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Florida Film Fest: lucky thirteen

The Florida Film Festival, which celebrated its 13th anniversary at a Gala Awards Ceremony on Saturday evening, 13 March, has secured its position as one of the best run and most popular regional festivals in the US. With an eclectic mix of films, devoted audiences and a large turnout of filmmakers, the Festival is giving Sundance a run for its money as a showcase of American Independent Cinema.

The Festival, which presented almost 150 films in the film boom town of Orlando, Florida and its environs, is managed by the Enzian Theater, a not-for-profit cinema complex that presents independent and international films to a growing audience year round.

And it’s the enthusiasm of the film audiences that have won the Festival accolades among filmmakers, critics and industry executives. The Enzian, through its marketing efforts and mix of programming, has helped develop a sophisticated audience that responds to the films of promising newcomers that make up the bulk of the Festival fare.

The Festival opened on 5 March with the premiere of Cannes Critics Week favorite Off The Map, an American indie film directed by actor-director Campbell Scott and starring Sam Elliot and Joan Allen. Campbell was in attendance, giving the Festival a bit of glitz but also making clear its commitment to showcasing the works of independent filmmakers.

The Festival presents competition sections for Features, Documentaries and Short Films. At the Awards Gala, presented at the historic Church Street Station in downtown Orlando, several popular films won coveted awards.

The Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature was given to Down To The Bone, a chillingly realistic depiction of drug addicts in a small upstate New York town, directed by Debra Granik. The film, which received its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, won awards there as well, for director Granik as well as a prize for the acting ensemble.

The Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature was presented to another Sundance alumnus, Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army. The film, expertly directed by Robert Stone, reviews one of the most bizarre stories of the 1970s: the abduction and ultimate conversion of heiress Patty Hearst by the radical fringe group, the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Winning the Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative Short was Scrabble, a hilarious farce of what happens when a couple challenge each other to a board game, directed by brothers Jay and Mark Duplass. Best Documentary Short honors went to Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story, a film about a lost Los Angeles community, directed by Jordan Mechner. A popular choice for Best Animated Short was the Grand Jury Prize winner Magda, a quirky stop-action film about love and loss, directed by Chel White.


Florida Film Festival: Lucky Thirteen
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At a festival with such devoted and enthusiastic, the Audience Awards voted on by Festival attendees is particularly coveted. For Best Narrative Feature, audiences gave the nod to Happy Hour, a bittersweet tale of alcoholism amongst friends starring Anthony LaPaglia and Eric Stolz. The Fight, a historical documentary on the clash between America’s Joe Louis and Germany’s Max Schmelling for the heavyweight boxing title in the 1930s, won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Patty Jenkins, the writer-director of Monster for which actress Charlize Theron won the Oscar last month, was honored with the Florida Forward Award, for stimulating film production in the state of Florida. The film, which followed America’s first female serial killer on her spree through central Florida, was shot on location. Jenkins and her local collaborators were featured at a special seminar held on the Festival’s final day.

Other Festival highlights included the screenings of director Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things, Code 46 directed by Michael Winterbottom, Lars Von Trier’s Cannes favorite Dogville, Swedish Oscar nominee Evil, Ewan McGregor-starrer Young Adam and German mega hit Goodbye Lenin.

With a nod to classic Hollywood, the Festival hosted screenings of George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, as a tribute to the passing of the legendary Katharine Hepburn, and the 50th anniversary screening of multiple Oscar winner From Here To Eternity, directed by Fred Zinnemann, starring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed.

While honoring the past, the Festival remains committed to cinema of the future. Many films were screened in digital format. In addition, the Festival program NextArt presented an intriguing series of seminars and demonstrations of new media formats that will inform the cinema art form in years to come. Most memorable was the presentation of Toy Symphony, a music education project that combines computer technology and digital effects that introduces young people to creative music making in bold, new ways.

The winning team of founder-director Sigrid Tiedtke, programmer Matthew Curtis and marketing exec Shannon Lacek contributed to a solid increase in audience figures this year, even in a year where the emphasis was not on star talent but on the new works of up-and-coming directors. The Festival has skillfully nurtured and challenged its audiences to create a tangible excitement for a truly independent brand of filmmaking.

With so many regional festivals falling over themselves to get even low-wattage talent to make a brief appearance, the Florida Film Festival is a textbook example of an event that stays close to its mandate and succeeds by delivering to its audiences what they truly want to see: outstanding new works from fresh talents. It is a formula for success that other events, including the starry-eyed ones, should take note of.

By Sandy Mandelberger

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