Monday, April 21, 2008

2008 Philadelphia Film Festival



The Philadelphia Film Festival (PFF) just wrapped up another successful screening of over 260 films, chock full of Q&As with the filmmakers, including celebs William H. Macy, Shane West, John Leguizamo, Jason Ritter and Patti Smith.

The A-List found the festival experience vast and varied, but with the question still posed from issue #102 ( "Why only one film offering at the festival by an African American filmmaker? (Barry Jenkins' Medicine for Melancholy)?" It seemed only fair to let the festival’s curators have a chance to address this imbalance.

“As a film fest for international films we strive to seek out the very best in films representing the complete human condition. When we see films, while not blind to race, we certainly have no idea of the color of those behind the camera," answers Scott Johnston, Regional Films Curator. "There is an irony in the fact that if we fail to represent African-American creators we will be viewed as 'exclusive' or myopic. Yet, if we place work based chiefly on the race of the individual - we'll be accused of tokenism (at best) or exploitation (at worst)."

He continues: "If the films I see are reinforcing negative stereotypes, yet are very well produced - what do I do? You mention a disparity of African-American in the mainstream, but last year, Lee Daniels was our guest of guests and his film showcased to great effect. "

Johnston says that while there is no problem in attracting filmmakers of color, the submissions this year may have have fallen short. "Filmon Mebrahtu, Shannon Newby, Rodney Whittenberg and dozens of filmmakers have submitted films, which we've showcased, and will doubtless have back," says Johnson. "If this year’s line-up seems to fall short of anyone’s expectations to truly represent cultural diversity, I apologize. I certainly shoot for inclusiveness of all peoples each year, and (by and large) I am proud of every year achieving that.”

According to Mike Dennis of ReelBlack (, a full-service film and video production company dedicated to creating and promoting "good movies 'bout Black Folks," says that the time may be ripe for the city to have a festival dedicated solely to Black filmmakers. “I think there is a definite need for an African-American Film Festival in this city and I wouldn't expect PFF, which has its own niche to take responsibility for filling the void...I do know, that a number of the [Black] filmmakers I work with, prefer to have their work go straight to video and get it out there that way, rather than the expense of the festival circuit.” On to the happenings at the PFF. Our picks for standout films screened this year.

Lovely By Surprise (USA/Writer/Director, Kirt Gunn) This is a film in the vein of Adaptation or Stranger Than Fiction where the main character is a writer dealing with fictional characters who become all too real. If you are patient and give this film a chance to make sense, you’ll come away with a good tale, full of pathos. If you need a film to fully explain itself, than we doubt viewers will find it lovely at all.

Medicine for Melancholy (USA/Writer/Director Barry Jenkins) A 24-hour romance, a la Before Sunset but not as dialogue heavy. It would be refreshing if the film just dealt with a one-night stand and infidelity, which happened to feature a Black couple. However, in this case, the extenuating plot involves the complex issue of race. Micca (Wyatt Cenac) is a black man born and raised in predominately White San Francisco, where Blacks make up only 7% of the population, a fact that Micca is all too aware. Joanne (Tracey Heggins) is a transplant to SF, and not particularly affected by diversity. Her concern is that she’s cheating on her boyfriend, who is White. The Q&A with Jenkins revealed a lot of the charming and funny moments came from the improvisation of lead actor, comedian. Surprising too, this was Cenac’s acting debut!

The Take (USA/Philadelphia Director Brad Furman) This is an all too real and terrifying story of a decent family man (John Leguizamo) shot on the job while driving an armored truck. His struggles to recover from being shot in the head, deal with his anger over the incident, and clear his name when accused of being the “"inside man” on the robbery. A gritty and unnerving drama. Also starring Tyrese Gibson and Rosie Perez.

Then She Found Me (USA/Director Helen Hunt) Not to downgrade the film, but Helen Hunt's directorial debut will be an excellent renter; it will fly off the shelves as soon as it reaches Blockbuster and Netflix, but don't think it will do much box office. Hunt plays a 39-year-old Jewish (not by blood, but by adoption) woman who desperately wants to have a baby. But her new marriage to a very immature husband (Matthew Broderick) falls apart quickly. She soon begins an awkward romance with (Colin Firth), discovers she's pregnant with her husband's child, her adoptive mother dies and her birth mother (Bette Midler) bursts into her life. In the Bible, God often makes major changes and transformations in a period of 40, since the movie deals with religious overtones, one wonders if Hunt had this theme in mind.


John Leguizamo (Carlito’s Way, Moulin Rouge, Summer of Sam) was given the Festival’s Artistic Achievement Award. The evening featured Leguizamo being interviewed Actor’s Studio style, revealing him to be the way we perceived him to be both committed artist and cocky comedian. We were treated to anecdotes of the time he nearly came to blows with Patrick Swayze, both of them ready to rip off wigs and “F- me" pumps to go at it when filming To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, in which they were in drag. He also discussed the many mishaps during the shooting of his current film, The Take--like the Kraft Services chef being shot on location because the neighborhood kids wanted to eat for free; numerous crew members quitting (including hair and make up), which left Rosie Perez to do her own; and Leguizamo’s trailer being repossessed with him still in it!

Obviously, life is never dull for Legoizamo. --Le Anne Lindsay