Out of Africa, off the beaten path

Political pics, social justice tales unspool alongside edgy indie fare and sci-fi

In case you’ve been blinded by all the starts at the Hollywood Awards, it’s good to know that there’s actually a film festival that precedes the kudos ceremony.

For 10 years, fest exec director Carlos de Abreu has programmed offbeat indie fare at the Hollywood Film Festival, specializing in movies that accent a global social relevance and don’t get much play at the mainstream fests — which is the main reason why the HFF remains relatively low-profile in the public consciousness.

In many ways, the fest is subject to the same dilemma affecting other arty celluloid confabs in L.A.: Movie aficionados just don’t show up in droves for hardcore independent fare. Some feel there’s an overabundance of fests in the city; others point out that Angelinos just don’t share New Yorkers’ passion for indie films.

On average, the HFF (Oct. 18-22) attracts 20,000 attendees annually, while the AFI (Nov. 1-12) draws 60,000. But don’t let the numbers fool you: Attendance is weighted toward both fests’ sold-out Hollywood premieres and galas.

In recent years, what has worked crowdwise for the HFF is its genre section, the Hollywood Horror, Sci-Fi and Fantasy Festival, as well as its cache of indie pics toplined by notable thesps. At last year’s event, Indican Films unspooled “My First Wedding,” starring Rachael Leigh Cook, about a young bride who gets cold feet.

“Because of Cook’s presence, there was a full house of high school kids for the film — a group that would never attend a film festival,” says Randolph Hamilton, veep of Indican Pictures.

Whether they get a full house or not, microdistribs covet the HFF as a prime showcase: Not only does the event give them carte blanche in terms of event passes and panel speaking invites, but there isn’t any competition from the majors’ classic labels. In 2004, Indican acquired Dutch pic “Moonlight,” about a teenage girl’s romance with an Afghani drug courier — and the pic won HFF’s award for European feature film.

Of the 80 films screened at the fest this year, 37 were features, and about a third of those headlined a well-known thesp, ranging from Alison Lohman and Maria Bello in “Flicka” to Patrick Fugit and Matthew Lillard in the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll comedy “Bickford Shmeckler’s Cool Ideas.”

Despite the safety of headliners, de Abreu stuck to his guns to program smaller films, particularly ones dealing with themes of social justice, which made up about a third of this year’s features. “It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality,” says de Abreu. But to ease up on near-empty theaters, the fest topper eliminated morning screenings this year.

As always, he especially welcomed political films that spark attention. For example, two years ago, the HFF gave its top doc award to “What Remains of Us,” a film about the cultural genocide in Tibet at the hands of the Chinese government. Talk about controversy: In order to protect the Tibetan families interviewed, the motion picture was never released on DVD or television.

Of note this year were four African-based pics: Philip Noyce’s apartheid drama, “Catch a Fire,” Cinema Libre’s doc “The Empire in Africa,” set during the Sierra Leone civil war, and two nonfiction pics that detail the Ugandan struggle, “In a Soldier’s Footsteps” and “Uganda Rising.”

De Abreu gets emotional when discussing HFF’s African lineup, particularly Noyce’s “Fire” which tells the true story of Patrick Chamusso, a South African oil-refinery man who turned rebel against the domineering whites in the country.

“I lived that drama,” says de Abreu, a third-generation Portuguese-Mozambique native who served as an air force pilot against the socialist liberating forces of the former Portugal colony. “Though the story is based at a different time and place, I was the one who had his gun pointed at the likes of Chamusso. When the communists took over Mozambique, I had to run away or face execution.”

This year, the HFF’s politico films were joined by screenings of “Born on the Fourth of July” and “World Trade Center,” and followed by a Q&A with director Oliver Stone.

Based on its increasing popularity, the HFF’s Horror, Fantasy and Sci-Fi section added Sunday to its usual Friday/Saturday sked.

Of note this year was the world premiere of Lionsgate’s “Dark Ride,” starring Jamie-Lynn Sigler, about a serial killer who haunts an amusement-park attraction. In addition, the fest screened the U.S. premiere of “American Scary,” a documentary that gives the bio treatment to several horror-TV hosts, including Elvira and the Ghoul.

Film Threat dot-com editor Chris Gore, who booked the lineup along with Eric Campos, attributes the program’s popularity to its fortuitous timing around Halloween. And it’s also a major plus that the horror selections are presented in their purest form — before the pics are rated by the MPAA.

“Before a showing, it’s like a freak show at the ArcLight bar,” Gore says. “Everyone has long hair and wears black. It’s a different type of audience. They’re the comicbook goth crowd waiting around for next year’s Comic-Con.”

HFF and AFI occupy the same stomping ground — the Arclight Cinemas — within a week of each other. And this year both fests host their newly created African film section in addition to paying homage to the RFK biopic “Bobby.” The difference is that the Emilio Estevez helmed film will receive its U.S. premiere at the AFI’s opening night gala, while the “Bobby” cast are being feted as best ensemble at the HFF’s gala award ceremony.

And so the question arises, why doesn’t the HFF just move out of AFI’s way?

De Abreu has a cinephile’s p.o.v. on the situation.

“Everyday should be a film festival,” he notes. “The more festivals, the better. There are so many films out there that aren’t being seen. More festivals give independent films the opportunity for exposure.”

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