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A different world

The first Tampa International Film Festival is a chance to take an alternative look at life as other countries know it, the festival's organizer says.

COLETTE BANCROFT
Published April 3, 2003

At a time when insistent images of the world outside our borders overwhelm us, a new film festival in Tampa offers other visions.

The director and founder of the Tampa International Film Festival, filmmaker and University of Tampa professor Robert Tregenza, says, "This is cinema that looks at alternative models for the world and retains the sense of other possibilities. There are alternatives to what TV tells us the world is."

The nine-day festival opens Saturday, serving up 21 films from Brazil, Spain, France, England, Mexico, Russia, Bosnia, Cuba, Japan and Italy. It's a feast of foreign films for the Tampa Bay area, where the usual cinematic menu offers only rare crumbs of non-Hollywood fare.

Tregenza, 52, has spent the past six months putting the festival together while teaching in the communications program at UT. He has been there for a year and a half and says that soon after arriving, "I told the dean I couldn't understand why there wasn't a film festival of this sort here. Tampa is an international port, an international city. There was a need for something like this, a vacuum."

The iconic image of UT's campus is ornate, historic Plant Hall, with its silver minarets and graceful verandas. The film festival's office is in a decidedly more utilitarian historic building, a squat beige block rectangle that used to be one of the Florida State Fair's exhibition halls, back when the fairgrounds were in downtown Tampa.

"I think these are the buildings they used for the farm animals," Tregenza says cheerfully, sweeping a hand at a bare-bones office where papers are heaped around a computer and stacks of videotapes fill shelves.

The final stages of scheduling are coming together. Tregenza's wife, J.K. Eareckson, is one of the programmers; she is busy tinkering with screening times. Tregenza and Eareckson, who have a daughter in college, live aboard a 41-foot sailboat moored in Ruskin. But these days they're seeing a lot of the former livestock hall.

Tregenza, looking like a movie-ready professor with a mane of graying hair and a tweedy jacket, claims the communications department lounge for a chat. It's a black-painted room with one glass wall, through which can be seen a knot of students energetically playing, replaying and discussing a video.

Despite the frantic pace of making the festival happen, Tregenza clearly relishes the task. "Why was I the one to do it? Maybe it's just my naivete, my cockeyed optimism. Or maybe it's the simple fact that I have contacts."

Those contacts come from his work as a filmmaker and film distributor. He has written and directed three films, Talking to Strangers (1988), The Arc (1991) and Inside/Out (1997), and for 10 years he and Eareckson have run Cinema Parallel, an international film distribution company. She also produced his films.

Tregenza's films have been shown at Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and other festivals, and Cinema Parallel distributes films to festivals around North America, so he is a veteran of the festival circuit.

Although several film festivals have grown up around the Tampa Bay area in recent years, most of the time fans of foreign and independent films get slim pickings.

Twenty years ago, when Tampa Theatre showed a different movie almost every night, international films were a staple there, and a foreign film series at the University of South Florida flourished.

Not any more, and the same is true in many other American cities. Tregenza says, "Two things have really hurt international film in North America. The first was when they stopped teaching and requiring foreign languages in high schools and universities."

For language students, movies in the language they studied provided lessons as well as entertainment. "Films were a direct window onto the culture.

"The second thing is that alternative distributors and programmers have become increasingly cautious about what international films they distribute. In part that's because of high costs, but it's also because of the Miramaxation of what a foreign film is," he says, referring to Miramax, the giant film corporation whose foreign products run to such easily digestible tidbits as Chocolat. "They want to program something they think is an American product."

Tregenza says that a foreign film festival fired his desire to become a filmmaker. "When I was a freshman in college . . . I knew absolutely nothing about foreign film. I was just looking for something to do on a rainy Friday night. So I wandered into a film by Antonioni. Then the next week I wandered into a film by Bergman.

"It was as if I had walked through a door into a completely different world. That was when I knew I wanted to do that, to participate in it somehow."

He didn't do it right away. He earned a doctorate from the University of California, Los Angeles, writing a dissertation on existential philosopher Martin Heidegger.

"But I always wanted to make films. I went from the academic world to being involved in the very practical parts of filmmaking. For 12, 14 years, I worked as a camera person, writer, editor, director. I learned stuff on both sides."

At UT Tregenza is using the stuff from both sides. He says he always wanted to return to teaching. "One reason I was attracted to UT was that this is not a film program, it's a communications program. It encompasses the whole concept of communication. It's not a trade school turning out people who can do film production," he says.

The communications program is one of UT's largest, with about 300 students who can study not only filmmaking but video and digital media, interactive media, Web page design and journalism.

"The core courses for communications are in culture and history, writing and esthetics," Tregenza says. "It makes more sense to me to teach in that liberal arts tradition."

Even when students enter the program set on filmmaking, he says, "I don't assume they're the next Steven Spielberg. I'm going to go through a process with them of instructing, of mentoring over four years, through which they will discover what they want to do.

"The probability of any one of them making a feature film is so remote that it raises ethical questions for the instructor (to teach only filmmaking). But these communications skills translate very well to the applied world."

This semester, 20 of his students are getting practical experience in organizing a film festival. They're taking a special course on motion picture distribution and management, earning credit for helping Tregenza and a staff of programmers get the festival off the ground. "They're the core you'll see taking tickets and everywhere else," he says.

The lineup for the festival was finalized only last week. Several of the films deal in various ways with war, such as the award-winning Russian film Cuckoo, set in World War II, and One More Mile, a film by another UT faculty member, Elizabeth Coffman, that focuses on the aftermath of war in Bosnia.

Tregenza says he didn't choose films with the possibility of war in mind. "It was just one of those crazy zeitgeist things. Many of these films have to do with dealing with problems like war, with your culture changing rapidly around you, the kind of situation where all the preconceptions about your life are challenged, and how do you cope with that?"

But the range of themes is wide, he says. "We've worked hard to program films that are good paradigms of what international film is and what it can say to the Tampa Bay community."

Tregenza says he expects three kinds of audiences for the festival. "The first is individuals who will find an ethnic and cultural resonance in the films. These are current international films; the Brazilian film (Man of the Year) is premiering here the same week it opens there, so it's very current.

"The second is individuals who have an interest in the content of the films, whether it's politics or entertainment.

"The third is people who enjoy films for esthetics. These are people who have been looking at foreign films for 40 years, who have those names in the backs of their minds, Fellini, Antonioni, Godard, Bergman. I think my students, and Tampa Bay, straddle all three of those."

Some of the films will challenge even die-hard foreign film fans, or at least test their ability to sit. The French film La Commune clocks in at almost six hours, and Satantango, from Hungary, is a whopping 71/2 hours.

Most, though, have ordinary time frames, if not ordinary subject matter. Two are North American premieres, and 10 are Florida premieres.

"I'm interested in the kind of cinema that's willing to talk about cinema," Tregenza says, "cinema as art, cinema as literature, cinema as poetry. We're willing to talk about cinema as commerce and even cinema as politics, but not the other things."

The festival's title is the hopeful "Cinema for a New World," he says.

"Art has an obligation to be optimistic as well as critical."

Tregenza says he hopes not only that people will come to the festival but talk about what they see. "The films should create discourse. . . . It's not meant to be a diatribe on the left or on the right, but a dialogue about what happens in the middle.

"People will come to these films for different reasons, and they're all good reasons. My task is to say, open yourself to multiple readings and experiences."

- Contact Colette Bancroft at bancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

Tampa International Film Festival

Films will be screened at the times and locations listed below. Tickets to single screenings are $7, $5 for students and seniors with ID. Festival passes with 10 tickets are $50. Gold Card Express passes include all screenings and an opening night party for $150. For information about the films, see the festival Web site, tampafilmfest.ut.edu. For tickets, call the festival office at (813) 253-3333, ext. 3928.

Saturday Tampa Theatre

7 p.m. Cuckoo (Russia)

9:15 Man of the Year (Brazil)

Sunday Channelside Cinemas

5 p.m. Rendez-vous on the Quay (France)

6:30 Marche et Reve! (France)

8:30 At First Breath of Wind (Italy)

Monday Reeves Theatre, University of Tampa

6 p.m. La Commune (France/UK)

Tuesday Reeves Theatre 6 p.m. JLG/JLG (Switzerland)

7:15 One More Mile (Bosnia/U.S.)

9:15 The Cow (Czech Republic)

Wednesday Tampa Theatre

5 p.m. Leo Brouwer (Cuba)

7 Nights in Constantinople (Cuba)

9:30 Japon (Mexico)

April 10

Reeves Theatre 5:30 p.m. Satantango (Hungary)

April 11

Channelside Cinemas

6 p.m. Alexei and the Spring (Japan)

8:45 The Chekist (Russia)

April 12

Channelside Cinemas

6 p.m. Devils, Devils (Poland)

8 Sweet Sixteen (United Kingdom)

April 13

Channelside Cinemas

5 p.m. Living With an Idiot (Russia)

6:30 Inside/Out (Switzerland, France, U.S., Canada)

9:15 Mondays in the Sun (Spain)

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