tampabay.com

In Tampa, art for our sake

By STEVE PERSALL
Published February 3, 2006


Bet you can't wait for that Buddhadeb Dasgupta retrospective at the Tampa International Film Festival beginning today, or the chance to meet Canadian filmmaker Bernard Emond next weekend.

Don't feel bad if you don't know who Dasgupta and Emond are, or what award-winning films they made. Neither do I.

I've covered movies for the St. Petersburg Times for nearly 13 years. Once in a while it feels as if that coverage is the size of a dinner napkin. A few minutes scanning the festival's lineup (www.tampafilmfest.com) is a startling reminder of how much cinema exists outside the box of Hollywood "creativity" and independent film spirit. I feel suitably humbled and curious to know what I've missed.

That's a shift from my usual reaction to film festivals seemingly built around the most obscure works available. Call it insecurity or ignorance, but whenever such schedules cross my desk I imagine theater seats only partially filled by stuffy intellectuals who probably aren't any more aware or interested than I. But it gives them something to feel superior about as they slip into wine-tasting party conversations, speaking off the (tuxedo) cuff.

"I hope that's not the case but I can see why people would say that," said Rob Tregenza, founder of the Tampa International Film Festival. "But if people actually consider the kind of films we have, it's a lot more entertaining than that.

"We're not trying to do something effete and marginal. Rather, I'm trying to program major international films that otherwise wouldn't come here, wouldn't be commercially viable for a theatrical run."

Tregenza has only a bit more tolerance for celluloid social climbers than I do.

"Art for art's sake people are into cinema simply because it can be bizarre," he said during a recent telephone interview. "I don't think that's enough of a reason to go to a movie. You have to go to a movie to be inspired or emotionally moved, to learn something."

A few years ago, the University of Tampa professor and filmmaker surveyed Tampa Bay's cinema landscape and found it fairly parched. Multiplexes were "doing a decent job" of serving mainstream tastes, but not enough for a community expanding its cultural diversity. Annual festivals for such specialized tastes as gay or Jewish cinema seldom reached beyond European and Asian film industries for programming. Style often trumped substance in those cases, as festivals appeal to the widest audiences possible.

The Tampa International Film Festival was born to change that, a gamble that paid off better than some expected with an estimated 3,000 admissions each year. There can't be that many snobs strutting around. Instead, Tregenza and his staff made it work by keeping three specific groups in mind when booking films.

"First you have people who want to relive their own culture," he said. "Then you have what we call scuba divers, who want to explore something deeper than they're accustomed to. And you have those cinephiles who'll try anything on film."

This year's 18-film lineup (plus numerous shorts) has something for each group, occasionally bundled in the same movie.

The tribute to Dasgupta - whose festival appearance is delayed until Feb. 11 - is an example of Tregenza's catering to those factions. The bay area's Indian population has greatly increased in recent years, so the four films in Dasgupta's retrospective will be nostalgic for immigrants and eye-opening for anyone else.

"He's a non-Bollywood Indian director," Tregenza said, referring to the feel-good musicals that have made inroads in American pop culture. "I'm not knocking Bollywood because I love those films.

"But (Dasgupta's) films are more reflective; they're quiet, moving movies. They look at the Bengali culture and the people existing in that culture, a normal, everyday world. It's important for us to see other cultures, and not always through the glossy window of popular entertainment. I don't think everybody will like that kind of film but I think it's a window on the world we definitely need to look through."

Dasgupta's entry in 2005's Toronto Film Festival, Memories in the Mist, kicks off the festival at 7 tonight at Sunrise Cinemas in Tampa's Old Hyde Park shopping district, where most screenings will be held. Tickets for all shows are $8, with discounts for students and seniors. A pass to all festival events including the closing night party at Tampa's Education Channel Annex is available for $200.

Emond is also scheduled to attend Feb. 11 to introduce his film La Neuvaine that Tregenza booked after a Toronto screening.

"It's a beautiful film on the subject of faith and how does somebody survive who doesn't have faith in God yet recognizes the lacking of not having that," he said. "It's not a heavy polemic but it's something to consider: How do we go on without that kind of faith?"

The 9-day lineup also includes the Netherlands-China documentary collaboration, Yang Ban Xi: The Eight Model Works (9:30 p.m. tonight). "That's a funny, funny film about the only operas allowed during the Cultural Revolution," Tregenza said. "Chairman Mao's wife created them and a new generation of young people are now idolizing these archaic works."

For the "scuba divers," Tregenza recommended two Argentine road trip movies: Bombon El Perro (9:30 p.m. Sunday) about a traveling mechanic and his dog, and Cleopatra (6 p.m., Feb. 10), echoing Thelma and Louise with its tale of a soap opera star and a school teacher leaving men behind for a life-changing weekend.

The Florida premiere of But When Do the Girls Get Here? was cited by Tregenza as "the most accessible drama of all of them." The story of Italian musicians using music as seduction tools plays at Sunrise Cinemas at 7 p.m., Feb. 11 "They'll love this one," he said. "I hate to say it but a little sex, a little violence and a lot of really good jazz is entertaining."

On the other end of the scale is the German-Latvian collaboration Fallen (8:15 p.m., Feb. 10), a black-and-white meditation on a man's guilt after he fails to prevent a suicide.

"It's the most intellectually rigorous film in the festival," said Tregenza, who couldn't resist adding a friendly dig: "It's probably the kind of film that drives you crazy."

Ouch, but touche.

And what happens if Tregenza's attempts to illuminate the world with a projector bulb don't work for some viewers?

"You just say: "Well, we all took a chance,' " he said. "Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Hopefully you win more than you lose. In our fourth year, I think people have come to expect that we're not going to program a film without merit of some sort.

"Certainly there will be films you can dialogue with, disagree with, but at least come out saying that was an interesting experience; that was worthwhile."

- Steve Persall can be reached at 727 893-8365 or persall@sptimes.com