panel at our festival, possibly addressing spiritual performances. While thinking about their panel, I experienced another one of those odd coincidences that are constantly occurring this year. I looked at a 1980 short film that DeeDee Halleck had sent me called Bronx Baptism, and the film blew me away. It was filmed by DeeDee with, believe it or not, artist Richard Serra and Babette Mangolte. I think it’s a forgotten gem, beautifully shot and filled with provocative cinematic, political and spiritual discoveries. I raved about it to Bobbi and Faye, and Bobbi wrote back: “You have unerring instincts!” It turns out Faye had presented it just after it was made as part of a program on the Bronx, a program that helped launch her career.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Focus on Scandinavia

I’ve watched a LOT of movies these past few weeks. Like last year, the new documentaries on our theme are really strong, and there are going to be a lot of them in the program. Others have noted that the inadequacy of the mainstream news media is inspiring a renaissance of independent documentaries addressing social issues. Among the documentaries that could show up in our program are Jesus Camp, Deliver Us From Evil, Jonestown, Keep Not Silent, A Flock  of Dodos, God of a Second Chance, and Iraq in Fragments.

Narrowing down the classics is the hardest part. There are so many great classics of spiritual cinema, most catalogued here, and passing on The Decalogue, Groundhog Day, and Andrei Rublev will be painful. But I may have found the hook that will give shape to the program, and rationalize my exclusions.

The Virginia Film Festival and the University of Virginia’s School of Continuing and Professional Education are joining forces to sponsor an annual spring film travel program, part of the University’s Travel&Learn programs for adult travelers. In May of 2007, we hope to travel to Denmark and Sweden to look at the historical and contemporary film traditions of these nations, including the legacies of Ingmar Bergman and Dogme 95. (If enrolling in the weeklong program interests you, please contact for more information).

So I’ve decided to focus on Scandinavian spiritual classics, as a prelude to the Scandinavian trip. The region is obviously highly evolved both spiritually and cinematically. The Danish film professor who will be my teaching partner on the travel program is likely to come to our festival to introduce the films. I’m presently searching for good prints of Dreyer’s Ordet, Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and Axel’s Babette’s Feast. The Andrei Tarkovsky film we’re likely to show is  The Sacrifice, filmed in Sweden and marked by Bergman’s  influence. I’d like to throw in a Dogme 95 film (the whole movement parodies religion), or von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, but may not have room.

Strange coincidences keep materializing with this program. Our opening night film is an American film with a Scandinavian fixation, and that’s all I can say. A famous Swedish émigré director may be premiering his latest film at the festival.  And Volvo has just signed on as a primary sponsor of the festival this year (really….it’s a happy coincidence).

Don’t worry. I’m still planning to show Rosselini, Bresson, and Bunuel, since I’m sure they visited and were fond of Scandinavia.