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Recap: 2009 Independent Film Festival of Boston

With the enormous Cannes Film Festival kicking off this week, a peek back at last month’s Independent Film Festival of Boston provides contrast. First, the IFFB is far from the South of France. Second, it lacks massive red carpet and pleasure cruise arrivals. Third, the hotels aren’t overcrowded with media. Look, to understand the vibe of the 2009 Boston event, you only had to catch the Day 4 text message from festival programmer Adam Roffman: ‘Come out tonight… to see Robert Siegel (writer of The Wrestler), actor Kevin Corrigan, a car that looks like a giant red phone, a bunch of cheerleaders, a guy in a gorilla suit, and tons of filmmakers. Not kidding.’

Roffman wasn’t kidding. And that sense of frivolity is part of what keeps the IFFB happy and grounded, despite its growing popularity and increasing press demands. The small crew behind the IFFB is serious about strong, independent film but they also recognize the value of accessibility, community, and plain old fun.

If filmmakers at your typical high-profile festival are most concerned with selling their film, here they’re simply concerned with people seeing it. Two-time Sundance award winner Ondi Timoner followed up a screening of her excellent media mania doc We Live in Public () by selling t-shirts and gratefully chatting with fans in the theater lobby.

But the IFFB has learned to acquire just the right bigger titles without overselling — or selling out. Case in point was the Opening Night selection, Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom (), a large-scale effort featuring two Oscar winners, Adrien Brody and Rachel Weisz. Johnson’s offbeat take on the con game genre is an artistic thrill, full of shot compositions that would make Wes Anderson jealous. Ultimately, though, style wins over satisfaction and the film’s brilliant promise of the first act falls flat come the final con.

While Johnson was the only Q&A participant from his star-stacked feature, some impressive names paid a visit to this humble six-day fest: Hal Holbrook, for a screening of his rural drama That Evening Sun (), the film that’ll nab him a Best Actor Oscar nomination; Bryan Cox, in support of the aptly-named prison escape film The Escapist… and, of course, director Bobcat Goldthwait, introducing his Closing Night feature, the daring, slightly sick dark comedy World’s Greatest Dad (), starring Robin Williams and a revelatory Daryl Sabara, clearly no longer a ‘Spy Kid.’

The two biggest crowd-pleasers of the festival screened on consecutive evenings: First, Marc Webb’s indie romance 500 Days of Summer, which, I was told, enjoyed even more demand than the packed Brothers Bloom premiere; second, the documentary The Lost Son of Havana (), Jonathan Hock’s compassionate chronicle of former Red Sox hero Luis Tiant and his notable return to Cuba after a 46-year absence.

While Hock spends a little too much time analyzing the famed 1975 World Series (inevitable, I suppose, for a Sox fan), he seems to love Tiant just as New England always has. Hock, Tiant, exec producer Bobby Farrelly, and an overstuffed handful of friends swooped into the Somerville Theater’s largest venue to join fans, and found their film to be the only festival entry to snag an extra ‘just added’ screening.

On the flipside of the popularity coin are those first-time IFFB filmmakers who arrive with shorts — and enjoy a surprisingly warm welcome. On Day Three, I met Alden Burgess, one such first-timer whose 11-minute What Is She To You? ended up playing to a big crowd as the opener to Beeswax, the latest from Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha). Friendly visit to Boston, nice hotel room, high-profile screening… who wouldn’t want to come back?

Speaking of Beeswax, here are the festival award winners:

Narrative Features
Special Jury Prize: Beeswax
Grand Jury Prize: Children of Invention, a Boston-produced tale of two young siblings forced to fend for themselves. Directed by Tze Chen.

Documentary Features
Special Jury Prize: The Unmistaken Child, Nati Baratz’s chronicle of a young Tibetan monk who searches for the reincarnation of his mentor
Grand Jury Prize: Crude, a thorough examination of the alleged destruction of Ecuador by Chevron, directed by Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost; Metallica: Some Kind of Monster).

In his Opening Night program notes, Rian Johnson wrote ‘This seems like a kind and understanding festival… The city in general strikes me as a nice place, and you Bostonians are (I would expect) tolerant and open minded, and above all, forgiving.’ Sure Johnson was buttering up the crowd with tongue in cheek, but he’s not so far from the truth. An appreciative cinema community will often react as Johnson has described. And will probably continue to, as long as the IFFB throws giant red phone cars and gorilla suits at us. All in the name of uncommonly good independent film.

For more reviews from IFFB 2009, check out our preview roundup.

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