Intl. fest pros pick the ultimate auteur lineup

What does a festival director want? Big-name auteurs, yes; cinematic gems, for sure; and a sprinkling of younger talent ready to grab the spotlight.

For the definitive answers to those questions, Variety asked 17 fest directors from FIAPF-rated sprocket operas around the world to select their dream teams: the filmmakers whom they’d most like to include in their programs.

This basic question was subdivided into three categories. First, the grand masters: filmmakers with undisputed name value, in a festival if not a box office sense. In other words, those auteurs whose reputations are established enough to command immediate attention.

Then came the next tier: directors who’ve amassed a body of work, but lack the sheer star power of the first-stringers. Who may, perhaps, still be slightly underestimated or overlooked beyond critical circles.

Finally there were the discoveries: the new filmmakers, still with only one or two features to their credit, who have shown sufficient promise or singularity of vision to suggest that they might, in time, be forces to reckon with.

Respondents were invited to select at least five names for each category; the results were tabulated and kept strictly anonymous — a condition that many of the fest honchos took care to check before they submitted their choices. (As one half-joked, “I’m still too young to be killed.”)

What became clear, almost immediately, is how quickly the first category clarified. The same names kept appearing, time and again, suggesting that the Great Contemporary Filmmaker pantheon is, for the time being at least, more or less agreed upon, at least on the fest circuit. Granted, there were some puzzling omissions: at least half-a-dozen notable auteurs failed to draw even a single vote. Nevertheless, the degree of consensus, at this level, was little short of remarkable.

By far the most popular choice was Martin Scorsese, who featured in a staggering 80% of the responses. One programmer explained why the 67-year-old helmer represented such a lucrative “get” for any festival: “Not only does he have a remarkable body of work behind him, from the heyday of the ’70s right up to the present, but he’s a renaissance man, so far as cinema’s concerned. He’s a scholar of film, a practitioner, an archivist — and a confident and knowledgeable speaker. Plus, he’s one of the few directors who’s an actual star to the general public — everybody knows who Martin Scorsese is. So it’s like having Brad Pitt.”

As expected, the second category proved more malleable. Some respondents sought clarification of the terms — was Tarantino too young to yet be considered a master? Had Julian Schnabel made enough films to no longer be considered a neophyte? And not to ignore animation, masters John Lasseter and Hiyao Miyazaki were cited on one topper’s list.

Nevertheless, by the time the final votes were tallied, five clear favorites had emerged.

It was in the final category, the neophytes, that the biggest split was apparent. Obviously it’s hard to assess the worth of a filmmaker from a debut or sophomore effort alone. But what was most surprising (and refreshing) was the range of the choices and the lack of faddish enthusiasm in evidence.

The New Romanian Cinema might be the flavor of the month right now, but only one of its practitioners — Cristi Puiu, writer-director of “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” — figured in the responses, though in fairness, he was also the only director to elicit more than three nominations. The other four finalists scored precisely two nods each.

The rest was a sprawling list of over 60 names — some already notable, others still largely unknown — spread widely across territories (though the Middle East and Africa remained as badly underrepresented here, as they do in most fest selections), and split more or less evenly across gender.

This last development, in fact, proved the most gratifying. Where the first category in particular felt like the kind of old boys’ club you’d find in a Evelyn Waugh novel (astonishingly, and depressingly, only one female director was nominated: France’s Claire Denis), the discoveries category boasted at least as many women as men, a hopeful sign for the future of this traditionally male-dominated medium.

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