Helmers mix auteur chops with aud-friendly pix

Dagur Kari
Icelandic helmer Dagur Kari’s debut feature, “Noi albinoi,” confirmed Kari as one of Europe’s most promising filmmakers.

Shot on location in the inhospitable Icelandic West Fjords, the S1.2 million ($1.3 million) “Noi” follows the stuttering progress of an alienated 17-year-old albino desperate to escape the mundane drudgery of his isolated Icelandic fishing village.

Kari chose the sparsely populated region, he explains, “because of its strangeness. At best it looks like another planet.” The endless driving snow envelops the story and adds a physical element: Noi is snowed in as much by his emotions as by the unrelenting, oppressive weather.

While Kari’s method is self-described as instinctive, the young filmmaker says his loose methodology is grounded on a firm starting point. “I always start from humor and somewhere along the way a sense of tragedy creeps in. My films are not particularly plot oriented and I find an undercurrent of tragedy to be a good thing. It glues the film together.”

Kari denies that “Noi” is a typically Icelandic movie. “In Iceland there is no tradition or pattern to fit things into,” he contends. “Therefore, each film gets somehow a unique position. … When I show the film abroad, people often tell me that the film is extremely Icelandic, but a lot of Icelandic people have mentioned that they find the film strangely foreign.” To Kari, the lack of an Icelandic filmmaking tradition (the country’s first feature was made in 1978) offers creative license.

Kari, a member of the band Slowblow, which have released two albums, composed the soundtrack to “Noi.”

Looking to the future, Kari is working on an album and has just finished writing a script for a Danish film with friend Rune Schjott that he plans to direct. Like fest fave “Noi,” the as-yet-unfinanced project is a “comedy with a bit of misery,” he says.

Barbara Albert
Thirty-three-year-old Vienna-born director Barbara Albert’s immensely confident sophomore feature, “Free Radicals,” is garnering highly charged reactions (just like the rogue atoms that inspired the title).

Helmer harnesses chaos theory as a metaphor to trace the ripple effect of one woman’s death on friends and relatives in an Austrian burg awash in contempo social malaise. The official Austrian foreign-lingo Oscar submission bowed in Austria Nov. 21 with an unusually muscular arthouse print run; Gotham-based distrib Kino Intl. plans a 2004 rollout Stateside and sales company Celluloid Dreams is fielding numerous offers.

Meanwhile, after producing “Lovely Rita” for director Jessica Hausner, partner in 4-year-old production shingle Coop 99, and co-scripting Ruth Mader’s “Struggle,” Albert is ready to focus inward. “I want to do so many things,” she sighs. “But what I really miss now is time to write.”

Jan Jakub Kolski
One of the most exportable Polish talents of his generation, 47-year-old Jan Jakub Kolski makes rural-set magical realist films that go against the naturalistic grain of filmmaking in his native land while still enjoying respect on his home turf.

His latest, country-set WWII drama “Pornografia,” based on Witold Gombrowicz’s classic novel, played at Venice earlier this year and is Poland’s submission this year for the foreign-language Oscar.

The more conventional style of “Pornografia” is atypical of Kolski’s work as whole, though its preoccupation with history and its village setting falls into line with earlier pics, which often discover magic and the miraculous in the countryside.

Recently, at least since his melancholy 2000 effort “Away From the Window,” critics have detected a creeping self-referential quality to his work. Certainly the films are often heavily symbolic and stylized, their distinctiveness attributable not only to repeated settings but to a familiar cast of performers, which include Krzysztof Majrzchak and the helmer’s wife, Grazyna Blecka-Kolska.

Olga Malea
Since Olga Malea is Greek and female, calling her a maverick might be gilding the lily. Her filmography certainly does nothing to dispel the label. Her first film was “The Cow’s Orgasm” (1997) and Malea recalls, “It was turned down for financing because it was seen as both irreverent and kitsch, (but it) became a surprise hit.”

Both her second (1999’s “The Mating Game”) and third (2000’s “Risotto”) films were even bigger hits in Greece, leading the fortysomething filmmaker with a doctorate in psychology from Yale to her most provocative cinematic outing.

Malea describes her upcoming project, “Sugar and Spice,” as “a black comedy about child molesting” and not surprisingly, she again encountered serious obstacles to getting her film financed. “Even more than my previous films, ‘Sugar and Spice’ is dangerously playing between comedy and drama,” says Malea, adding optimistically, “It’s a bet which I hope to win. “

Despite its surreal and extreme situations, she considers “Sugar and Spice” to be “a deeply moral film. Its aim,” says Malea, “is to make as many people as possible talk about child abuse and face the issue. I believe it’s the only way to stop this from happening in silence, often too close to us.”

With financing in place (after two years on the money hunt) from producer Papandredou S.A. and Greek TV channel Mega, Malea expects to be in production on the film in April, with a fall release in Greece.

Shane Meadows
Shane Meadows is a natural. With his shaven head, stocky body and tattoos, he looks more like the boxer he once wanted to be than the director of rare sensitivity that he is. Uneducated and self-taught as a filmmaker, he spent his teenage years running wild on the streets of working-class Uttoxter, making dozens of short camcorder films using his friends as actors. After getting some attention at festivals, he used the same homespun techniques for his first full-length movie, “TwentyFourSeven.”

This vaguely autobiographical black-and-white pic about a boys’ boxing club was a critical hit at Venice, and led to the equally personal “A Room for Romeo Brass,” inspired by the troubled boyhood friendship between Meadows and his co-writer Paul Fraser, featuring an incendiary debut by another untrained mate of Meadows, Paddy Considine. These movies, set in the drab urban Midlands of Meadows’ upbringing, portray with instinctive delicacy the kind of mundane yet oddball lives rarely given voice on film.

With his next pic, pseudo-spaghetti Western “Once Upon a Time in the Midlands,” Meadows felt he betrayed his creative instincts in the unsuccessful quest for a wider audience. His latest project, “Dead Man’s Shoes,” a dark and disturbing tale of revenge, also starring Considine, marks a conscious return to the improvisational low-budget freedom of his earlier work.

Julio Medem
Julio Medem’s always beautiful, often baffling films have become progressively approachable over the years. “Cows” (1992) and “The Red Squirrel” (1993) signposted his culty fest fare, but his most recent feature, 2001 fest fave “Sex and Lucia,” grossed $6.4 million in Spain and close to $3 million in the U.S. These are remarkable figures for such demanding fare, and evidence that there is an international audience for Medem.

“The Basque Game — Skin Against Stone,” a docu about the political problems of Medem’s native Basque region that is essentially a call for dialogue, caused a minor furor prior to its San Sebastian preem for its politics, but has been well-received by critics and auds, doing just over $1 million at home, and has been picked up by Tartan for the U.K.

Medem’s next feature, “Aitor — Skin Against Stone,” again Basque themed, will roll in 2004.

Lukas Moodysson
On the strength of just three features, helmer-scribe Lukas Moodysson, 34, has become firmly established as one of the preeminent talents working in European film.

His first film, an amazingly truthful look at teenage life, “Fucking Amal” (aka “Show Me Love”) was hailed by Ingmar Bergman as a masterpiece. His sophomore feature, “Together,” a ’70s-set dramedy, and harrowing third feature, “Lilya 4-Ever,” about a Russian girl forced into prostitution in Sweden, cemented his reputation and scooped up many international awards. In Sweden, they call his inspiring influence “the Moodysson effect.”

Moodysson’s newest film was shot this fall, under tight secrecy, as usual. Moddysson says, “It’s a kind of submarine movie, a film about a father and a son and a girl and a friend. It’s a mixture of the reality-show ‘Big Brother’ and Hieronymus Bosch, but with some kindness and consideration.”

Moodysson’s regular producer Lars Jonsson predicts that pic will be ready for a local opening in September 2004, which means it’s a likely candidate to go to the Venice Film Festival, where “Together” and “Lilya 4-Ever” bowed.

Francois Ozon
Fast-moving French film director Francois Ozon sets the pace for other Euro film directors to match, negotiating many genres, from musical kitsch and sinister Hitchcockian psycho-drama.

Charlotte Rampling starrer “Swimming Pool” (his second teaming with the British actress after 2000’s “Under the Sand”) raised his profile in the U.S., sucking up $2.3 million in Stateside B.O. in just 17 days for Focus Features. His musical “8 Women” grossed $1.2 million and “Under the Sand” managed $1.4 million in the U.S. Ozon has heavily promoted his films in North America, embarking on extended tours with his lead actresses like Catherine Deneuve.

Born in 1967 in Paris, Ozon initially made a name for himself with outstanding shorts including “See the Sea” (1997) and “Summer Dress” (1996).

Alex van Warmerdam
Theater director, actor and novelist as well as filmmaker, Alex van Warmerdam, 53, is one of the few Dutch helmers whose work is regularly selected for the major festivals. His films’ defining traits are sarcasm and a sense of humor.

His best-known works are 1996’s “Die jurk” (The Dress), the story of a garment from its birth as cotton in the fields to its cremation with its final owner, and 1998’s “Kleine Teune” (Little Tony), the tale of an illiterate Dutch farmer who falls for his teacher.

Warmerdam’s producer is his brother, Marc van Warmerdam with whom he works in their company Graniet Film.

Helmer’s long-awaited new work, “Grimm,” has already been seen at fests in Toronto, San Sebastian, Pusan, Chicago and Vancouver. His first effort in five years, this utterly original, darkly funny deviant thriller reworks Hansel and Gretel as a killer-on-the-road comedy, complete with incest and gas station hold-ups.

Nicolas Winding Refn
“Independence is the true luxury of creativity, so everything I do is basically about trying to buy freedom to enable me to control every single aspect of my projects,” says Nicolas Winding Refn, whose first two Danish-language projects, high-energy crime films “Pusher” and “Bleeder,” garnered raves from critics and healthy international sales.

The most recent film from the 33-year-old Dane, spooky English-lingo thriller “Fear X,” starring John Turturro, which Refn directed, produced and co-wrote with Hubert Selby Jr., likewise turned heads after its 2003 Sundance preem. Pic has accumulated air miles on the fest circuit, been picked up for all territories and will be released Stateside next year by William Lustig’s new distrib, Blue Underground.

The son of filmmaker Anders Refn who spent some time growing up Stateside, Refn is seen as an outsider at home — he famously dropped out of the prestigious national film school to make his first feature. “I alienated myself from everyone in the Danish film industry in the process and feel proud of it still,” he says cheerfully.

Partnered with producer Henrik Danstrup, Refn will continue to control the means of production on his next three projects for their Billy’s People shingle: “Pusher II” and “Pusher III,” which Refn will commence shooting in early 2004, and “Billy’s People,” a horror movie to be shot in New York in 2005.

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