Brooklyn is not Sundance," says Marco
Ursino, as if to reassure himself. .
Despite the impressive growth of the Brooklyn International Film Festival, executive director Ursino doesn’t see it becoming a market juggernaut or dominating its setting like the Sundance Film Festival, which takes over tiny Park City, Utah, each year.
"We’re talking about Brooklyn here! Everything has already been done. It’s a land of artists and big people," Ursino tells GO Brooklyn.
Still, the festival, running April 28 through May 4 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, has gotten pretty big. It began in 1998 as the Williamsburg Brooklyn Film Festival, a designation and location it outgrew last year.
This year’s edition, which opens April 28 with a screening of the Merchant and Ivory Film "Merci, Dr. Rey" - a zany murder-mystery exploring the life of the closeted, gay son of a narcissistic diva, starring Dianne Wiest and Vanessa Redgrave - boasts 96 films in five categories: features, documentaries, narrative shorts, and animated and experimental shorts. The schedule is so packed that the Rose Cinemas at the Brooklyn Academy of Music have been enlisted to catch some of the overflow.
The 96 were culled from 1,578 submissions - a leap up from fewer than 1,000 last year.
"That is worrisome, a little bit," says Ursino, still sounding quite happy. "With more films, it means more people working, therefore a bigger investment, bigger commitment with sponsors, more marketing. Every year it’s a little miracle.
"I guess we’re doing something right, because [sponsors] who were with us the first year are still with us. We’re here to stay for the long term. Just to ensure that, we always do a nice, thorough job as far as our relationships with other organizations, other entities and with people in general."
A prime example is Ursino’s stint on April 3 with the "Principal for a Day" program. As part of his brief tenure, he treated students at Middle School 143 in Bushwick to a couple of Brooklyn International Film Festival (BIFF) selections. The Canadian animated short "In the Back of the Bus" (2002) brought down the house with its colorful gallery of bizarre bus passengers grooving to a cappella and beat-box vocal music.
"These kids had the time of their lives," exults Ursino. "They were dancing like crazy." The school’s award-winning student chorus will perform before the 3 pm program on May 2, which includes "Back of the Bus," and MS 143 students will have a free day at the festival.
"It’s gonna be a show where it’s very vocal," observes Ursino, clearly relishing the thought.
This isn’t the only way in which BIFF serves the local community. Ursino points with particular pride to the list of 74 countries that submitted films.
"There are over 190 ethnic groups living in Brooklyn. We basically bring the best of their countries here. Brooklyn becomes a theater where everybody can be really proud of their own origins, ethnicity and arts."
That goes equally for folks who consider themselves Brooklynites first and foremost. A handful of selections are either about the borough, made here or made by filmmakers based here. But Ursino says he and his colleagues didn’t go too far out of their way to favor hometown product.
"Obviously, there is, on our side, a will to do that [But] the program strongly represents the submissions, in percentage," says Orsino. "We’re starting now to have more films from the U.S. in the program."
Director Harry O’Reilly’s debut "Crooked Lines" (2003; screens May 4 at 7 pm) is in a long, crooked line of films about the seedier side of the Borough of Kings: fast-talking con men, small-time mobsters, neighborhood weirdoes and the eternal heist gone bad.
In Latvian director Aleksandrs Petukhovs’ surreal epic "The Last Soviet Movie" (2003; May 4 at 1 pm), a Brooklyn writer traces his Russian ancestors’ adventures in the Revolution.
Williamsburg-based Ari Taub’s "Letters from the Dead" (2003; May 3 at 5 p.m.) goes just as far afield while staying simultaneously close to home. While it was shot in the United States, including on some interior sets in Brooklyn, the movie’s ostensible setting is World War II-era Northern Italy. European actors were flown here to play the German and Italian soldiers who populate this, "perhaps the lowest budget war film ever made," according to the festival program.
Just as unlikely, arguably, is the documentary "Brooklyn Stories" (2002; April 29 at 5 pm), which showcases the recollections of old-time Dodgers fans. Nostalgia for the borough’s lost team is nothing new but the movie is Dutch, made by the Amsterdam-based Jos de Putter.
Ursino laughs at the incongruity, but says that Dutch filmmakers seem to have an affinity for portraits of "ordinary America."
"This is not the first time they’ve surprised me They come here, and they see it in a certain way," he says. "There is a sensitivity, I guess."
But, Ursino goes on to observe that the birthplace of the Dodgers means "America" across the globe.
"Everywhere in the world, people know a couple of things: Coca-Cola and Brooklyn. When I lived in Torino, Italy, I knew of New York and Brooklyn. I didn’t know Manhattan, Staten Island. I didn’t know there were boroughs.
"It’s a great brand."
The Brooklyn International Film Festival
2003 will run April 28 through May 4 at the Brooklyn Museum of
Art (200 Eastern Parkway at Washington Avenue). Additional screenings
on April 30 will be at BAM Rose Cinemas (30 Lafayette Ave. at
Individual tickets are $10 for evening programs and $8 for afternoon programs; a full festival pass is $100; various other options are available. For more information on ticket prices and purchases, the films or complete schedule, log on to www.wbff.org.