- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2008

So it’s not Cannes or Sundance. There might not be high-profile world premieres or celebrities and their entourages taking over the District. That doesn’t mean, however, that Filmfest DC isn’t filled with high-quality world cinema. Sometimes the highest — the film at the very top of my Top 10 list last year was shown first at Filmfest DC. (It was the small Scottish drama “Red Road.”)

Savvy film fans, then, will have blocked out the next week and a half for some serious moviegoing. The Washington, DC International Film Festival — better known as Filmfest DC and now in its 22nd year — runs from now through May 4. Fitting for a multicultural community that also happens to be the capital of the free world, the spotlight this year is on “New Latin American Cinema” and “Politics & Film.”

Not all films fall under those categories, though. Take two that screen tonight with special appearances from the filmmakers. Legendary punk poetess Patti Smith is in town along with director Steven Sebring for “Patti Smith: Dream of Life,” which plays at the Historic Lincoln Theatre at 9:30 tonight. The winner of the cinematography prize at Sundance, the film chronicles the musician’s spiritual and musical journey over the past decade.

“Made in Jamaica” focuses on music of a very different sort — reggae. This French-USA co-production shows how this small country made such a big splash musically. It screens at the Lincoln at 6:30 tonight with producer Charlotte Lawrence.

There are plenty of other special appearances during the festival. If a different kind of art is your thing, skip the “Jamaica” screening and head over to the Avalon Theatre tonight at 6:30. Director Bertrand Normand will be on hand to discuss “Ballerina,” a portrait of five dancers from the Mariinsky Theatre (known when touring, as in their frequent appearances at the Kennedy Center, as the Kirov Ballet).

“New Latin American Cinema” features 13 films from eight countries — organizers are including Spain under the rubric. That country offers up the very funny satire “The Contestant.” An economics professor wins big money on a TV quiz show but finds his background doesn’t help him live with his newfound riches, so he asks a shady lawyer and a Marxist economist for help. Colombia’s entry is the dramatic “PVC-1.” Shot in a single 85-minute take, it’s based on the true story of criminals who plant a bomb around a woman’s neck and threaten to blow her up if they don’t get a ransom.

“Politics & Film” features many ripped-from-the-headlines movies. “In the Name of God” won the best-picture prize at the Cairo Film Festival. The Pakistani film looks at the difficulties two brothers face after the Sept. 11 attacks. One’s a fundamentalist; the other moves to the United States. Other films look at past events. “Children of Glory” is an epic about the 1956 Hungarian revolution, while “Mon Colonel” examines French atrocities during the Algeria War.

Many of what are likely to be festival hits don’t fall under any category. “AmericanEast” has “Monk” star Tony Shalhoub, and although his background is Lebanese, Mr. Shalhoub plays a Jew in this film about an Egyptian immigrant who wants to open a restaurant with his Jewish friend, despite the reservations of his family. That turns out to be the least of his worries when the FBI arrests him on suspicion of terrorism.

Ellen Page is one of the hottest actresses in Hollywood since her star turn in “Juno” garnered her an Oscar nomination — so Canada’s “The Tracey Fragments” will be a hot ticket. “Juno” fans may be disappointed. Not by Miss Page, however. Her character may describe herself as “just a normal girl who hates herself,” but the actress is as assured on-screen as ever. She plays a teenager whom we meet on a bus dressed in a shower curtain. Through fragmented flashbacks, we learn why. Upset at her parent’s anger over her little brother’s disappearance, she has run away from home. The story is told in even more fragmented a style than you might think — the screen is often multiframed. It’s quite effective in conveying the different perceptions we have of the same events, as during a dinner-table conversation. The film gets rather melodramatic, though, and the dialogue can be banal, even by the standards of other adolescence-themed fare.

For those looking for something closer to home, there are local flicks. “Jazz in the Diamond District” was shot right here in town by Duke Ellington School for the Arts grad Lindsey Christian. The title is a play on words — the District is called the Diamond District because of its shape, and Jazz is the main character, a worker at Ben’s Chili Bowl who discovers a love of go-go music one hot, humid summer.

“The Matador” was directed by Stephen Higgins and Washingtonian Nina Gilden Seavey, a documentarian who has won the Filmfest DC audience award in the past. This documentary follows a young bullfighter in Spain and the beauty and savagery of his work. Local producer Eric Kulberg worked on “The Night James Brown Saved Boston,” a David Leaf film about the musician’s April 5, 1968, concert the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, when many other cities were torn by riots.

A full schedule can be found at www.filmfestdc.org.

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