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Fort Lauderdale Fest (almost) Gone With The Wind

A film festival is formidable enough. Hundreds of film prints moving, sometimes uneasily, from Point A to Point B. Thousands of demanding audience members to be pleased. Dozens of high maintenance invited filmmakers, sponsors and special guests to be accommodated. A film festival is, for its organizers, a hurricane unto itself.

But what if your event, which takes a year of planning, cajoling, fundraising and sheer nerve, meets up with a true force of Nature….a Category 3 Hurricane that suspends electrical power, closes airports and roads, short circuits all modes of communication?

Just ask Gregory von Hausch, the continually upbeat director of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, which concluded its month-long run this past weekend. Von Hausch faced down a challenge almost unheard of in the Festival world….running a major international film festival during and after one of the season’s most powerful hurricanes.

Hurricane Wilma, which struck on the morning of October 24, was not as devastating as her sister Katrina, which flattened the city of New Orleans. However, Wilma packed a considerable punch that knocked out electrical power and all means of communication for more than a week (some residents still do not have power).

How exactly does one run a major film festival with hundreds of scheduled screenings where there is no telephone service, no internet, no cel phones, no Federal Express, no no airline service, no way of communicating with your staff, much less filmmakers, distributors and press from around the world? “It certainly was a challenge that we were not quite prepared for”, von Hausch remarked with characteristic understatement.

After the storm had passed, von Hausch and a few intrepid staff members made their way through a devastated downtown Fort Lauderdale to the Festival offices and the adjoining year-round arthouse Cinema Paradiso to assess the damage. What von Hausch found were felled trees that blocked the entrances to the office and the cinema. With gas unavailable for power chainsaws, von Hausch and staffers had to resort to handsaws to break up the tree trunks and free up the entrances.

Finally able to enter the buildings, von Hausch discovered that the offices and theater had sustained a bit of damage but were generally intact, if you call no electricity, running water or lights intact. “When we finally made it to the offices, we realized that we only had one working flashlight….no phone service, no internet, no ways to communicate with our audiences”, von Hausch recalled.

“Luckily, we had most of our film prints already in hand”, von Hausch explained, “but there were many others that were stuck in limbo at the closed airports, or simply could not get to us in time. We scrambled to get film prints from other sources, mainly from other film festivals in the US, but even that would have to wait until the airlines were running again.”

Ironically, electricity came back first to the downtown area, so von Hausch was able to resume a greatly reduced program at his signature theater Cinema Paradiso within days of the initial disaster. But how could he communicate with a public, many of whom had already purchased tickets and Festival passes?

“We were able to get information out on local television with text scrawls and on local radio”, von Hausch said. “But with more than 90% of local residents without electricity, internet or phone service, this was not really effective. We actually had volunteers standing on the major roadways, waving signs saying that we were open and screening.”

“We were amazed that before the airports were even open, while there were no traffic lights and roads were mostly deserted because people could not get gas for their cars, we were able to attract almost 80 people to one of our first post-Hurricane screenings”, von Hausch exclaimed. “People were so hungry for some diversion from their own problems that they amazingly decided to come out to a film, where at least there was electricity, air conditioning and something cold to drink.”

Another obstacle was the curfew that had been placed by the police….no one on the streets or roads after 7:00pm. For a Festival that had films and special events scheduled late into the evening, this was a major road block. However, undaunted, von Hausch went forward with a Halloween celebration on October 31st, which included a late screening of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW along with live bands playing on the front steps of the cinema. “Six police cars swooped in to close us down, but the lead cop was a young man that was dating my niece…so he had his colleagues look the other way.” von Hausch recalled.

The Festival offices having electricity also meant that they had hot water. As a way of stimulating interest in the Festival, von Hausch offered his members a very rare commodity… showers. “We sent out an email to our film society members, inviting any current member to book ten minutes in our dressing-rooms and use our hot showers…they just had to bring their own, soap, towel and flip flops”, von Hausch chuckled.

While the Festival was ultimately able to screen almost all of its scheduled films, first at Cinema Paradiso and then at the large AMC Theaters multiplex, the celebrity side of the event definitely did suffer. “The special guests that we had worked so hard to secure, including Whoopi Goldberg, Josh Jackson, Juliette Lewis and Cuba Gooding Jr. all decided to cancel”, von Hausch explained. “This being our 20th anniversary, we really wanted it to be a special year…..not realizing how special it would really become.”

However, a special guest did arrive late in the Festival to show his support. Michael Moore, the Oscar-winning documentarian, who has been a frequent guest at the Festival since his first film ROGER AND ME, made a special trip for the Festival’s final weekend, to show his support for the event and the city, and to take a few jabs at one of his favorite targets, President Bush, for the widely criticized federal response to this season’s rash of devastating hurricanes.

Asked how he would categorize this year’s event, von Hausch remarked that “the hurricane definitely hurt our attendance, but audience members, sponsors and the media were wonderfully supportive of our efforts.” In fact, von Hausch mentioned several times that the entire experience gave him and his staff a kind of “spiritual uplift….in a crisis people really came together and I found that the usual South Florida cynicism was replaced by a real concern of neighbors for one another….that was nice to see.”

Sandy Mandelberger
Industry Editor


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