Festival celebrates women's films, issues

Women are on the march, seizing more of their rightful place in the movie world – on both sides of the camera.

That message rang loud and clear at the Bermuda International Film Festival, which just wrapped up its fifth impressive season on this sunny, sand-belted island.

True, this isn't one of the larger world-class festivals such as Cannes or Toronto, which unspool hundreds of films amid a crush of critics and industry insiders. But an eclectic selection like this – featuring 55 movies from 16 countries – can offer well-focused clues to trends that get lost in the shuffle of more crowded events.

No ideological agendas were in play. Programmers simply peered around the globe for attention-worthy pictures, and unveiled their choices before enthusiastic crowds of local viewers and visitors from all over.

One spontaneous result was a surprisingly strong celebration of female characters, issues, and directors.

Take the well-received comedy "Janice Beard: 45 WPM," coming to American theaters next month.

Directed by English filmmaker Clare Kilner, it's about an overly imaginative young woman who takes a job as an office temp to help with her mother's health-care expenses.

Plugging away at tedious tasks for a second-rate automotive company, she finds herself in the thick of an industrial-sabotage scheme – and a could-be love affair with a fellow employee who's not as innocent as he appears.

"Janice Beard" is too easy-going to be labeled a feminist fable.

Still, its steady stream of comic incidents never strays far from real-world concerns faced by women everywhere, from workplace challenges to stresses of family life.

Lively acting by Eileen Walsh and a likable supporting cast, including Patsy Kensit and Rhys Ifans, helps compensate for Kilner's directing style, which may prove too low-key to score a hit with US audiences.

Bermuda spectators fell willingly under its spell, though – which may auger well for its future, and for the more amply budgeted American production now on Kilner's slate.

Male filmmakers can take on women's issues too, as demonstrated by "Higher Still," written and directed by Nicolas Breviere, a rising French talent.

He tackles not one but four stories, tracing emotional crises in the lives of four young women whose careers and relationships take them down very different paths.

One is determined to start afresh after a failed love affair. Another is a dreamer caught up in someone else's romance.

The others are an ambitious actress and a self-sacrificing physician, both caught in situations that blur the line between their personal and professional selves.

All are strikingly portrayed by actresses who make the movie's emotions seem authentic even when the screenplay slips into sentimentality.

Breviere says he was inspired by the screen actresses he's loved since childhood, from Bette Davis to Catherine Deneuve, and he pays loving tribute to them here.

Being a woman doesn't limit a filmmaker to women's issues, as Estela Bravo proves with "Fidel," a major entry in the festival's documentary lineup.

It was among the most buzzed-about movies here, if only because its portrait of Fidel Castro marks a radical departure from most treatments by US producers.

In place of cold-war biases it offers a sympathetic view of the Cuban leader's aims and ambitions, with commentaries by the likes of American singer Harry Belafonte, influential Hollywood director Sydney Pollack, and Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez.

If anything, "Fidel" works too hard at extolling Castro, treating some of the issues it singles out – such as the case of Elián Gonzales, the Cuban boy returned to his homeland after a huge US uproar – with sketchy, imprecise strokes that weaken Bravo's overall argument.

The film's historical footage is compelling, though, and nothing at the festival sparked more discussion.

Bravo has been having trouble in her search for a US distributor, and it will be interesting – and revealing – to see whether this controversial item finds a place in American theaters.

Women were central to other festival movies, too. Among them was "Revelation," an Australian drama about three aboriginal sisters with a troubled past.

Regrettably, it dilutes its racial and gender-based messages with weak dialogue and acting. Bermudians also had their first look at Mira Nair's richly filmed "Monsoon Wedding," a current US hit.

Pictures that focused largely on men included "Grownups," a comical-cynical look at suburban sex. "South West 9" plunges into the London drug scene, while "Looking for Leonard" does something similar in a Montreal neighborhood.

"Berserk in the Antarctic" is a riveting first-person documentary about an ice-bound journey in an unsteady boat. "Revelation" is an inventive horror yarn with an offbeat apocalyptic twist – think "Rosemary's Baby" meets "The Boys From Brazil," with a touch of "The Exorcist" for good measure.

And if all this weren't enough excitement, British director Mike Figgis followed up his recent "Time Code" with the even more experimental "Hotel," starring Salma Hayek as a filmmaker shooting a "making of" documentary about a movie production plagued by sexual and artistic tensions.

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