Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Watching new documentaries take shape during INDEPENDENT FILM WEEK

Sometimes a last-minute invitation can open up the whole world. Yesterday was a good example, when I said "yes" to producer Claire Weingarten's suggestion that I come to see 20 minutes of a documentary that she and two friends had made that was being shown at Independent Film Week. Currently celebrating its 30th anniversary and formerly known as IFP Market, Independent Film Week hosts 156 projects, including documentary works-in-progress, "emerging narrative" screenplays and "no borders" international co-productions to a mainly industry crowd. The purpose is to get your work seen, in hopes that distribution opportunities will arise or that people with money will like what they see enough to invest and thus help you finish your film. Sponsors of the week-long event include Kodak, HBO, A&E Indie Films, Panasonic and SAGIndie, as well as the ever-present Stella Artois (slurp!).

Over the decades more than 20,000 filmmakers have taken part in the IFP program, including Charles Burnett, Todd Haynes, Jim Jarmusch, Barbara Kopple, Michael Moore, Mira Nair, John Sayles, Ed Burns and Kevin Smith. Some of the young people involved in this year's presentations will no doubt join this illustrious group in the upcoming decade. Venues for the screenings include the Chelsea Cinemas, Pier at Solar One, the Stella Artois Lounge and the basement auditorium at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where I found myself yesterday afternoon.

Spread out across huge tables were sets of postcards advertising various films, every one of which looked at first glance worth seeing. With only one hour to spare, I quickly perused the cards, and picked up one for a film by Jonathan Lee entitled Growing up with Paul Goodman , about a writer (shown above, bottom) that I, as a younger man, much admired. I'll hope to see the completed documentary one day.

While waiting for Claire's segment to begin, I was introduced to her friends Jen Gilomen and Sally Rubin who have their own movie in the mix, Ghosts of Appalachia . GOA deal with two friends in a small Kentucky community who find themselves on opposite sides of a conflict over coal mining. I asked both sets of filmmakers about how they found their two projects. Jen and Sally started large: with the world and its problems -- chief among these, energy needs -- and then worked down into subject (coal), place (Appalachia), and finally people (their two pro/antagonists).

Claire's team (including co-directors Cambria Matlow and Morgan Robinson) was handed its subject by a friend working on energy in Africa who told them about the situation, noting that they might want to film it. They did. The result is Burning in the Sun, of which the audience (about 25 people filling a small conference room) saw twenty minutes. BITS tracks a young man named Daniel Dembele who, raised in Mali but having spent time in Europe, seems to combine the best of both worlds. He has decided to build and install cheap solar panels (shown above, top) that will bring the first-ever electricity to the small villages of his native country. This proves a fascinating subject. The twenty minutes shown to us were riveting, and the ramifications are pretty extraordinary -- for Mali, of course, but for poor countries worldwide and, in fact, for some rich ones, too. If solar energy can be created as easily and cheaply as shown here, our government has, as Ricky used to tell Lucy, some 'splainin' to do. (And doesn't it, though -- about almost everything.)

As I say, I spent approximately one hour of time at the IFP event but walked out, my mind racing with possibilities and feeling more energized and enthusiastic than I have in ages. Let's hope investors and sponsors feel the same.

(For information about IFP or any of the three films mentioned, simply click on the underlined link to each, and you can contact the filmmakers via their web site.)

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