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Hosting a film festival in an impossibly beautiful seaside resort poses something of a paradox. Tourists and celebs come to discover it’s just too nice out for watching movies. Picture-perfect weather was among the first-world problems of the 16th annual Provincetown International Film Festival (PIFF), which took over Cape Cod’s “gay fishing village” — at least, in the words of local host with the most John Waters — from June 18 to 22.
In all seriousness, PIFF faced a real dilemma this year with the resignation of its newly appointed executive director Mitch Levine in April for reasons that remain unclear. It left the Provincetown Film Society scrambling to produce the event that, per usual, drew more than 10,000 people, two-thirds of them locals for whom this small cultural event is an annual high point. “We pulled it off due to long-term staff and bringing back former ED Gabby Hanna as a consultant,” says interim executive director Christine Walker.
Not only did they organize a strong lineup — bookended by the East Coast debut of Last Weekend, in conjunction with honoring the film’s star Patricia Clarkson with an Excellence in Acting Award, and the North American premiere of Jonathan Demme’s A Master Builder — but they introduced new elements as well. The first annual Evan Lawson Filmmakers’ Brunch was held in honor of the former PFS president, who passed away in 2013, and MoMA film curator Rajendra Roy delivered a keynote speech to a packed room including Congressman Barney Frank, the larger-than-life gay subject of a documentary that screened over the weekend. Roy focused on growing areas of film such as digital technology; crossovers between fine art and motion pictures a la Steve McQueen; and women’s involvement, whether in front of or behind the camera.
“This festival is special for its intimacy and friendliness, which links perfectly to Provincetown’s history as an artist retreat,” says Roy of his second visit to the anti-Sundance. “Film people like it because it¹s not just another junket and all about work. I mean, Debra Winger brought her family.”
Winger accepted the Faith Hubley Career Achievement Award with her husband Arliss Howard in the audience at the old-timey Town Hall that feels straight out of a Thornton Wilder play. Screenings of her films like Mike’s Murder and Big Bad Love (directed by Howard) depicted a slice of her oeuvre. “This award says ‘career’ and not ‘lifetime,’ so onward!” she said, promising it would wind up with a proper placement rather than in her garden.
Strolling down memory lane in a conversation with film professor and writer B. Ruby Rich, Winger recounted how she auditioned in an open call for her breakthrough role when Sissy Spacek miraculously dropped out of Urban Cowboy. There was the pinch-me call from Bernardo Bertolucci for The Sheltering Sky, too. The humble mother of three sons turned producer and author, among her many hats, also showed a humorous side.
“I’m working on the drag queen version of myself,” she said, in regard to going unrecognized on the street and being a proponent of aging gracefully as a member of “the fallen” versus another plastic surgery victim. Then the elusive actress disconnected and disappeared for the rest of her stay. It’s hard to blame her in wanting to get lost in the natural beauty of the sand dunes and sparkling water views.
Quite the opposite, the ubiquitous Waters was everywhere to the point where one wonders if he sleeps. At Town Hall, he dished with David Cronenberg, recipient of this year’s Filmmaker on the Edge award. As a summertime resident, he regularly attends screenings, citing Regarding Susan Sontag as a favorite this year, and ducked into a basement dive bar for a special version of the weekly Scream Along With Billy, a Waters-themed live music act replete with Odorama scratch and sniff cards. He also threw quite a rager on Saturday that revelers were still hurting from Sunday night.
Despite skipping this year’s Soiree Chez Waters, Anne Hubbell, partner in Tangerine Entertainment, a production company and community builder for films by women, appreciated how it fit into PIFF’s fringe appeal rather than larger counterparts’ emphasis on premieres, business deals and velvet rope parties. “Producers are here, but it’s more about flying freak flags and connecting with audiences for real feedback,” says Hubbell.
PIFF has no plans to grow screenings-wise according to Walker, whose priorities are hiring an executive director and launching the Gabby Hanna Provincetown Film Institute for artists to collaborate and soak up the inspirational atmosphere (though during the offseason, so bring the puffer and wellies).
Says Walker: “We have the endowment, partnerships, lodging, conference space and cinemas. Now we just need someone to direct it.”
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