On April 29, the Williamsburg Film Festival celebrates its fifth birthday, and although it’s spreading its wings to a venue with greater visibility, it’s already being roughed up by a playground bully.
Happily, it appears to be holding its own thanks to the amiable leadership of its director and founder Marco Ursino. Reflecting the broader audience and larger pool of filmmakers the festival hopes to reach out to, he’s changed its name to the Brooklyn International Film Festival, which, however well intentioned, has resulted in the unfortunate acronym, BIFF.
"Our growth and popularity have snowballed to the point where we needed to align ourselves with a larger venue and encompass more than just one Brooklyn neighborhood," said Ursino.
Another coming-of-age milestone for the festival is its new screening room, the Cantor Auditorium at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. (The festival had screened films at a 1920s Williamsburg movie theater until it was put up for sale.)
"The transition from an exclusively Williamsburg setting to our museum in the heart of Brooklyn will not only benefit the Brooklyn Museum of Art and BIFF, but also give larger, more diverse audiences access to the festival’s wonderful film programs," said Mona Smith, manager of adult programs at the museum, explaining that festival ticket holders can enjoy the museum’s permanent collections for free. (There is, however, an extra charge for "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth" exhibit.)
The film festival’s new venue and name change signal an organization that’s growing up from a grassroots collection of film buffs to a festival contender ready to hold its own despite bullies like Robert DeNiro’s new, American Express-sponsored Tribeca Film Festival - which picked the same dates to hold its film festival. Ursino, ever the protective parent, moved BIFF’s dates to April 29-May 5, so they wouldn’t cannibalize each other.
"Why compromise attendance and coverage and sponsorship of another festival that’s doing the same thing," Ursino wondered about Tribeca’s motivations. "Tribeca is on a bigger scale - they’re first sponsor is American Express and they have DeNiro - you would think they would be more helpful and sympathetic to people who are doing the same thing."
While BIFF hasn’t yet become too big for its britches, it has become too big for its home base, which is Ursino’s own apartment in Williamsburg. On a Saturday afternoon this month, the staff was mincing steps around a squad of visiting short-film judges while cats Magellano and Isabella opted for safer, higher ground.
Showing 80 films - including features, short films, documentaries and animation - from 25 countries, BIFF has captured it’s first title sponsor, Stella Artois, and has an interesting mix of films competing for the Grand Chameleon Award (Best Film) and Chameleon Statuettes for best films in their category.
"Basically, the idea behind this festival is to continue bringing the best films from all over the world to Brooklyn," said Ursino, himself an Italian transplant. "It’s a tourist attraction, bringing new people to Brooklyn."
The festival, which has chosen "Progress" as this year’s theme, opens with remarks by a Williamsburg native, producer Irwin Yablans ("Halloween I-III") and Borough President Marty Markowitz. The opening night film is the U.S. premiere of director Maurizio Sciarra’s "Off to the Revolution by 2CV." This Italian road trip movie, set in 1974, won the Golden Leopard for Best Film at the 54th Locarno Film Fest in Italy.
In addition to an international slate of filmmakers, works with a Brooklyn connection will also be screened.
"Operation Midnight Climax," directed by Gadi Harel and Will Keenan, was shot in Williamsburg and the East Village. The world premiere of this feature film, about a character who has uncovered a world of cover-ups, conspiracies and hidden agendas operating just below the surface of our day-to-day existence, will be May 4 at 5 pm.
The documentary "Black Picket Fence," directed by Sergio Goes, will also have its world premiere at the festival on May 2 at 9:15 pm. Culled from two years of footage, this film is a look beyond gangsta rap stereotypes. The rags to potential riches story focuses on the life of rapper TIZ in the midst of his East New York hustling.
Williamsburg resident Anne Paas - who won best new director at the festival last year - returns this year with another short, "Gas Up & Save!" a blackly comic yet incredibly stylish film about a woman on a cross-country journey who has a creepy fascination with Liberace and divine aspirations for her son (May 5 at 7:15 pm).
Another short, "Vic Thrill: Painting at the Break of Day" directed by Chris Cassidy, is a humorous five-minute film shot on a rooftop in Greenpoint, which coincidentally is now an eerie premonition of Sept. 11, while the documentary short, "Clyde" by Brooklyn resident Mans Mansson, is about a homeless man’s response to Sept. 11. (The films will be shown May 1 at 5 pm and April 30 at 5 pm, respectively.)
The festival also scored the East Coast premiere of "Hotel," directed by Mike Figgis ("Leaving Las Vegas").
The film’s star-filled roster includes Salma Hayek, Rhys Ifans, David Schwimmer and John Malkovich. With only brief character outlines - and without a script - the cast lived, improvised and filmed under one roof. "Hotel" will be screened on May 3 at 7 pm.
So, on its fifth birthday, the newly re-christened Brooklyn International Film Festival has proven by its example - a solid, international slate of films that still manages to support local filmmakers - that you can play fair and still excel.
GO Brooklyn editor Lisa J. Curtis is a Brooklyn International Film Festival judge.
The Brooklyn International Film Festival takes place April 29 through May 5 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Cantor Auditorium, 200 Eastern Parkway. Tickets are $10 each or $150 festival pass. A four-pack is $30. Opening night (April 29 at 7 pm) gala tickets are $25 and are followed by a party. For a complete film schedule call (718) 280-7404 or go to www.wbff.org.