October 25, 2006

Stars and Screens Light Up for HIFF

Robert Altman was there, offering insights into his storied career. Ellen Burstyn and Famke Janssen both stopped by to collect a career achievement award. Molly Shannon and Heather Graham took in a film — one they happened to star in — in Southampton, while Alec Baldwin and Rosie Perez were spotted out and about in East Hampton.

But those starry sorts were far outnumbered by the thousands of cinephiles who braved occasional downpours and a few traffic jams to take in the expansive slate of films, some shot locally, others coming from as far away as Norway, Vietnam and India, screened at the 14th annual Hamptons International Film Festival, held last weekend at venues in East Hampton, Southampton, Sag Harbor and Montauk.

The Golden Starfish for Best Feature went to The Bothersome Man, a Norwegian film directed by Jens Lien, about a man trapped in a strange city with no memory of how he got there. Vanja, a coming-of-age story of a young girl in Southern India, was the runner-up for the big prize. Other winners included Claudia Schreiber and Ruth Thoma, who collected the award for best screenwriter for their film Emma's Bliss, a love story set on a German pig farm.

That film tied with We Shall Overcome, a film from Denmark, for the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature. The award ceremony is "always a definite highlight of the festival. It's bittersweet because some people walk away a bit disappointed, but it's exciting for us to be able to do that," said Rajendra Roy, the festival's Artistic Director.

Dozens of films representing 12 countries competed in categories such as Best Narrative, Best Documentary, Best Short and Best Young Videomaker, with additional prizes given in the Conflict and Resolution and Science and Technology categories. Parties, where up-and-comers schmoozed with established players, were almost as numerous as the films, with fetes held at Star Room and JL East in addition to the lavish opening night extravaganza at Gurney's Inn.

Actors Joe Pantoliano, Marcia Gay Harden and "Lost" starlet Maggie Grace, as well as director Darren Aronofsky were among festival attendees.

The brass behind the glitz pronounced themselves pleased with the results of this year's festival, if a bit weary for the wear. "I like the fact that there was increased attendance," said Denise Kasell, the executive director of the HIFF, adding she thought the film fest went "extremely well."

Roy described the "A Conversation With . . .", in which Burstyn and Altman participated, as "incredibly special and unique in the festival circuit, to have two such amazing talents involved at one event."

Altman, the 81-year-old director of Nashville, Gosford Park, and most recently, A Prairie Home Companion, talked about his unique style at an hour-long event held at Guild Hall on Saturday. "It was a privilege as an audience member to hear his take on the business and what it's meant to work in the industry," Kasell said.

What sets the HIFF from other festivals, which are now as ubiquitous as Milk Duds at the theatre concession stand, is "the ability to be in a small community where filmmakers and the general public are mingling with the movie stars and really influential directors and producers, where there is an atmosphere where everybody is out here for cinema," Roy said.

Looking ahead to next year, Kasell said the HIFF would seek to maintain its intimacy, while also remaining a venue for a diverse variety of films. "I don't think we need more people coming out here. I think we want to embrace the community that we have and have everybody attending," she said.

"It's going to be our 15th anniversary, so it's going to be a big celebration," Roy said. "It's going to be a real moment to establish the direction for the festival in the future."

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