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By Michael Ferraro | April 5, 2006

There are literally thousands (maybe even millions) of film festivals out there; how do you know which one is the best for you? Whether you’re a filmmaker or merely a spectator, Bermuda may have the perfect solution for you. The Bermuda International Film Festival (BIFF) showcases a terrific lineup of films on one of the most beautiful islands in the world. It’s not every day you get to watch a film on a tropical island, so when the opportunity to spend nine days in paradise presented itself, I packed my bags quicker than I ever thought possible.

When I arrived, I wasn’t quite prepared for Bermuda’s frigid temperatures (it really wasn’t that cold but I pictured a lot warmer climate), but I was still overwhelmed by the scenery. For such a small country (it’s only about 30 miles long), it has a lot to offer. After a brief yet complete tour from a festival volunteer, I headed to the Southside Cinema to catch the festival’s opening film which was Paul Weitz’ poor attempt at satire, “American Dreamz.”

After the screening, I wasn’t quite sure if the rest of the festival’s selection would wash that horrible taste out of my mouth but when I got back to my hotel room and checked my screening schedule for the next day, I discovered that I was going to see Park Chan-Wook’s “Lady Vengeance.” The night (and film) prior was erased from my memory like Joel Barish.

The rest of the festival went off with out a hitch. Aside from the films mentioned prior, the festival also screened John Hillcoat and Nick Cave’s brutal Australian western, “The Proposition.” Starring Ray Winstone and Guy Pierce, the film follows a stern lawman (Winstone) seeking justice on a band of brothers who raped and murdered a local woman. The film went on to receive the Mary-Jean Mitchell Green Award for Best Narrative Feature. Other narrative films featured were Steven Lewis Simpson’s “Retribution” from the UK; the Palme d’Or winner “L’Enfant” from France; and Haneke’s “Hidden” (Cache). “Kinky Boots” closed the festival and grabbed an Audience Choice Award in the process.

The documentary lineup was exceptionally strong. Not only did “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” and “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey” showcase here, Demme’s “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” had a chance too. “Pirate Radio USA” (directed by Jeff Pearson) was a humorous journey through the world of pirate radio, sticking it to FCC one station at a time. Bermudian local Lucinda Spurling premiered her inspiring documentary “Rare Bird” here as well.

One thing the Bermuda International Film Festival strives hard to accomplish is showcasing local talent. “Take a Bath” was a psychological little short filmed in Bermuda and directed by Vicky Zabriskie, which preceded the midnight screening of “Ghost of Mae Nak.” Directors Johnathan Rogers and Wendy Davis Johnson shot “Three Extraordinary Weeks,” a chronicle of a summer dance institute with over 2000 dancers from all over the world. Errol Williams’ “Walking on a Sea of Glass” explored the life of Kingsley Tweed, a carpenter turned political activist, who was one of the leaders of a Theater Boycott that began a new life of desegregation in Bermuda. The BIFF makes it known how much the community surrounding and supporting it is appreciated.

There were so many great shorts here as well; it was tough to decide which one was the best. Among the finest were Tony Hagger’s “Half Term,” about a teen visiting his stepfamily, and Lluís Quílez’ study into a deteriorating marriage called “Avatar.” “Avatar” won the top short prize and is also eligible for Academy recognition come nomination time. Also deserving mention was Sam Friedlander’s interestingly bizarre “Lucid,” following two characters dreaming of each other and as each other.

Bermuda is also home to Academy Award-winning producer and actor Michael Douglas. Being the good sport he is, he decided to bring the festival audiences a little treat – a special screening of the underappreciated classic, “Falling Down.” Considering that the crummy American DVD release only has a standard version, who wouldn’t want to see this film in all of its widescreen glory? Douglas appeared onstage to do some Q and A after the film. He answered questions about his entire career – from producing “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to working with Oliver Stone on “Wall Street” – that was almost good enough for James Lipton. It was definitely a night to remember.

After the questioning, Douglas headed to the festival headquarters to party with the rest of us. Also in attendance were festival jurors (and actors) Peter Riegert (“Local Hero” and “Animal House”) and Laura Harring (“Mulholland Drive”). The joy for me was actually speaking with Harring about her role in the best television show ever created, The Shield. She was very hush-hush about plot details but she had no problem sharing production stories, which was good enough for me.

So how does Bermuda’s film festival rate against the countless others out there? It’s a small festival that remembers why festivals began in the first place – to expose filmmakers with unique stories and uncompromising visions. That isn’t to say they don’t know how to party (because they know how to very well) but the importance of filmmaking resonates throughout even more so.

Oh, and did I mention it’s in Bermuda?

…And the awards go to:

Best Narrative Feature: THE PROPOSITION, directed by John Hillcoat.

Best Documentary Feature: KING LEOPOLD’S GHOST, directed by Pippa Scott.

Special Jury Mention in the Best Documentary Category: RARE BIRD, directed by Lucinda Spurling.

Best Short: AVATAR, directed by Lluis Quilez.

Audience Choice Award: KINKY BOOTS, directed by Julian Jarrold.

Special Jury Prize – Cinematography: Alain Duplantier (RING FINGER) and Martin Stepanek (SHARK IN THE HEAD).

Special Jury Prize – Outstanding Performances: Ray Winstone and Emily Watson (THE PROPOSITION), Oldrich Kaiser (SHARK IN THE HEAD) and Olga Kurylenko (THE RING FINGER).

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