The Palm Springs International Film Festival had its opening screening and party on Thursday night with the world premiere of "The Sense of an Ending," director Ritesh Batra's adaptation of Julian Barnes' Man Booker Prize-winning novel starring Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Michelle Dockery, Emily Mortimer and Harriet Walter.
Broadbent plays a man whose past gets dredged up when he receives a letter saying he is to inherit the diary of an old friend. This causes him to re-engage with a long-lost first love (Rampling), but also to come to terms with how he has possibly misremembered events from decades ago to assuage feelings of responsibility in the death of a friend.
Set in London, the film has a low-key, enigmatic tone as it explores the way memories sometimes cast us in a more favorable light. In some of the movie's most startling moments, the older Broadbent finds himself wandering in scenes from his younger life, as his memories come flooding back.
"I feel like good stories take you to a certain place and a certain time," the Indian-born Batra said in an interview ahead of the festival. "I feel like stories have to be faithful to their place and to their time, so before we were making 'Sense' I had only ever visited London, for meetings and such, but I had never lived there. I tried to make it as local as I could. Of course it's my interpretation of London, but I tried to be faithful."
The festival in Palm Springs is known to many not as much for its fine program of films from around the globe, but rather for the lavish awards gala that has become a key point in Hollywood's awards season. The gala helps the machinery of awards season get back into gear after the holidays and gives talent a final out-of-town tryout for acceptance speeches that may soon be televised at events like the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards and the Oscars.
Harold Matzner, chairman of the festival, at the Thursday opening noted how the Monday awards gala had brought in $2.3 million for the organization, the net of which would be used to fund the "ambitious" screening program. The festival will use 21 screens to show 190 films from 72 countries, and he called it "one of the largest, most respected film events in North America."
A few in the audience at the recently renovated Palm Springs High School auditorium burst into cheers when he added that the festival's desert location meant that attendees could also have "fun in the sun while the rest of the country is bundling up in the cold."
Among the other festival events are two day-long retreats, one for narrative filmmakers and one for documentary filmmakers. For the seventh year, the retreats are on the grounds of Sunnylands, the Annenberg estate in Rancho Mirage. Thursday afternoon, before the opening-night festivities, narrative filmmakers used a creative writing exercise to get to know one another apart from their work, then they showed trailers for their films and talked about their challenges.
Attending the retreat were Batra, Polish director Ryszard Bugajski with "Zacma: Blindness," Nepalese director Deepak Rauniyar with "White Sun," Dutch filmmaker Paula van der Oest with "Tonio," Israeli filmmaker Elite Zexer with "Sand Storm," Kenyan filmmaker Mbithi Masya with "Kati Kati," and French filmmakers Paul Calori and Kostia Testut with "Julie and the Shoe Factory."
Filmmakers converged on the opening-night screening after-party at the Palm Springs Art Museum, where Batra accepted congratulations from well-wishers. But it was the retreat earlier in the day that proved to be a special experience for many.
"We are super excited," Testut said. "As filmmakers, we spend so much time in a kind of solitude, and meeting other people with the same problems it's refreshing and it gives strength. Plus we knew the festival by its worldwide reputation. We feel lucky."
Van der Oest is a veteran of the festival circuit and was an Oscar nominee in 2002 for her film "Zus & Zo." Nevertheless some parts of the festival-hopping life never get easier.
"There's also a very lonely aspect about it," Van der Oest said, "being in faraway cities and your film is shown, but then you're like, 'Where is everybody?' It's a very mixed feeling. But it's really also a good thing, that there are so many film festivals around the world, so many film lovers. Here in Palm Springs, the rooms are so full and the audiences are so involved, it's really nice."
For Rauniyar, his film premiered last fall at festivals in Venice and Toronto, so he already has seen distinctions in how audiences react. He is eager to find out what happens at the film's U.S. premiere in Palm Springs.
"We had a sense that it would be a universal-feeling story," Rauniyar said. "And it's a co-production between U.S., Netherlands, Qatar and Nepal. Most of the crew was from outside [Nepal]. So we had a sense it would work internationally."
Zexer decided not to think about festivals while making "Sand Storm," her feature debut.
"When I was making the movie, everybody kept asking me, 'What's your dream, what festival would you want to go to?' And I would answer, 'My dream is to make this movie,'" Zexer said. "So for me everything that has happened since is just amazing, everything that's happened this year, it feels like this journey is just getting bigger and bigger and bigger. It's been overwhelming."
The film won six prizes at the Ophir awards, Israel's Oscars, including best film, and after partying with her crew late into the night, Zexer said she found herself with no money and no ride home. Walking through the late-night streets of Tel Aviv in a gown and heels, clutching her prize for best director, people in passing cars asked what she was holding. When she told them, they burst into applause.
"It was so surreal, almost a scene out of a film," Zexer said.
Filmmakers at the festival are eager to talk about more than their own movies. They're curious about one another's work and its possible impact in world. "Julie and the Shoe Factory" is a contemporary musical, so Calori and Testut were curious to know more about "La La Land," which they have yet to see.
"Have you seen it?" Testut asked. "Is it a hit?"
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