Not Just Hollywood

The American Film Festival is coming to Russia for the third time. The event runs for five days and brings a wealth of offerings for filmgoers to choose from. This year, the festival is subtitled "New Images of America," with a large focus on independent cinema.

As in previous years, the main program of Amfest is "IndiVid" -- independent films predominantly by younger directors who receive little exposure in their homeland, and even less internationally. Kirill Razlogov, the festival organizer, pointed out that for a film industry that makes as many as 800 films a year, only about 20 are widely seen around the world. Those that are distributed are often mainstream genres that reveal little if anything about the texture of contemporary American life.

Traditionally, Amfest presents a generous documentary section. "These films provide true intimate slices of life in America," said Robin Hessman, the program's curator and an acclaimed documentary filmmaker and producer.

"Documentaries in all of their styles, approaches, and forms inspire us, provoke us, make us think and move us deeply ... in a way that only reality can. These award-winning notable films are a powerful entry into the personal, political and cultural spheres of American life," Hessman said.

The festival will include a retrospective of documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee, whose career spans more than 30 years. McElwee creates films that often refer to his personal life, some are made in the American South, where he is from. Hessman describes his film "Sherman's March" as a "national classic."

One of his other notable films, 1991's "Something to do With the Wall," takes him to Berlin and Checkpoint Charlie before and after the demolition of the Berlin wall.

In the film, McElwee mixes elements of his personality and humor with the surrounding history.

Another program in this year's festival is devoted to three great scriptwriters of the 1930s to 1940s, from a loosely Russian background, who made their names in Hollywood. The films in this section include classics such as Abraham Polonsky's "Force of Evil," where Polonsky doubled as director and writer; Howard Hawks's "His Girl Friday," starring Cary Grant; and Frank Capra's "It Happened One Night," with a lead role from Clark Gable.

There is also a retrospective of director, screenwriter and novelist Michael Tolkin, showing his "The New Age" and "The Rapture," which Tolkin both wrote and directed, as well as two films he wrote scripts for, "Changing Lanes" and Robert Altman's classic "The Player." The last is a satire about the Hollywood studio system and how it relates to creative achievement rather than commercial success -- this looks particular appropriate in the festival program.

The festivals' closing film will be Clint Eastwood's new "Changeling," starring Angelina Jolie, which will be released in the United States at the end of the month. Its appearance in Moscow, where it is scheduled for general release next January, is something of a coup. Other new films will be Neil LaBute's "Lakeview Terrace" and David Mamet's oriental, martial arts-inspired film "Red Belt."

Following the war in Georgia, Russian-American relations have worsened and IndiVid program curator Elena Podolskaya said this played a role in the choice of films. "It's become more varied than in the past, and you have to pay attention to the context, especially the attitude of young people in Russia toward America at the moment," she said in an interview this week.

"We tried to compile [the program] from different works that would prove attractive to different ages and temperaments. Some are for the more traditional cinephile, while others should be engaging for a younger generation; some are definitely for the adult, intellectual viewer, and one -- Erica Dunton's "The 27 Club" -- should work well with a female audience."

Among the films appealing to the cinema fanatics will be Amos Poe's "Empire II," in which the director records New York from the window of his apartment over the course of a year and edits the footage down to about three hours, showing the influence of artist and filmmaker Andy Warhol, who made a 15-minute film of the same title two decades earlier.


Another strong presence in Amfest is Andrew Bujalski, with his first film, the critically acclaimed "Funny Ha Ha" from 2002, as well as "Mutual Appreciation" from 2005. Bujalski stars in both films, as well as in Joe Swanberg's "Hannah Takes the Stairs."

Podolskaya said some initial screenings were reviewed positively by bloggers. "Their reactions showed a common ground. We wanted the festival to be not only an event, but one that reassured people and endorsed the feeling that we are all the same underneath."

Even though the festival has a long list of guests, persuading invitees to visit Russia in the light of recent events clearly was not easy. One director who had previously accepted the invitation decided not to come after the conflict in Georgia. The documentary filmmakers were not deterred and will be on hand for the festival -- not least, as Podolskaya jokes (with a strong element of truth), because documentary filmmakers tend to be an intrepid breed. All will be presenting their films and participating in audience discussions after screenings.


Other problems were of a very different nature. Some of the IndiVid works were selected from the two main American independent film festivals, Sundance and Tribeca, others by personal recommendation. But the landscape of the American independent film industry has also undergone dramatic changes over the last year, with the closure of a number of companies, some independent and others subdivisions of the major Hollywood studios, that specialized in such fare.

"Of course, nothing good has come from the closure of such companies -- they occupied an interim space between Hollywood and the much smaller art house-oriented work, and that space is now reduced," the festival's programming director Kirill Razlogov said. "As a result we're showing some films that have either a very small budget, or virtually no budget at all, even half-amateur work. But there are new trends -- it's both a new beginning and a continuation."

Amfest runs from Oct. 8 to 12. For more information see