Inaugural San Luis film fest unspools

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BUENOS AIRES -- With hopes of amping up its recognition within the international film industry, the tiny province of San Luis, Argentina (pop. 400,000), is kicking off the inaugural Festival San Luis Cine on Friday. Twenty-two feature films from around the globe are in competition for the $50,000 top prize, which will be awarded by a seven-person jury headed by American actress Geraldine Chaplin.

"I'm extremely proud that we have 22 top-rate films in competition for this first festival. Despite a small budget and a small team, we've really put together something special," festival director Julio Marbiz said.

San Luis has established itself as a top destination for both Argentine and foreign productions in recent years, thanks in large part to their Ley de Cine (Cinema Law), which provincial lawmakers passed in 2001. The law sets aside about $10 million dollars -- a third of the province's budget -- annually to help fund productions and lure filmmakers from abroad to film in San Luis' varied landscapes in the foothills of the Andes Mountains.

"The Cinema Law and the film festival are helping to educate our province in cultural terms, and increasing tourism too, which is fantastic. Plus, we have a better infrastructure and better prices here in San Luis than in Buenos Aires," said Alberto Rodriguez Saa, the governor of San Luis and a recent presidential candidate who garnered 8% of the votes in Argentina's presidential elections last month.

Tonight's opening ceremony will feature an out-of-competition screening of Sidney Lumet's "Before the Devils Knows You're Dead." In addition, French actress Catherine Deneuve will be on hand to receive a lifetime achievement award. Deneuve is no stranger to Argentina; she headed the jury at the 1999 Mar del Plata International Film Fest, Argentina's largest international film gathering.

The 22 features in competition in San Luis include Luc Besson's "Angel-A" (France), Johnny To's "Exiled" (Hong Kong), Mohsen Melliti's "Me, The Other" (Italy), Carlos Ruiz Ruiz's "LoveSickness" (Puerto Rico), Jose Luis Castineira de Dios' "Manuel de Falla" (Argentina), Mani Haghighi's "Men at Work" (Iran) and David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises" (U.K., Canada, U.S.).

Jury head Chaplin knows Argentina well, having served on the jury with Deneuve in Mar del Plata in 1999. The other members of the jury include Oscar-winning Argentine set designer Eugenio Zanetti, Spanish actress Emma Suarez, Brazilian director Fabio Barreto, Russian actress Marina Kazankova, Ghassan Abu-Shakra of Lebanon's Ministry of Culture, and Argentine director Eliseo Subiela, who filmed his recent release "El Resultado del Amor" in San Luis and is planning another production there for 2008.

"I think Argentine cinema is enjoying a really strong moment right now, and San Luis has a lot to do with that. It is an honor to be a part of something that will be a cultural offering for Argentina and help show our country to the world," Subiela said.

The winning feature will be awarded the $50,000 Golden Puntano, named in honor of San Luis' native people. There will also be a $10,000 documentary award and a $5,000 prize in the short category. The late Argentine cartoonist Roberto Fontanarrosa will be honored with a screening of "Fierro, the Movie," an animated film that he co-wrote and illustrated before his death in July.

Organizers are hoping that the festival will help attract more co-productions from the U.S., Europe and beyond, and with a new $2 million dollar production studio, they are confident that will happen. More than 25 films have already been made in San Luis since the Cinema Law was passed, including Tristan Bauer's "Iluminados por el Fuego" (Enlightened by Fire), which won the top prize at the Tribeca film fest in 2006. San Luis has also found an unexpected ambassador in Norma Argentina, the untrained actress who won worldwide acclaim for her role in "Cama Adentro" (Live in Maid), which won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005. Argentina will be seen in James Ivory's upcoming "City of Your Final Destination," starring Anthony Hopkins, which was filmed partially in her home country.

"Norma Argentina is an emblem for the province of San Luis," Rodriquez Saa said. "She's a perfect example of what San Luis' people and films can show to the world."
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