Energized Palm Springs fest unveils foreign-lingo Oscar submissions

HOLLYWOOD — The 2002 Nortel Networks Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival (Jan. 10-21) is back on its feet, stronger than ever, despite the turmoil that marred last year’s event and the economic impact of the terrorist attacks in September.

A little over a year ago, the film fest was rocked by the resignation of executive director Craig Prater and board chairman Fred Linch just eight weeks before it unspooled. And this year, fallout from the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. cut into sponsorship dollars.

“But we’ve overcome all that,” says Denis Pregnolato, who co-founded the fest with Sonny Bono in 1989 and was director for three years. Pregnolato returned to his old post last year to act as interim executive director and to help quell internal disorder.

The short-term job has extended for another year, during which Pregnolato says he’s tried to maintain the fest’s focus as a stellar international showcase while strengthening the staff and finances. “The staff is settled and there is a strong sense of direction,” he says. “We’re also controlling things like cost, and finding ways to raise revenue as well as more ways to put on a good festival.”

This year’s programming staff, headed by director of programming Jennifer Stark, includes Alissa Simon, Ian Birnie, Leonardo Garcia Tsao, David B. Kaminsky and Theresa Hayes, each of whom scouts particular international territories.

“The programming is becoming more direct, more streamlined,” explains Stark, who touts the fact that this year’s fest includes films from more than 40 countries, and 47 of the 51 films submitted for consideration in the best foreign language film category for the Academy Awards.

“When we started out 13 years ago the focus was to find the most accessible foreign films, because at the time people were wary of foreign films and subtitles,” explains Pregnolato, outlining the fest’s mandate.

“But we’ve educated the audience, and then as Miramax began to buy these films and bring them to audiences throughout the country, and as they began to win awards, the art house film has become more user-friendly. But overall, we show films that are about great cultural differences, about how people live their lives. It’s very interesting for audiences to see that, especially now.”

According to Stark, the fest’s mandate has become even more significant this year as a result of events in Afghanistan. “We wanted to create a festival that spoke to the issues that came about as a result of 9/11 without becoming melodramatic,” she explains. “We wanted to deal with social issues, but we also wanted films that aren’t all grim. We were trying to find a balance.”

Perhaps the best example of that balance is the festival’s opening night film, Mira Nair’s sprawling comedy “The Monsoon Wedding,” which captures the humor and heartache in a large Indian family as it prepares for a wedding. “It’s full of color, pageantry, laughter, dancing and music,” explains Stark, “but it’s also a poignant family story.”

While Nair’s film is a pleasing mix of comedy and pathos, Stark notes that the terrorist attacks have given Americans a new awareness of the world that I haven’t seen before, and this gave us an opportunity to go after films that we might not have been able to screen in the past.

“Usually people just want to be entertained, but now people are really interested. They want to know what the world is about.”

Stark says there are several films this year from the Middle East, including Moshen Makhmalbaf’s “Kandahar” and Majid Majidi’s “Baran,” boths of which are from Iran. “We also have films from Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Bosnia, Croatia, Tanzania — a lot of small countries that haven’t been recognized before. And where these might have been only of selective interest, people have been catapulted into international interest.”

Stark hastens to add that while many of the films grapple with difficult issues, the films are not “drowning in sorrow.” “The really interesting thing that I find is that these filmmakers are not interested in recreating American cinema,” she explains. “They’re creating their own voices. They’re following their own stories. They’ve realized that their uniqueness is their best selling point. And our audiences are ready for that.”

In order to address these issues directly, one of the festival’s many special events will be a panel discussion among international directors on filmmakers’ responsibility to tackle social issues.

Other highlights include the festival’s trademark gala screenings, including “The Son’s Room” and “Italian for Beginners,” the selection of the Intl. Federation of Cinematographic Press (FIPRESCI) Critics Award, a retrospective of the work of Alan Bates and the Cinematographers Weekend, as well as tributes to directors Michael Apted, Irwin Winkler, Arthur Hiller and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, actor Andy Garcia, composer Hans Zimmer and specialty distrib Miramax.

The fest closes on Jan. 20 with a screening of “The Power of Good,” Matej Minac’s docu about Englishman Nicholas Winton and how he saved 669 Czech Jewish children from the Holocaust.

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