New Palm Springs Film Festival Director Previews Foreign Language Favorites, After Dark Thrillers

World cinema is in focus at the 28th annual Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival, running Jan. 2-16. More than 185 films will screen, including 43 of the 85 foreign-language Oscar entries, providing a wide lens into what’s being made globally, notes the fest’s new artistic director Michael Lerman.

“I think it’s one of our strongest programs in years,” Lerman says. “It’s a great year in film, especially in foreign film.” He predicts a tight race dominated by auteur filmmakers: the line-up showcases buzzed about titles including Pedro Almodóvar’s “Julieta,” Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann,” Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman,” Kim Jee-woon’s “The Age of Shadows,” and Paul Verhoeven’s Isabelle Huppert-starrer “Elle.”

“Those 42 entries could make their own festival,” the veteran programmer says. But he also sings the praises of the festival’s diverse lineup from non-fiction, under the True Stories moniker, to four After Dark thrillers to two long-form TV showcases. Lerman replaces Helen du Toit who previously served as artistic director; longtime festival executive director Darryl Macdonald remains on medical leave.

Lerman’s curatorial skills were honed after a dozen years on the fest circuit where he most recently served as acting head of programming and primetime programmer for the Toronto Intl. Film Festival. Since 2005, he’s been the artistic director for the Philadelphia Film Society. He will soon oversee the upcoming horror fest, the Overlook Film Festival, slated for Oregon’s Timberline Lodge, the exterior setting for Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”

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PSIFF festival chairman Harold Matzner calls him “an exemplary match.” For his first festival as artistic director, Lerman foresees only modest changes as he credits the organization and other programmers for initiating the curatorial process.

As artistic director his responsibilities will encompass “the full vision of the whole festival.” He oversees the selection of films, materials, scheduling, and the way films are presented. “I see Palm Springs as a great companion piece to the awards season and also as a platform for the best of the year.”

He expects to fill in programming holes and insert some cohesion to the scheduling. As this is his third major festival in a row, Lerman contends he’s reviewed a marathon of material. “I’ve now seen everything that was made this year,” he says.

Although PSIFF is not initiating a dedicated TV section, this year three episodic programs offer a window into the artistry of the small screen. “Wasteland,” from HBO Europe and the Czech team that created Agnieszka Holland’s “Burning Bush,” is eight episodes that play like one long-form piece, Lerman says. The program will screen in a marathon session with two intermissions.

Also in the lineup and to be celebrated via the fest’s Gay!La: the first two episodes of the ABC miniseries “When We Rise,” from director Gus Van Sant — a longtime friend of the festival — and scripted by Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for “Milk.” The powerful series chronicles the gay rights movement beginning with 1969’s Stonewall riots. And in a hat tip to famed local festival supporter Udo Kier, Austrian TV’s “Old Money” (“Altes Geld”) will play in its entirety. The dark comedy stars Kier as a desperate patriarch in need of an organ transplant.

PSIFF delves into light zombie fare with the Gemma Arterton and Glenn Close-starrer “The Girl With All the Gifts.” An After Dark selection, Lerman says each of the After Dark picks could fit into the main program seamlessly. The epic western “Brimstone,” starring Guy Pearce; the Farsi-language, U.K. Oscar submission “Under the Shadow”; and Amat Escalante’s “The Untamed,” play to the fest’s audience while filling out the thematic line-up.

Polish film will be spotlighted. The late Andrzej Wajda is saluted via his films “Afterimage” and “Ashes and Diamonds,” which join “The Last Family” and “Memories of Summer,” in the Polish Focus section.

And the festival continues its strong support of non-fiction with more than 20 feature docs from such Oscar contenders as Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” and Otto Bell’s “The Eagle Huntress,” to crowd-pleasers like “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds,” directed by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens.

Colin Hanks’ HBO-funded documentary “Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis (Our Friends)” is notable. “It’s a really good documentary,” says Lerman. There’s a local connection: The band hails from Palm Desert and Hanks captures the rockers before and after the Paris terrorist attacks that occurred during their Bataclan show.

Of interest to filmmakers and distributors, the festival’s coveted John Schlesinger Award has widened its eligibility: first or second features will now be in consideration. The New Voices/New Visions Award jury will also deliberate over both first and second features.

Over the course of his career Lerman has seen an evolution in the film festival experience. “With all the changes in technology, we’ve moved away from communal viewing,” he finds. The festival is an opportunity to binge watch in a short period of time the best of film. He notes, “This opens a window for film festivals to be more of a singular experience.”

What: 28th Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival
When: Jan. 2-16
Where: Palm Springs, Calif.
web: psfilmfest.org

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