Times change, Filmfest remains | AspenTimes.com

Times change, Filmfest remains

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Aspen, as you’re likely to be reminded most every day, has changed drastically since the ’70s, and in most every way, from the economics to the weather (or so the old-timers will swear).

Equally great have been the changes in the independent film world. Before the major studios realized how indie films could be profitably marketed, independent films meant minuscule budgets, no-name actors and total surprises for the audience.

But for 25 years, Aspen Filmfest has been resistant to those changes.

Originally billed as Aspen’s Celebration of Independent Film, and now known for its long-running slogan, Independent By Nature, Aspen Filmfest has indeed adapted and grown. The organization has a paid staff and year-round presence, and has expanded with the addition of Aspen Shortsfest, the Academy Screenings, the Screen Club presentations and downvalley events.

Still, Aspen Filmfest, the annual flagship festival that begins today and runs through Sunday feels very much as it did in 1979. True, the festival only screened five feature films back then, in addition to a handful of shorter works. But the original Filmfest, like now, was aimed at the local audience, and held after the summer crowds had departed.

Then, as now, Filmfest was an audience festival, and not a marketplace for producers selling, and distributors buying, the films. Filmfest has always had a laid-back atmosphere, centered on film lovers discovering movies, and not on celebrity watchers craning their necks to see who is in the theater with them.

That vibe has survived much, including the transition from Filmfest founder Ellen Kohner Hunt to current Filmfest Executive Director Laura Thielen, who took over in 1995, amid the sea of change in the indie film world.

“It has never been about the marketplace, and that has never been our intention,” said Hunt, who is now chairman of Filmfest’s board of directors. “We hired Laura because she understood our mission.”

That mission, of course, is to present a slate of films that is a 180-degree alternative to Hollywood fare. And just as the Filmfest atmosphere has retained its casual flavor, the programming philosophy has barely budged.

“There are nuances that are different,” said Hunt. “My screening committee, and my personal tastes, are very different from Laura’s and her screening committee. Programming is a very individual thing. And the programming changes from year to year, but that’s based on what’s out there.

“But as far as the material is concerned, it’s very much the same.”

Filmfest ’79 featured small, personal films like “Northern Lights,” an acclaimed story of farmers in pre-World War II North Dakota; “Legacy,” hailed by critic Molly Haskell as “a high-water mark in the exploration of women’s sexuality”; and “Free Climb,” about two friends attempting a climb of the Yosemite Valley’s Half Dome.

Filmfest ’03 contains similarly intimate tales. Filmfest opens today with two presentations: “Some Secrets” (Wheeler Opera House, 5:30 p.m.), a rich, insightful Czech film, by writer-director Alice Nellis, about a family road trip filled with surprises and resolutions; and “The Company,” indie film icon Robert Altman’s fictionalized account of life behind the curtain of The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.

John Sayles’ “Casa de los Babys,” with an ensemble cast (Marcia Gay Harden, Rita Moreno, Daryl Hannah, Mary Steenburgen, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Lili Taylor) about a group of women adopting babies in Mexico, echoes 1979’s “Legacy” for examining women’s issues. “Pipe Dreams,” a documentary about two Park City, Utah, athletes competing to participate in the Olympic Games in their hometown, mirrors “Free Climb” from 1979. Like “Northern Lights,” “Paper Moon,” the 1973 hit that is part of Filmfest 2003’s Salute to the ’70s, is set in the dusty, pre-World War II plains.

The rest of the Filmfest ’03 features are likewise focused on small, character-driven stories. The extraordinarily quiet “The Station Agent,” the Audience Award winner at the Sundance Festival, stars Peter Dinklage as a dwarf seeking solitude in a rural New Jersey train depot.

In “My Life Without Me,” Sarah Polley plays a 23-year-old woman with a fatal illness, preparing her family for what happens after she is gone. “Stander” by director Bronwen Hughes, examines the true crime story of Andre Stander, a policeman in ’80s South Africa who turns bad after experiencing the country’s apartheid policies.

“The Barbarian Invasions,” winner of best screenplay and best actress awards at the Cannes Film Festival, examines a prickly, aging professor coming to the end of his life. The Italian film “I’m Not Scared” looks at a 10-year-old boy whose idyllic life is turned into a thriller after a shocking discovery. Alejandro Agresti’s “Valentin,” too, is a coming-of-age film, set in Buenos Aires of the ’60s.

Filmfest documentaries are “Breakfast with Hunter,” Wayne Ewing’s long-view portrait of local rebel Hunter S. Thompson; “Be Good, Smile Pretty,” a woman’s exploration of the father who died in Vietnam; and “The Same River Twice,” about a group of friends on a late-’70s river trip, and their lives 25 years later.

Also to be screened are “The Belleville Triplets,” a quirky French animation about an aspiring bicycle champion, told with minimal dialogue; and the family feature “Elina,” a Swedish film about a strong-willed 9-year-old’s confrontations with her teacher.

The Salute to the ’70s includes screenings of three ’70s classics – “Shampoo,” “The French Connection” and “Paper Moon” – and Discussion of a Decade, a panel talk featuring Richard Dreyfuss, Sydney Pollack, Laszlo Kovacs and Polly Platt, and moderated by William Friedkin.

Filmfest ’03 also features the return of the Surprise Film, and a Sneak Preview, which stars a past recipient of Filmfest’s Independent By Nature Award and co-stars an actress cited recently in a The New York Times special film section as someone to keep an eye on, based on her breakout performance in the film. The Sneak Preview had its premiere at this year’s Sundance Festival, and is slated for wider release later this year.

[Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com]

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