New York: First Time Fest April 3-7, 2014

first-time-festA rapidly growing number of films resulting from new low cost production technologies and the rising number of young filmmakers have made the identification and subsequent exposure of outstanding independent films and their release on different platforms problematic. As members of the FTF Critical Eye film criticism panel noted, it is impossible to track all the films which are a produced, many of which will never see the light of the day. A significant number of the close to 800 films which were released last year in New York City will get be reviewed. The hope that social media may offset this lack of press or festival recognition by informally supporting the circulation of independent productions is not borne out by empirical data. Skepticism is advised. If recent Nielsen studies prove correct, the impact of social media may be minimal. From the comfort of their homes only eight percent of the viewer’s send messages about the television program they have been watching.

Further, there are the limitations of festivals. Although getting a film into a film festival is an achievement not to be belittled, subsequent distribution and release is attained only by few of those films that were accepted by established fests. The growth of the number of festivals is no remedy either. New film festivals are regularly being set up that offer venues, but few survive the first couple of years due to the absence of a clear profile and funding problems.

Against this background the First Film Fest needs to be assessed. Having a distinct and unmistakable profile is a necessary albeit insufficient factor for the success for any small festival which tries to develop a niche. To name but a few, this niche may be determined by the ethnic or the foreign origin of the audience, particular social or political issues the festival is addressing, gender orientation, or the country where the films originated that often provide some funding. If no other festival is covering that niche in the fest’s region there is a reasonable chance of success. Though the demographic composition of the area is an important marketing factor, the niche does not necessarily require a major metropolitan area as the existence of more than 60 Jewish film festivals in the United States demonstrates. Rather, the festival’s unique profile, its mesh with the local audience and the link to funding sources and industry contacts are essential factors.

The First Time Fest has been successful thus far because it occupies a niche with its unique profile that no other festival in this country has yet emulated, contrary to the expectations I had when reviewing the first edition. It remains the only fest which presents in its international competition only new and debut films by first-time directors, writers, producers, composers, and cinematographers from around the world. Countries represented in 2014 included the United States, Netherlands, Slovenia, Germany, Israel, Sweden, and Norway, with most productions shown for the first time in New York or the US. The second unusual characteristic of FTF is the First Exposure series of films, showing ten first features by well-established filmmakers such as Albert Maysles’ SALESMEN and ROGER & ME by Michael Moore. Moore also presented a sold out discussion seminar about his work and the state of the Industry. What has a special appeal to participating film makers are the unusual awards. The Grand Prize Winner receives theatrical distribution from the Cinema Libre Studio (and this year also a trip to a Scandinavian writers’ retreat). Another original feature of the fest is the audience participation in selecting the prize winners. After each screening they can message their rating of the film to the jury. Equally, if not more important, is the industry distribution advisory offered to all film makers selected for the competition. Five of last year’s eight award winners have been released to date. Apart from the Grand Prize Winner SAL by Diego Rougier, JUNCTION, ZIPPER, BLUMENTHAL, and UPRISING have entered distribution.

This year noted film director and McArthur Genius grant recipient Julie Taymor (TITUS) received the John Huston Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinema. From 320 submissions the festival selected ten for the final competition including four documentaries. The grand prize and a separate award for outstanding editing were received by the German feature LOVE STEAK directed by Jacob lass, a film which has also collected accolades from other festivals. It featured a black comedy about two unlikely characters falling in love. An Israeli-German co-production FAREWELL HERR SCHWARZ by Yael Reuveny covering three generation of two families from Concentration camp survivors elucidates the complex relationship Germans and Israelis have with their past. While a sister is settling in Israel after the war is over, her brother stays in Germany living and having a family close to the camp where he was imprisoned. The film maker presents a compelling soul searching narrative which received an award for outstanding storytelling. 1982 got the special jury prize for its immaculate representation of the crack and gang infested Philadelphia setting in which a father saves his daughter and steers her addicted mother to recovery. Hill Harper, playing the father, also received the award for best acting. Other awards included cinematography and scoring. Among films of note was a superbly sequenced documentary, BITTERSWEET, about a world championship match between two female boxers, which received the award for best directing. Serene Meshel-Dillman’s GETTING TO THE NUTCRACKER is a superbly filmed production. In its concise imagery we follow the yearlong path of volunteer children and young dancers from the Los Angeles Marat Daukayev School of Ballet from casting, training and first rehearsals, to an outstanding Nutcracker performance. The documentary was funded by its writer and director Serene Meshel-Dillman.

Given its continued unique profile and the success of the 2014 edition, the First Time Fest remains among my favorite small festivals.

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