This week, Screener has the good fortune to be blogging from the third annual Aruba International Film Festival (AIFF), where the sun is baking but the breezes from the sparkling ocean are constant. AIFF was founded in 2010 by producers Jonathan Vieira and Giuseppe Cioccarelli, and it’s already used its destination appeal to attract such talents as Richard Gere, Jonathan Demme, Patricia Clarkson, Kim Cattrall, renowned editor Thelma Schoonmaker and Babel screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. Its chief creative force is festival director Claudio Masenza, a veteran Italian journalist, screenwriter and documentary director who has served on the selection committee of the Venice Film Festival and consultant for the Rome International Film Festival.
AIFF’s 2012 schedule of 34 features and 10 shorts is an eclectic mix of offerings from Europe, the USA, South America, Australia, Canada, Japan and Lebanon, along with its most essential program, the “Caribbean Spotlight Series.” So many films from the Caribbean never surface in the States or other world markets that AIFF provides a rare chance to see what’s happening cinema-wise in this inviting part of the globe.
After three days, the most popular feature here in Aruba is surely Children of the Wind, Daphne Schmon’s documentary about how the tiny Caribbean island of Bonaire (with a mere 15,000 residents and no traffic lights) emerged as a powerhouse in the competitive sport of windsurfing. The film mainly focuses on brothers Tonky and Taty Frans and their cousin Kiri Thode—all incredibly photogenic—who brought dazzling new energy to the sport with their unprecedented freestyle maneuvers that left their previously dominant European rivals with mouths agape. The boys are now among the top five freestyle windsurfers in the world and huge celebrities in their homeland, an inspiration for all young people on this island that, one native jokes, outsiders often refer to as “Bon-Where?”.
Deftly edited, Children of the Wind provides a brief history of windsurfing’s evolution (it became an Olympic sport in 1984) and how, thanks to pioneers like Elvis Martinus and Patun Saragoza, Bonaire’s fishing community became so adept at it. But this is more than just a sports movie; it’s also a tale of race, class, deprivation and determination. The irresistible smiling faces of Tonky and Taty hide some traumatic childhood experiences which filmmaker Schmon sensitively reveals.
Bonaire’s local sports heroes were at the Saturday night screening, which took on the excitement of a live arena event from the enthusiasm of the Caribbean folks in the audience. The next morning, AIFF brought the visiting press out to sea in a catamaran to watch Tonky, Taty, Kiri and their compatriots in action; it was a thrilling sight. I have no doubt that North America will soon be seeing Children of the Wind for itself, at the very least as a staple of cable sports channels. The film, by the way, just won the Caribbean Spotlight Audience Award.
Another sports movie, Ballplayer: Pelotero, shared the Caribbean Spotlight Jury Award with Jamaican drama Ghett’a Life. Ballplayer, picked up by Strand Releasing for the U.S., explores the phenomenon of the Dominican presence (some 20% of total players) in Major League Baseball. Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin and Jon Paley’s documentary focuses on two talented teenage aspirants among the thousands of mostly poor Dominicans in training camps, dreaming of that multi-million-dollar professional contract. Each seems to be on a smooth road to glory when complications set in, mainly due to MLB’s wariness over past instances of fraud. (Candidates are signed once they turn 16, but many applicants have shaved years from their resumes and even hidden their real identities.) Miguel Angel Sanó’s story is especially poignant—he’s a truly exceptional athlete but he looks awfully mature for 16, and MLB puts him through an unending battery of tests (bone scans, DNA) to certify that he really is that young.
One of the coaches likens these eager ballplayers to a harvest: “When it grows, you sell it.” This baseball-island connection goes back decades: Four outstanding Dominican players in the 1962 San Francisco Giants were signed for a total of $5,000, a pittance compared to what their American teammates were getting. Once again, it all comes down to race, class and power.
The jury gave a special mention to América, Sonia Fritz’s drama about a young woman (the compelling Lymari Nadal in the title role) who flees her abusive lover in Vieques (the small island east of Puerto Rico that was a U.S. Navy bombing test site) for a new life with family in New York City and as a nanny for a constantly bickering upper-class couple. Her exile is even more painful because she’s left behind a 14-year-old daughter who’s run off with a boyfriend. The scenes with América’s Bronx family (including “Ugly Betty” dad Tony Plana) are especially winning and warm, and Nadal effortlessly earns our sympathy for her struggle. The melodramatic climax, after América’s volatile ex-lover tracks her down, seems to belong in another, more genre-oriented film, but to be fair, that sequence was hampered by digital projection glitches at the screening.
In a Q&A after the screening, the engaging Fritz revealed that her film was shot in 18 days, a remarkable feat for a picture this stylishly directed. América played in eight theatres in Puerto Rico for two months, and surely has enough wide audience potential for a U.S. theatrical release, especially with our growing Latino population.
A standout attraction of the Aruba Fest is its intimate Q&As with visiting celebrities. Virginia Madsen, who co-stars with Morgan Freeman in the sweet opening-night film The Magic of Belle Isle, was refreshingly candid in her conversation with “Extra” correspondent Ben Lyons. The Sideways Oscar nominee laughed about her image as a voluptuous ’80s starlet (“The ‘girls’ walked in before me” at auditions) and advised that the attitudes towards actresses “of a certain age” are always “someone else’s perception.” She also confided a harrowing story about a low point in her career when her house was about to be foreclosed on and she considered taking a role in which she would be required to jump into a swimming pool filled with rats. Seeing that as a metaphor for her career, she turned it down, and within two weeks fate offered her a lucrative TV movie opposite Tom Selleck.
Madsen, still quite beautiful, confessed to gushing over Morgan Freeman at their first meeting at his American Film Institute tribute. The two stars have a lovely rapport in Rob Reiner’s movie, a chemistry that sparked, Madsen said, from their mutual love of Frank Sinatra songs.
Oscar-winning editor Pietro Scalia’s session was more of a tutorial on his approach to film editing. He called editing “the third stage of rewriting the film,” noting that “nothing is a given” at that stage. He showed the opening scene of Gladiator and shared how the first symbolic shot of a hand gliding through a wheat field came to him during the editing process. Scalia followed with the virtuosic opening sequence of JFK (which got a big round of applause) and a helicopter raid scene from Black Hawk Down inspired by alien-invasion thrillers.
Scalia is the editor of two big summer 3D movies, Prometheus and The Amazing Spider-Man, and he offered some extremely sensible advice on editing (and directing) for 3D. You need to be conscious of how long it takes the eye to settle, he declared, and “the proper geometry of space is something you can’t cheat.” For fast-cut action scenes, he recommends adjusting the convergence so that the images are shallower, closer to 2D. Scalia’s handiwork is there for all to see in the impactful visuals of Prometheus now on worldwide screens.
The Aruba International Film Festival is also a music festival, it turns out, and the first two nights featured 100-minute outdoor concerts from Latin music superstars Juanes and Marc Anthony. As the thousands of spectators sang along to nearly every song, this New Yorker realized there really is a whole other world of pop culture out there. When I get back, I’m ordering my first Juanes CD.