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Lifting the curtain on the magic of the St. Louis Film Festival

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 11, 2008 - When Toto gives a tug to the drapery and reveals Oz's secret to Dorothy and her loyal retinue, the Wizard issues a final stern but ludicrous order: "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain."

Although we certainly don't style ourselves "great and powerful" here at the St. Louis International Film Festival, we do like to think that every November, for 11 days, we manage a small bit of wizardry by conjuring the world's cinema for local moviegoers. And unlike Oz's magic man, we don't mind a peek behind our curtain.

We're thus happy to respond to the Beacon's request for some insight into how Cinema St. Louis chooses the several hundred movie guests - shorts, documentaries and narrative features - that we invite to our annual party, which begins Thursday, Nov. 13, with "Humboldt County" at the Tivoli and continues through Nov. 23 with more than 170 programs at multiple venues.

The fest shares some characteristics with another major November event, the just-concluded presidential election. As with the political parties, we begin with a platform, a mission statement that provides the essential criteria that guide our selections. At its core, the fest strives to offer the area's residents an opportunity to see high-quality films that would otherwise never screen in our city.

St. Louisans actually have access to far more films outside the Hollywood mainstream than moviegoers in most cities of our size. Because the national art-film chain Landmark Theatres has nine screens in town - three at the Tivoli and six at the Plaza Frontenac - and Webster University has such a consistently ambitious film series, we have a surprising diversity of choices, with perhaps 400 movies playing here in any given year.

Local film lovers should certainly rejoice in that relative abundance, but even with the vital contributions of Landmark, Webster and such targeted programs as the exemplary Italian Film Festival of St. Louis, some of the world's most accomplished, provocative and innovative work still would not screen in St. Louis without the film fest.

Despite our recent election of Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan, Americans remain generally skeptical of all things foreign, including film. Cinematically, much of our resistance is likely attributed to a fear of subtitles - "I have to read the film?" - and a fundamental misapprehension that foreign films are somehow work, requiring strenuous intellectual engagement and offering few emotional or visceral compensations for the effort.

There's no denying that the films of Jean-Luc Godard or Bela Tarr or Carlos Reygadas require a different set of expectations than "Iron Man" - and festivals partially exist to provide opportunities for open-minded audiences to challenge themselves - but most international films are as accessible, moving and simply enjoyable as a Hollywood movie, as anyone who attended, say, the Hungarian "Children of Glory" at the 2007 fest can attest. But because distributors and exhibitors bring so few international films to U.S. screens, at least outside of our most cosmopolitan cities, American moviegoers can be forgiven some of their xenophobia.

Homegrown films not made within the Hollywood system fare little better. Although an occasional American indie achieves commercial success, those without a slumming star or two to attract a distributor's attention usually must content themselves with critical praise and, with luck, a DVD release. The problem's especially acute for regional filmmakers, such as our growing community of St. Louis directors, who are also at a geographic remove from the gate-keeping decision-makers in LA and NYC.

Documentarians, both in the U.S. and abroad, also struggle to enter the theatrical marketplace. Thankfully, because nonfiction films appeal to targeted niche audiences, they have TV, cable and DVD options that are foreclosed to narrative filmmakers, but only a tiny fraction of worthy documentaries screen in theaters.

Finally, although shorts now crowd cyberspace and jostle for Web surfers' attention, filmmakers hoping to see their short work on a big screen rather than a computer monitor find the theatrical world a distinctly unwelcoming place.

These are the films that the fest primarily pursues: the orphaned but extraordinary international, American-indie and local features, documentaries and shorts that deserve adoption by St. Louis audiences.

To find those candidates, the three-member fest staff (and a cadre of knowledgeable volunteers) works the fest circuit, reads the trades and critical journals, solicits screeners and sifts through our submissions - this year, we received more than 1,000 hopefuls. When the last selections are made in mid-September, we hope to have identified 200 or so movies you don't yet know but will soon come to love.

There are exceptions, of course, and often our best-attended films are the handful of art-house critical favorites and award contenders with which the studios annually gift us. Examples from 2007 include "Juno" and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"; this year, we anticipate serious attention for Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler," which features a career performance by Mickey Rourke. Such films are guaranteed a release, but fest attendees are the mavens of cinema, enjoying the chance to see a movie first and help set the agenda for the larger public.

Let's return to our political metaphor for one final point: The fest is sometimes accused of elitism - a charge also leveled against our president-elect during the campaign - and we certainly feature a few films every year that appeal exclusively to our base, the dedicated lover of film. But the film fest strives, like a successful political party, to erect an all-inclusive big tent that welcomes everyone, from hard-core cinephile to casual filmgoer.

Among our offerings this year, you'll find likely Oscar nominees and essential American indies, thoughtful international films and visceral genre works, timeless classics and forward-looking experiments, tough-minded documentaries and heartwarming family movies. And many are accompanied by their makers, an aspect of fest attendance that adds immeasurably to the moviegoing experience.

Now, if you'll forgive a modest stump speech, I'll conclude by asking you to visit our Website (www.cinemastlouis.org ), examine the array of choices, and give the film fest a vote of confidence - unlike many of those newly elected politicians, and that ineffectual Wizard, we'll deliver on our promise.

Cliff Froehlich is executive director of Cinema St. Louis, which presents the 17th annual St. Louis International Film Festival from Nov. 13-23. 

Short takes: 

Humboldt County

Darren Grodsky & Danny Jacobs, U.S., 2008, 97 min.

After a drunken one-night stand, tightly wound UCLA med student Peter Hadley (Jeremy Strong) is stranded in picturesque Humboldt County at the family home of free-spirited Bogart (Fairuza Balk) in an eccentric enclave of pot farmers.

Adam Resurrected

Paul Schrader, U.S., 2008, 106 min.

Jeff Goldblum gives an acclaimed performance -- described by the Hollywood Reporter as "the role of a career" -- as Adam Stein, a charismatic patient at a mental institution for Holocaust survivors in early-'60s Israel.

Wyatt Weed, U.S., 2008, 96 min.

Laura crawls from a pit at a construction site, beaten and bloody, apparently left for dead. With no memory, she sets off into the night, looking for answers and a way home. Does a mysterious young man intend to help her or kill her.


Mary Bronstein, U.S., 2008, 78 min.

Director Bronstein stars in a bravely unsympathetic role as a maddeningly un-self-aware, tyrannical and emotionally stunted young woman engaged in toxic relationships with two exasperated friends (Greta Gerwig and Amy Judd).

Pretty Ugly People
Tate Taylor, U.S., 2008, 101 min.

After gastric-bypass surgery, Lucy (Missy Pyle) fakes a serious illness to trick her estranged college friends into gathering in the Montana wilderness. Lucy wants to show off her slim figure, hoping she'll finally "feel like one of them." Faced with the rigors of the outdoors, these pretty people turn ugly.

The Bet Collector (Kubrador)

Jeffrey Jeturian, Philippines, 2006, 98 min., Tagalog

Amy runs a small convenience store out of her home. But customers are scarce, and without the help of her husband or pregnant daughter, she must supplement the family income and collects bets for a popular but illegal numbers game.

Kept & Dreamless (Las Mantenidas Sin Suenos)
Vera Fogwill & Martin Desalvo, Argentina, 2005, 94 min., Spanish

During Argentina's economic crisis of the '90s, 9-year-old Eugenia and her mother live a seemingly colorful life. But Eugenia must deal with her mother's dysfunctional and drug-addled lifestyle.

7 p.m. Blind Mountain (Mang shan)
Yang Li, China, 2007, 95 min., Mandarin (Shaanxi dialect)

In his first film since the acclaimed and equally devastating "Blind Shaft" (2003), director Yang turns from the corruption of China's illegal mining to the even more horrifying illegal trade in women.

Late Bloomers (Die Herbstzeitlosen)

Bettina Oberli, Switzerland, 2008, 90 min., German

Martha (87-year-old Stephanie Glaser), a plucky retiree and recent widow, stirs up things in her conservative mountain village when she and several friends fulfill a lifelong dream by opening a shop selling provocative lingerie. 

Rajnesh Domalpalli, India, 2006, 111 min., Telugu

Set in rural South India, "Vanaja" explores the chasm that still divides classes and movingly chronicles a young girl's struggle to come of age.

9:30 p.m. The Unknown Woman (La Sconosciuta)

Giuseppe Tornatore, Italy, 2006, 118 min., Italian

In this Hitchcockian thriller - Salon says it's a "delirious, semi-Gothic, overcooked melodrama" - Irena (Xenia Rappoport), a Ukrainian woman, calculatedly insinuates herself into the lives of a young, affluent Italian family.

The Juche Idea 

Jim Finn, U.S., 2008, 62 min.

With Interkosmos (Jim Finn, U.S., 2006, 71 min.)

In "The Juche Idea," St. Louisan Jim Finn presents a deadpan comedy that follows the efforts of a South Korean video artist to revitalize North Korean cinema. In "Interkosmos," Finn chronicles a failed German space-colonization mission.

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