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Reeling at the Sixth Annual Rhode Island International Film Festival


So many films, only two eyes. At this summer's Rhode Island International Film Festival, 182 films and videos -- 39 of them feature-length narrative films, including 22 world premieres and 12 US premieres -- will be screened over six days.

Some of them are easy choices. Keifer Sutherland, Stockard Channing, and Kyra Sedgwick are in Matia Karrell's Behind the Red Door, a drama about a woman's quest to uncover the circumstances surrounding her mother's murder. And the opening night attraction stars Eli Wallach and Rebecca Pidgeon in the comedy Advice and Dissent, directed by Leib Cohen, about a disenchanted husband who asks a rabbi to put a curse on his wife.

But since RIIFF is built around presenting little-known indie filmmakers, some prospects on the program are less obvious. So I viewed some promising candidates to make a few recommendations. From date flick arm-clutcher to dark cri de coeur, the following features are varied enough in subject matter and execution for at least one to interest you.

R.S.V.P. -- Sunday, August 11 at 5 p.m. at the Columbus Cinématheque
Although it plays with the conventions and expectations of slasher flicks, R.S.V.P. is too much into being a light-hearted send-up of the genre to get into the gore. Yes, someone's head is plunged into a pot of boiling water, but the reluctant victim who surfaces for a moment doesn't even look sunburned. Homage and spoof do a little dance of death here. Straight out of Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, we have a missing guest of honor dead in a chest, as friends joke and party around him in a parlor. And as in Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, the assembled are picked off one by one. Inspired by the serial killers he is studying in criminal psych class, Nick Collier (Rick Otto) is eager to prove his superiority by committing a mass murder that he figures he can pin on someone else. As a bonus, he'll teach a lesson to pretty Jordon (Brandi Andres), who dumped him for an ill-fated pal.

Writer/director Mark Anthony Galluzzo does right by his opportunities, dinging and tooting all the right filmic bells and whistles. "Night on Bald Mountain" builds tension at just the right pace. A huge, blazing neon sign atop the apartment house provides an evocative backdrop for tense talk and a climactic rooftop chase. No wonder R.S.V.P. got the Audience Award for Best Feature Film at this year's Sundance-fringe Slamdunk Festival.

After the Flood/i>

After the Flood -- Friday, August 9 at 9:30 p.m. at the Castle Theatre
The reason you see more humorous takes than grim ones on grim subjects is that getting drama to convince is a tough slog. Unlike with acting, tragedy is harder for a filmmaker; laughter we ride like a roller coaster. Seriousness we believe, or reject, one slap in the face at a time. After the Flood not only takes us into the criminal street life of a young hustler, it has this modern-day Rimbaud/Genet practically spouting poetry in his desperation to make sense of life. The back story of Simon (Shawn Andrews) is summed up in the grimy bandage on his hand, souvenir of a gun sale gone bad. When instead of money he's given for payment an El Salvador illegal immigrant, Gabriela (Ola Metwally), his first response is to set her whoring for what he is owed. But in spite of both himself and his survivor's terror at letting her misery soften his heart ("That was God's weakness -- compassion for man"), he starts looking past himself.

That first-time director Robert Saitzyk humanizes Simon without sentimentality is a triumph (although a crucial death spins the guy around). The larger-than-life street violence, which we can read about in every daily paper, authenticates the film's melodrama. Even the stray religious symbolism -- Simon tells of a dream Gabriela, in which she is the sun melting off his filth -- is easily forgiven.

Get a Way -- Friday, August 9 at 7:40 p.m. at the Columbus Cinématheque
A charming segue from such dismal realism, while staying clear of Disney World, is Get a Way, by French filmmaker Noah Nuer. In his dilapidated minivan, the hapless Didier (Maxime Desmons) knocks over pretty Anne (Agnes Roland) and bangs up her bicycle. Since it probably takes him hours to successfully tie his shoes, she hangs out with him for a day before he manages to fix her bike, and by that time they're fast friends. That's not to say things get romantic, since he's of uncertain sexuality and with decided leanings toward Y chromosomes. Nevertheless, on her prompting and to mess up the heads of some boîte boys who were making fun of him, Anne and Didier make Meg Ryan sound like Mary Poppins, as eventually they're both banging the men's room walls in subtitled mock ecstasy. The story finds focus when they discover their mutual difficulties communicating with their parents and help each other figure out how to connect with them. Roland is a dead ringer for Brit royal Fergie, down to the mischievous smile, and Desmons musters enough personality to keep us from feeling sorry for him. A boy-girl buddy film without sex for a payoff? Those French. Sometimes they like to mess with our little Anglo minds.

Wild Flowers -- Saturday, August 10 at 7:15 p.m. at the Columbus Cinématheque
This Czech feature by F. A. Brabec is a smorgasbord of seven fairy tale ballads and a visual feast to boot. They take place across the seasons, to vary the atmosphere with twirling leaves and swirling snow and to allow some nearly monochromatic images that boil moods down to evocative essences -- the hot yellow of summer woods, the cold blue of a moonlit winter night. Tales we might tire of at The Secret of Roan Inish length are succinct vignettes here. Several deal with hasty desires and wishes. Riding through his lands, a lord on black stallion must have a half-draped maiden he encounters at a waterfall. An almost-bride prays for the return of her betrothed, off in a foreign land, and is delighted, at first, when the spectral soldier appears. A busy mother threatens to give her whining child to the "Noon-day Witch," and who should show up? Some of these are too abrupt for those of us who don't know the full stories, but all are darkly beautiful.

Beyond the screen

The Rhode Island International Film Festival is about so much more than grabbing a box of popcorn and sitting down to watch a movie two or three times a day. There are events and "sidebar" mini-festivals galore.

Back in mid-July there was even a five-day KidsEye summer camp held in Kingston and Providence. Results of the moviemaking workshops will be screened August 7-9.

From August 5 through 7, there will be a series of three "Filmmaking with the Pros" workshops, covering topics from fundraising for a film, through using the latest high-definition digital camera, to editing the final product.

Planned for late fall or early next year, there will be a "RI Film Forum," designed for audience members from community leaders to regional directors to actors. Topics include resources available in the state and the needs of filmmakers who might be interested in working here.

There was a juried screenplay competition that drew 206 entries, with a $5000 first prize.

As for the six-day film festival itself, there are several sidebar components:

* "Providence Film Festival" -- Originally a one-day "Homegrown" series, this year there will be a three-day (August 9-11) festival of about 20 works by regional filmmakers, chosen from some 75 entries. These films, all made in New England, may be entered out of competition or simply to gauge audience reactions.

* "Women in Cinema" -- Presentations and workshops continue throughout the year, encouraging not only female filmmakers but playwrights and short story writers. The ongoing program culminates in the several festival films that focus on women's issues. While indie filmmaking has largely been a male domain in the past, this year nearly half the films shown to be at the festival are by women directors.

* "Gay & Lesbian Issues" -- A "Providence Gay & Lesbian Film Festival" will be a component of RIIFF. Besides screenings, it will include a "Meet the Director" forum and a public colloquium.

* "Jewish Film Festival" -- In coordination with the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University, eight films that deal with the Jewish experience. They range from Advise and Dissent to the documentary Shalom, Y'all, about Jews in the American South.

* "Between Takes: Morning Coffee Talks" -- Three programs will be presented, beginning Thursday with "Filmmaker to Filmmaker," an open-mike discussion with visiting filmmakers. On Friday, the topic will be "How Movies Are Really Made: What They Don't Teach in Film School," with visiting directors and Mark Maine, head of the production company Angelic Entertainment. After a Saturday morning talk on "The Art of Japanese Anime," an English language-dubbed version of the Japanese animated series Gokudo: Swordsman Extraordinaire will be screened. Programs begin at 9:30 at the Columbus Cinématheque. Admission is $5.

* "Perspectives from Québec and France" -- The festival started out in 1997 as a modest presentation of four French language films and one in English. Now Francophones and Francophiles will have a week of such fare, with 15 titles screened.

* "Film and Music" -- Nightspots around Providence will hold screenings and present live music by some of the musicians who have contributed to some of the films, in addition to performances before some of the films.

The closing night event on August 12 will be a sing-along screening of Grease. Participants are invited to dress up as their favorite characters and compete for best costumes. After the Columbus Theatre screening, the closing night party will take place at the IMAX Theater in Providence Place Mall.

If you're going to be out of town during the film fest, don't worry. Beginning Friday, August 23, and continuing through the weekend, top films from this year's festival will be screened at the Courthouse Center for the Arts in Kingston. A similar program will take place in Newport at the Firehouse Theatre, with dates to be announced. Monthly at the Courthouse Center through the winter, screenings will feature some of the most popular films that the festival has presented over its first five years.

Festival screenings will take place in Providence at the Columbus Theatre and Cinématheque, the University of Rhode Island, the Feinstein IMAX, and the Castle Cinema. Except for opening and closing night films, all tickets are $7 and are available online at and at selected Brooks Pharmacies.

But the festival doesn't stop there. Upcoming October 25-27 will be the RIIFF Horror Film Festival at the Columbus Theatre. Features and documentaries, shorts and animation are all eligible to compete for awards. A restored print of the silent vampire classic Nosferatu will be featured.

Also in October, cinematic festivities will continue with "Rhode Island and the Silent Era," presentations of rarely seen films from the dawn of motion picture history, made in the Ocean State beginning in 1915. They will be screened at Rhode Island College.

For more information, you can call 861-4445 or e-mail

-- B.R.

Growing up

RIIFF's high profile

This is year six for the annual Rhode Island International Film Festival, and it's no longer a toddler. It's up and about on its own two feet, thank you. From August 7 through 12, 39 full-length narrative features will be screened, in addition to documentaries and shorts -- 182 films in all, culled from 803 submissions. That's up from fewer than 700 last year.

"There have been a surplus of great movies," crows program manager Heather Bryant. "We've actually had trouble fitting in all these great movies. It's wonderful. It's absolutely thrilling."

They've been pouring in from around the world. From Israel and Iran, Italy and Armenia, Australia, and Japan.

"I then had some folks from China send us [their film on] a CD-ROM," says George T. Marshall, the festival's executive director. "I don't know what the hell to do with those."

More participants from out of state also signed up for the upcoming three-day filmmaking workshop and the KidsEye summer camp sessions held in July for embryonic filmmakers ages 9 to 15. And for the first time, the festival is seeing submissions from film students at UCLA, that hotbed of Hollywood auteurs, and more from the prestigious NYU film program.

Why the increased interest? A couple of reasons.

"One was the release last year of The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide," Marshall explains. "That's now all over the place, it's worldwide, and we're listed as one of the `best kept secret' festivals. `One the most exciting festivals to come along' -- that was a quote."

This year, when submitters are asked how they heard about the RIIFF, more often than not they cite that indie film fest Bible, which singled out only seven other festivals to tout on for the same distinction.

The second kudos was last month's announcement that the grand jury short film winner at the RIIFF will be eligible for Oscar nominations.

"That was another thing that's just walloped us -- in a good way," says Marshall.

It wasn't a small honor: of the more than 1200 film festivals around the world, only 47 have earned that privilege for their shorts award winners. Word traveled fast in the film industry about Rhode Island qualifying -- Marshall heard about it from insiders before the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences officially let him know.

The Academy notification stated that "the longevity and current quality of the Rhode Island International Film Festival's award-winning selections has persuaded this committee to add it to the prestigious international list."

"Our opening short film last year, Gregor's Greatest Invention, was nominated for an Academy Best Short," Marshall says. "That was a critical thing for us, because there are only four or five films that are final qualifiers, and here we are, this small festival in Rhode Island and we're supplying them."

That film was eligible because it was awarded at a festival elsewhere, as was the short The Personals, which won the 1999 Oscar for Best Short after premiering here.

Marshall says that about 90 percent of the films shown at RIIFF are from submissions rather than from a distributor. "That probably is our major hallmark.

"If you look at the titles you probably won't recognize the bulk of them, and that's good," he adds. "Because we're not showing things that have played other festivals. Or if they have, these are films that are not doing a Sundance but are made by folks who are just breaking into the business. And if we can provide a platform for them, then we've done a good thing."

-- B.R.

Issue Date: August 2- 8, 2002