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Bermuda Long and Shorts: Notes from the Bermuda International Film Festival

With a full roster of intriguing films, a refreshing absence of the too-routine festival “swag” invasion and the presence of one bona fide superstar (namely Michael Douglas, who has a home in Bermuda with his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones and their children), the 9th Annual Bermuda International Film Festival continues to emerge as an intimate and increasingly significant launch pad for an array of movies audiences are sure to be talking about in the months to come, all set against a charming and incredibly hospitable island backdrop.

Among the standouts were the Australian entry The Proposition–director John Hillcoat’s harrowing tale of a trio of outlaw brothers in the 1880s Outback in which the middle brother must track and kill his psychotic elder sibling in order to save the youngest from the gallows–which won the Mary-Jean Mitchell Green Award for Best Narrative Feature. Hillcoat took home a $5,000 cash prize.

“We were impressed with the provocative portrait of The Proposition, of whether the human race can overcome its base need for violence,” said jury chair Peter Riegert, the veteran character actor seen in Local Hero and Traffic and perhaps best known for his iconic role as Boone in the comedy classic Animal House. “All the elements–cinematography, writing, acting and direction–made this a compelling and horrific look at that question.”

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Riegert’s fellow juror, actress Laura Harring (Mulholland Drive, TV’s The Shield) said the film’s “stillness and pacing made me feel that I was transported to the past,” while her the third jurist, Daily Variety film critic Robert Koehler said “the film has an elegant narrative structure and that, combined with its visceral quality, made it a complete experience. It is a classical western.”

The festival’s Audience Choice Award went to the closing night film, the immensely crowd-pleasing British film Kinky Boots, first-time director Julian Jarrold’s uplifting comedy about the reluctant heir (Joel Edgerton) to a floundering Northampton shoe factory who sets out to save the family business by specializing in an unusual niche market: thigh-high stiletto heels designed especially for drag queens, thanks to the help of the flamboyant cross-dressing cabaret performer Lola, played with gusto by the astonishing Chiwetel Ejiofor.

On the non-fiction front, King Leopold’s Ghost, by director Pippa Scott of the United States, was named Best Documentary Feature by jurors Roger Durling, director of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and Emmanuel Itier, a veteran entertainment journalist. Based on the bestselling book, the film chronicles the brutal European exploitation of the Belgian Congo beginning in the 19th Century by such unprincipled opportunists as explorer Henry Morton Stanley, as well as the efforts of crusaders like journalist George Washington Williams who attempt to shed a light on the dark times. “We were impressed by the arc of the story, by how much research was behind the material–and how powerful the film is,” Durling said. “You walk out of the film with the wind knocked out of you.”

Rare Bird, Bermudian director Lucinda Spurling’s spirited and entertaining telling of the true story of the Cahow, a seabird species native to Bermuda that was believed to be extinct as of 1620 only to be rediscovered 325 years later earned a Special Jury Mention in the Best Documentary category, as well as being a runner up for the Audience Choice Award, alongside Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela, filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris’ poignant, personal bid to better understand his late stepfather, African National Congress foot soldier B. Pule Leinaeng, who sacrificed his life for the freedom of his country while on an exiled exodus to broadcast to the world the brutality of the apartheid system and to raise support for the ANC and its leaders, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo.

(Along with demonstrating a genuine talent for storytelling, Harris was easily the most genial and accommodating filmmaker Hollywood.com encountered at the festival, making sure to leave a DVD copy of his film for us at the front desk of the posh Fairmont Hamilton Princess Hotel so we could sample it on the way home after a scheduling conflict kept us from screening it).

Avatar, about a couple at the end of their love story, won the M3 Wireless Bermuda Shorts Award, netting director Lluis Quilez of Spain a $3,000 cash prize and, as BIFF is a qualifying festival for the Short Film Oscar, automatic consideration for next year’s Academy Awards. “The film is well-executed, both technically and creatively,” said juror Lia Rinaldo, director of the Atlantic Film Festival. “It used very little dialogue, but was very expressive and communicated its message very effectively.”

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There were a number of other notable films featured during the festival, including director Jonathan Demme’s remarkably moving, introspective and life-affirming concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold, in which the veteran, uncompromising icon–long considered among the last honest voices in rock and roll–unveils the songs from his latest album Prairie Wind in a Nashville concert hall, deeply felt music largely written in the weeks before Young underwent risky surgery to repair a life-threatening brain aneurism.

Less well-received was the one major studio release to appear at the festival and the opening night selection, Universal’s American Dreamz, an occasionally amusing but leaden-paced and dull-edged satire from writer-director Paul Weitz (who was, with brother Chris, one half of the duo behind American Pie) which attempts to intermingle the moral and intellectual awakening of a dullard U.S. President (Dennis Quaid in a wry if not-so-subtle riff on George W. Bush) to the soulless, mercenary machinations behind the scenes of an American Idol-style TV talent show, particularly the relationship between its arrogant-yet-self-loathing host (Hugh Grant, the film’s primary delight, channeling Simon Cowell) and its odds-on favorite to win, a Machiavellian cutie-pie songbird played with panache by the increasingly impressive Mandy Moore.

Michael Douglas was feted midway through the festival with its Prospero Award honoring his impressive body of work, and the actor appeared on stage–in a full, thick beard–at Hamilton’s Liberty Theater after a screening of his 1992 film Falling Down (his choice of his work to be shown) for a lengthy, insightful and unedited Q&A with journalist David Poland before collecting his award.

[For Hollywood.com’s highlights from Douglas’ reminiscences, click here]

“This is wonderful and I wish you continued success,” he told the festival organizers and attendees. “It’s the ninth year already and it’s great what you’re doing, and I’m happy to support it whenever I can. It’s a pleasure.” After leading the crowd in a spirited rendition of “Happy Birthday” to honor festival director Aideen Ratteray Pryse, Douglas–sans Hollywood handlers and entourage–drove himself to the post-party where he chatted casually with the VIP guests.

Douglas’ mother Diana and her family originally hail from Bermuda, and the actor spent many summers there and currently keeps a home on the island with his family (by all local accounts, Zeta-Jones is a frequent–and warmly chatty–sight at the shops both tony and commonplace). A day before his tribute while sightseeing around the island, Hollywood.com visited his family-owned hotel, the Ariel Sands in Devonshire, and were not only surprised to see a numerous photos of the Douglas clan on the walls–including his father, Kirk, and Michael alongside Hollywood pals like Kathleen Turner–on the walls, we also spied Douglas himself relaxing in the lobby bar.

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“It’s familiar and with all the traveling we all do, it’s just great to have a place like this,” Douglas told Hollywood.com of his fondness for Bermuda, a prosperous and lovely British protectorate which lies in the sparkling aquamarine waters of the Atlantic at about the same latitude as North Carolina, just a two-hour flight from New York City. “I’ve got a big family here and it gives you a great sense of security.” It’s also provided a much-need antidote the constant go-go-go, the business machinations and the all-too-frequent artifice of Los Angeles. “It really has been [an antidote],” Douglas said. “It’s a great place to raise kids, and just very nice.”

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