Palm Springs International Film Festival welcomes the world

In his native country, Finnish director Klaus Härö is part of a tiny film community. There, he said, even a successful movie won’t attract a massive number of moviegoers. And if someone is a fan of your film, they typically share their enthusiasm by offering a polite “thank you.”

So when Härö first attended the Palm Springs International Film Festival four years ago, he was shocked by the number of people lining up to see his independent movie “Mother of Mine” -- many of whom later approached the director crying, saying how much his film moved them.

“It was not something I had ever experienced before, because the film culture in Finland is very small,” he recalled. “I especially remember that audience and the warmth of the reception they gave me, coming to me with tears in their eyes. The generosity of the Palm Springs audience is very rare.”

Härö is making the long journey back to the desert this week for the 21st annual festival. His latest film, “Letters to Father Jacob,” about the unlikely friendship between an ex-convict and a blind pastor in rustic Finland, will have its U.S. premiere there on Friday.

The movie is one of 188 films from 70 countries screening at this year’s festival, which kicks off Tuesday with an awards gala honoring 10 of the year’s most outstanding performers, but officially opens Thursday evening with a screening of “The Last Station,” about Russian author Leo Tolstoy.

The Palm Springs event differs from most other film festivals: For one thing, its oasis-like setting inspires a more relaxed vibe as filmmakers and attendees often hit the golf course in their downtime. It also attracts both international filmmakers like Härö and those in the industry stateside, who usually make the short trip from Los Angeles. Over the years, the festival has gained a reputation for being one of the best places to catch sometimes difficult-to-find foreign films. Before the festival closes Jan. 18, 41 of the 65 official Oscar submissions for best foreign language film will have been shown.

Founded in 1990 by then-Mayor Sonny Bono, the film festival has become a popular wintertime tourist attraction for the city. “It generates huge revenues for the city of Palm Springs and the hotels and restaurants who do booming business from it,” said Darryl Macdonald, the festival’s director.

Last year, total admissions for screenings and events tallied up to nearly 130,000. The festival typically welcomes a college-educated, middle-age crowd -- half of whom earn a six-figure income and about 70% of whom come from outside the Coachella Valley.

This year, the festival is honoring a handful of stars at its black-tie awards gala, including “Inglourious Basterds” director Quentin Tarantino, who will receive the Sonny Bono Visionary Award, and Mariah Carey, who will take home a Breakthrough Performance Award for her role in “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.” Meanwhile, other Oscar contenders for best director, such as Lee Daniels (“Precious”) and Rob Marshall (“Nine”), will participate in a series of moderated discussions.

But the events aren’t restricted to Hollywood’s A-listers. This year, a new program will showcase Australian Cinema, while emerging international directors vie for the $60,000 camera package and statue from artist Dale Chihuly that come along with the New Voices/Visions Award.

Festival organizers are enthusiastic about a number of new films, including “Beautiful Kate,” actress Rachel Ward’s directorial debut about a self-loathing writer who returns home to the Australian outback to try to figure out the roots of his family’s dysfunction (Jan. 8, 9 and 13). Another Australian film being shown at the festival is “Samson and Delilah,” which won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s a love story from director Warwick Thornton about two Aboriginal teens living in the central Australian desert (Jan. 6 and 8-10).

Also scheduled is “The Lightkeepers,” in which Richard Dreyfuss plays a lightkeeper on an abandoned Cape Cod beach. When his assistant quits, he hires a replacement and the two vow never to date a woman again -- until they’re tempted by two visitors played by Mamie Gummer and Blythe Danner (Jan. 16).

All movies are selected by six programmers, who spend most of the year traveling across the globe trying to track down good films.

“We look for a broad representation of film from many countries because we have a very sophisticated film-going audience who are very discriminating,” said Helen du Toit, director of programming. “It’s kind of a way to travel around the world. You get a sense of what’s happening and you’re culturally inspired by all of these different stories.”

Fest director Macdonald said he feels fortunate that during a time when nonprofit arts organizations are hemorrhaging money -- he cited as an example the CineVegas Film Festival, which announced last fall it would go on an indefinite hiatus -- the Palm Springs Festival seems to be blossoming. He said that ticket sales for this year’s fest -- most of which cost $11 and are available for advance purchase at or at the door -- are up 6%. And, Macdonald added, the festival has maintained all of its partnerships with previous sponsors, such as Cartier and Mercedes, as well as making new relationships with Penfold’s wines and Nestlé's Cranberry Raisinets.

But for Härö, the most rewarding part of attending the festival is gauging a more universal reaction to his movie from an international community of filmmakers.

“In Palm Springs, because everybody is far away from home in this relaxing surrounding, you sort of put your guard down,” he said.

“It’s a well in the middle of the desert where you can all meet before you go back to your own country and do your work. There’s something very special there.”