Going Down Market

Searching for Standouts at the IFFM

The Independent Feature Film Market marked its 20th anniversary amid signs that it may have outlived much of its usefulness. From September 18 to 25, 603 filmmakers representing 434 projects flocked to the Angelika theater complex to display their work to some 1200 exhibitors, distributors, promoters, and supporters of independent film. On or about the fourth day of round-the-clock screenings and schmoozing, I found in my mailbox two pieces of promo material that, unintentionally, summed up the prevailing mood. One was a simple screening announcement with the words ''See you in hell'' printed below the title. The other was a three-inch miniature toilet plunger.

The high-profile event on the calendar of the Independent Feature Project, the IFFM has a history to be proud of. In 20 years, it's grown from a tiny showcase of independently produced fiction and documentary features to a giant swap meet that few buyers can afford to pass up. As part of this year's anniversary celebration, a program of highlights from past IFFMs played at the Anthology. Among them were Down by Law, Slacker,Daughters of the Dust, Clerks, and The Brothers McMullen.

The 20th IFFM started on a buoyant note with a screening of Joe Carnahan's Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane. Discovered at the 1997 IFFM, Blood, Guts (which opens on November 13) has been spiffied up since its Sundance premiere. The new mix lets you understand every word of Carnahan's witty, rapid-fire dialogue and the new 35mm blowup is easier on the eyes as well.

If there was a finished feature by a director as big-hearted as Carnahan, or as daring as Julie Dash, or as intelligent as Kevin Smith, I didn't see it. I confess I was not as assiduous in my search as in years past, and judging from the scant audience at many screenings, neither were most buyers. The glut of mediocre films that seemed to take their cues from daytime soaps and talk shows was overwhelming. Most days, I fled after four or five hours spent grazing the Angelika's six screens or sampling tapes in the video library. The only feature film that moved me was Drylongso (ordinary) by the young African American director Cauleen Smith. (It screens again in the Independents Night series at the Walter Reade on October 29.) I was mildly amused by Sam Seder's Who's the Caboose, Alison Swan's Mixing Nia, and, in the documentary category, Doug Block's Home Page. A wide-eyed, middle-aged person's guide to what the young folk are doing on the Internet, Block's film appeared two years ago at the IFFM as a work-in-progress, which may be why it already feels slightly dated.

If there was any action at the 1998 IFFM, it was around works-in-progress. Though 15-minute trailers leave a lot of room for doubt, Ed Radtke's The Dream Catcher, Christopher Munch's Backward Looks, Far Corners, Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn's Sweetmeats,and Chaim Bianco's Splitlook extremely promising. The first three of these WIPs were part of No Borders, the highly selective market within the market, which was set up to facilitate international cofinancing for films still in the early stage of production. No Borders continues to draw European and Asian producers as well as established American indie distributors who, otherwise, might have given up on the IFFM.

''I'm having a great time here,'' said Julia Reichert, who, with her partner Steven Bogner, is producing The Dream Catcher.''I got to see a lot of old friends and people seem to like our film.'' The Dream Catcheris one of the few films at the IFFM with a serious indie-film pedigree. Reichert and her former partner Jim Klein made two of the most important indie docs of the '70s, Growing Up Female and Seeing Red. Klein is editing The Dream Catcher, and Victor Nunez, who made Ulee's Goldand Ruby in Paradise, lent his valuable set of prime lenses to the production.

The Dream Catcheris about two teenage boys who meet traveling cross-country, hopping trains, hitchhiking, and stealing cars. The footage looks great and the two young actors, Paddy Conner and Maurice Compte, have faces that leap off the screen. Radtke says that The Dream Catcherhas autobiographical elements. The only Asian American kid in the small town of Bellport, Ohio (his mother is Japanese, his father is ''a big, tall white guy from Chicago''), Radtke spent time in reform school and fathered a child at 17. His life turned around when he discovered photography in a community college. He got his B.F.A. from NYU Film School in 1985, and then returned to Ohio to be near his son; he also discovered that two-time Academy Award nominees Reichert and Klein were living in Yellow Springs, 20 minutes away from the town where he grew up.

Supporting himself by doing carpentry, he made a feature film, Bottomland, which was shown at the IFFM in 1992 without attracting much notice. But the film, combined with the script for Dream Catcher,showed enough talent to win him a Guggenheim Fellowship as well as one of the last $30,000 film grants awarded by the NEA. When Radtke first approached Reichert, he traded his carpentry skills for her fundraising expertise. ''He built all these cabinets and doors for us,'' she says. They expect to lock picture in a month, in time to submit it to Sundance.

Currently shooting in L.A., Munch's Backward Looks, Far Cornersstars Martha Plimpton and Jacqueline Bisset. In the half-dozen scenes I saw on video at the IFFM, the acting is first rate, Munch's direction has a sure sense of pace, and his basic preoccupation--the relationship between hidden and official history--is much in evidence. Oppenheimer and Cynn's Sweetmeatsis an attempt to map the political unconscious of Britain onto film. The filmmakers were students of Makavejev at Harvard, and their collaborators on this film, producer James Mackay and cinematographer Christopher Hughes, worked extensively with Derek Jarman.Sweetmeats is a bit of a wild card at this point, but was the only serious experimental work to show up at the IFFM.Bianco's Split is a cyberpunk psychodrama that might turn out like a cross between ¼ and Blood, Guts. Bianco has a fabulous ear for pulpy dialogue and he knows how to use low-end digital technology to create a schizoid universe.

What's still invaluable about the IFFM is that it's the only democratic institution operating in the indie film world. It's the only place that a completely unknown filmmaker like Bianco can show a work-in-progress--without going through a bunch of gatekeepers--and perhaps catch the eye of someone who'll give him the money he needs to finish his film. It's a gamble--IFFM entrance fees run between $275 and $450 for filmmakers--but it's still worth it.

With finished films, it's a different story. The three best new American no-budget features I've seen in recent months (Love Machine,Gordon Eriksen's dark comedy about the Internet; Radiation, Suki Hawley and Mike Galinsky's saga about a punk rock promoter trying to survive in the Madrid club scene; and For Love of Julian, Meira Blaustein's clear-sighted documentary about her brain-damaged son) bypassed the IFFM. The filmmakers are trying to get distribution and festival dates on their own. Unless the IFFM finds a way to attract films of this caliber, it's all downhill from here.


up market

IFFM panels and parties are most useful for regional filmmakers trying to make direct contact with Gotham powerbrokers, but they're also great places to pick up news about Downtown indie filmmakers. And so: Larry Fessenden, director and star of the East Village vampire movie Habit, has a small part in Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead,currently shooting in Manhattan. Susan Stover, the associate producer of Habit, is trying to raise money for Fessenden's new apocalypse movie; she's also producing Kelly Reichardt's Super-8 version of The Ballad of Billy Joe,which starts shooting in North Carolina in about two weeks. Reichardt, who directed River of Grass, got tired of waiting for someone to give her money to make a 35mm feature and decided to do something funky and affordable--even if she never gets to show it anywhere except festivals (she hasn't cleared the rights). Maria Maggenti, who followed The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love by writing the script for Dreamworks' The Love Letter, expects to start shooting her second film in November. She says the money is "either coming from October Films or the Shooting Gallery." And Alison Maclean, who hasn't been able to put a feature together since her remarkable Crush,says that her adaptation of Denis Johnson's Jesus' Sonwill shoot in January.

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