New FJI contributor Tomris Laffly reports on the opening night of Brooklyn's BAMcinemaFest and previews what's ahead at this adventurous film festival.
BAMcinématek, one of New York City’s premier destinations for independent and alternative cinema, kicked off its fourth annual BAMcinemaFest yesterday with Mike Birbiglia's Sleepwalk with Me, the screen adaptation of his popular one-man off-Broadway play with the same title. Co-written by Birbiglia, his brother Joe, Seth Barrish and "This American Life" creator Ira Glass, Sleepwalk With Me is a comedy (a legitimately funny one) that is based-on the real-life, hilarious and unbelievably dangerous sleepwalking adventures of Birbiglia. I saw his play a few years back at the Bleecker Street Theatre, and witnessed Birbiglia’s energy along with his natural, easy presence on stage, which captured the audience at once. Despite the material’s shortcomings as somewhat repetitive for a feature-length film, Sleepwalk with Me was still the perfect crowd-pleaser to start this festival that takes pride in its local roots. The film was shot and produced in New York (with some locations just a few blocks away from BAM, Glass proudly announced), and the crew (whom Glass and Birbiglia verbally celebrated post-screening) is also a product of NYC, mostly Brooklyn.
Before they launched into a mini-stand-up routine, Glass and Birbiglia stood by the rolling end credits and applauded the selfless efforts of everyone involved. We were all invited to join in, and we enthusiastically did. Just like we did for the after-party following the screening, where all ticket holders were welcome. With "attitude" and "pretentiousness" mandatorily checked at the door prior to entering, the opening night was a hit with audiences, setting the stage for a stellar film festival now underway.
BAMcinemaFest, which has formerly introduced important American and international indie films such as Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham), Bronson (Nicholas Winding Refn), Weekend (Andrew Haigh) and Senna (Asif Kapadia) to New York audiences, is once again hosting a fascinating slate of indies with titles from Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, Berlin, Rotterdam, Slamdance and SXSW; and a total of 22 features showcased under its main slate (20 New York premieres and one North American premiere).
“I’m really excited about the fourth edition of BAMcinemaFest, as it may be our best yet,” says Florence Almozini, BAMcinématek’s program director. “I think we’re refining our identity as a purveyor of American independents with a strong Brooklyn and New York voice, featuring an impressive slate of works by local filmmakers.” One look at this year’s lineup backs up Almozini’s statement: BAMcinemaFest offers a coherent, hand-picked group of films by a generation of ambitious independent filmmakers, mostly from our very own city, whose films are fueled by vision and never hampered by their limited budgets. This is a lineup that eases one’s pain of not having attended this year’s Sundance. For us New Yorkers, a few trips to (or in) Brooklyn are all we need to commit to.
So let’s take a closer look at BAMcinemaFest’s fourth edition. Among the many delights it offers New York audiences to feast on is Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (this edition’s Spotlight Screening), an indie darling that took the 2012 Sundance Film Festival by quite a storm (and won the Grand Jury Prize). Also screened with equally warm reception as the surprise closing-night film of this year’s New Directors/New Films series in Manhattan and a prize-winner in Cannes’ “Un Certain Regard” section, Beasts of the Southern Wild is set in a semi-fairy-tale bayou of Southern Louisiana. It tells the story of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and the unconventional clan of people she lives amongst in a secluded oasis they call the Bathtub, which they have to protect in the face of a storm that endangers their existence. Just like all the main slate screenings of BAMcinemaFest, there will be a Q&A following the Beasts screening (with the likely awards-season contenders Wallis, director Benh Zeitlin and lead actor Dwight Henry). A not-to-be-missed event.
Other noteworthy first-week offerings of the festival’s main slate range from works of debuting filmmakers to those whose new projects have been eagerly anticipated. Francine (with the Academy Award-winning Melissa Leo), the narrative feature debut of co-directors Melanie Shatzky and Brian M. Cassidy, promises a quiet, small and personal story of finding peace in unusual places, with a strong female lead. Keith Miller’s debut feature Welcome To Pine Hill (winner of the 2012 Slamdance Grand Jury Prize) stands out among the first-week offerings with its verité style that blends fictional narrative with nonfiction filmmaking. Writer-director Ry-Russo Young’s follow-up to You Won’t Miss Me (Gotham Awards 2009 Winner of “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You”), the Sundance 2012 title Nobody Walks intrigues with a strong cast and the fact that it’s co-written by another prominent female name in independent film (and now, TV) Lena Dunham, the creator of (and one of) those “Girls” you might have heard of. A Q&A has been announced with Russo-Young and actors Olivia Thirlby and India Ennenga, and although not officially announced just yet, I am told Lena Dunham will make an appearance post-screening as well. Two other attractive titles that hail from Sundance 2012 are Bart Layton’s true-crime thriller documentary The Imposter (the story of Frédéric Bourdin, the subject of David Grann’s 2008 New Yorker profile) and Rick Alverson’s The Comedy (which will be rescreened outdoors later in the festival, co-hosted by Rooftop Films), with its darkly satirical take on the sedated generation of the current times we live in.
In its second week, BamCinemaFest’s main slate continues to impress with its diverse fare. With their second film in this year’s lineup (along with Francine), co-directors Melanie Shatzky and Brian M. Cassidy’s nonfiction feature debut The Patron Saints (from 2011’s Toronto Film Festival) is a “cine-essay on forgotten souls of a rural nursing home” and looks to be a non-traditional, poetic documentary film. V/H/S, a collaboration of David Bruckner, Glenn McQuaid, Radio Silence, Joe Swanberg, Ti West & Adam Wingard (the generation of filmmakers responsible for the scares of recent films such as The Innkeepers, A Horrible Way To Die and Silver Bullets) surely aims to please all thrill-seekers (including myself) with its wild genre premise: seven misfits, a mansion, a dead body and a frightening VHS compilation. So Yong Kim’s Sundance-premiered For Ellen stars Paul Dano as a struggling musician seeking redemption and is one of the high-profile titles of the second week, being the auteur’s anticipated directorial follow-up to her critically acclaimed Treeless Mountain. Detropia (from the Academy Award-nominated duo Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady), which pays a visit to the Motor City (and generations of Detroit residents), could be a discovery, while the “inspired-by-true-events” Compliance from filmmaker Craig Zobel is a must-see, if for no other reason than understanding why it provoked widely polarized reactions from both critics and audiences at Sundance 2012. The Elizabeth Olsen-starrer Liberal Arts from “How I Met Your Mother’”s Josh Radner (his second film as a writer-director after Happythankyoumoreplease) looks to be a lighthearted offering and is worth taking a look at in order to follow Olsen’s career taking shape after her breakthrough performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene.
Among the program of short film compilations, Take Me To The Balloony Bin! (curated by the Saftie Brothers of Daddy Longlegs), looks to be the most interesting one with its classic, balloon-themed short films that complement the Safties’ latest work The Black Balloon (also screening as part of this compilation). It’s also worth mentioning that this short program is announced to be appropriate for film lovers of all ages!
Finally, there are several special events outside of this year’s main slate that will enhance the festival program with unique experiences. You’ll have the opportunity to discover Roberto Rossellini’s The Machine That Kills Bad People (once thought to be a lost work) in a North American premiere, with a digital restoration that first screened at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival; as well as Noah Baumbach’s Kicking & Screaming in a special tribute screening. Another exciting special event is certainly the screening of Lotte Reiniger’s “dreamlike homage to The Arabian Nights,” The Adventures of Prince Achmed, with live accompaniment by 3epkano and the avant-garde cellist Erik Friedlander.
BAMcinemaFest will come to a close on July 1 with a free screening of Don Letts’ documentary on photographer Bob Gruen (widely known for his legendary photo of John Lennon in shades and a NYC t-shirt): Rock 'n' Roll Exposed: The Photography of Bob Gruen.
The timing of BAMcinemaFest is ideal: Taking place at the very start of the summer when audiences are disparately seeking challenging alternatives to blockbusters, the festival is a desired destination for NYC film-lovers. Check out the full schedule below (or by visiting the BAMcinemaFest page), and mark your calendars. Wishing a happy festival to everyone!
Thu, Jun 21
7pm: Spotlight screening—Beasts of the Southern Wild
Fri, Jun 22
Sat, Jun 23
2pm: Take Me to the Balloony Bin!
4:30pm: Welcome to Pine Hill
6:50pm: Nobody Walks
9:30pm: The Comedy
Sun, Jun 24
2pm: Crazy and Thief
4pm: Jerry and Me + The Disorderly Orderly
7pm: The Imposter
9:30pm: The Unspeakable Act
Mon, Jun 25
7pm: The Patron Saints
9:15pm: The Machine That Kills Bad People
Tue, Jun 26
7pm: Radio Unnameable—Followed by a live performance by Simeon Coxe
9:30pm: The International Sign for Choking
Wed, Jun 27
7pm: Walk Away Renée
9pm: Outdoor screening—The Comedy
Thu, Jun 28
7pm: Pavilion—Followed by a live performance by Sam Prekop & Archer Prewitt
9:15pm: For Ellen
Fri, Jun 29
7pm: Liberal Arts
Sat, Jun 30
2pm: Mixed Shorts
4:30pm: All City Shorts
7pm: Kicking and Screaming
Sun, Jul 1
6pm: The Adventures of Prince Achmed—Live accompaniment by 3epkano and Erik Friedlander
8pm: Closing Night—Rock ‘n’ Roll Exposed: The Photography of Bob Gruen