You don't have to come with us, Charlotte — maybe you want to go to a real movie.
–A festival attendee
Over the course of 12 days, the 10th annual Nortel Palm Springs Film Festival screened 160 films from 44 countries, including its traditional presentation of foreign-language Oscar submissions. There were 32 world premieres — almost exclusively American movies — as well as 41 U.S. premieres of films from nations as far-flung as Iceland and the Republic of Macedonia. It was a strong, ambitious lineup, bringing together works as varied as The Book of Great Wishes, a sometimes mawkish, wholly irresistible Polish heartwarmer about orphans and old folks; a beautiful glimpse of rural Sri Lankan life, Death on a Full Moon Day; and the Chinese Oscar candidate Genghis Khan, whose bizarre blend of love story and epic machismo is no doubt attributable to its Mongolian directress, Mai Li Si, who cut an imposing figure at the screening, swathed in black leather and accompanied by an entourage in traditional Mongolian dress.
Yet after 10 years, the festival is still struggling to establish itself as a force in world cinema, and so the seats are as important as the screens — in other words, who's seeing these films? At the U.S. premiere of The Herd, the wildly lovely, impressionistic second feature by Canadian filmmaker Peter Lynch (Project Grizzly), the audience was a mere 30-odd heads, nearly all sporting one shade of silver or another and, in the case of one group of ladies, enjoying the additional diversion of a card game.
It was an all too common and, for the outsider, slightly surreal experience to find theaters consistently and overwhelmingly inhabited by wealthy seniors. One wonders what this narrow demographic can do for the films. On the plus side, the festival's popularity has grown among the locals, and patrons have proved that they're ready and able to part with the necessary funds. (As the festival newsletter breathlessly reported, benefactors and boardpersons
Ric and Rozene Supple laid down nearly $400,000 for an old art-house theater, which will be transformed into a festival complex replete with three screens, a coffee shop and an “Italian street façade.”) There is also the opportunity for studios and distributors to reach Academy members who've emigrated to the retirement haven and have fewer opportunities for viewing foreign contenders.
But at the festival's close, not one picture, foreign or otherwise, had been picked up for distribution, while audience favorites — the only honor to be claimed at this noncompetitive event — tended toward those that had already generated a favorable buzz, including Life Is Beautiful, Central Station and Miramax's forthcoming charmer about a real-life '40s German vocal group, The Harmonists (at which I witnessed a friendly exchange between Barry Manilow and a rabbi).
It would help, of course, if the festival could hang on to a programmer. Current program director Monica Breckinridge is the fourth to hold that title. Brought on board last October, she had to finalize a schedule by the 13th of November, a timetable that left little freedom for courting industry or exploring the festival's potential. Breckinridge believes it's time for Palm Springs to hire a year-round programmer. “I think it's important for the identity of the festival to have some consistency,” she says. “The vision has to remain clear, and the commitment renewed in a very deliberate, practical way.”
She's right. Although there is much to be said for seeing the world from the luxe comfort and lazy pace of the desert in winter, only a deliberate commitment will decide the festival's direction and determine if the view, as so often happens, is enjoyed only by a privileged few.