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This story first appeared in the Dec. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
This year’s 27th annual Palm Springs Film Festival kicks off the fest circuit quite literally: It opens Jan. 1 with The Fencer, Finland’s entry in this year’s foreign-language film Academy Awards race; holds its starry Awards Gala at the Palm Springs Convention Center on Jan. 2; then runs in various theaters in Palm Springs and adjacent Cathedral City through Jan. 11. Helen du Toit, the festival’s artistic director, and David Ansen, the former Newsweek critic who joined the Palm Springs crew this year as the fest’s lead programmer, spoke with THR about the challenges of winnowing the foreign films competing for Oscar consideration down to a manageable 40 and the themes — immigration is high on the list — that they expect to emerge.
When you programmed the opening weekend, did you make any decisions to try to attract any of the tourists in town for the New Year’s holiday who may not be familiar with the fest?
DU TOIT No, we actually had people lobbying us on both ends. I had one regular attendee who emailed to say: “I’m going to be with my family for two or three days. Could you please not program the best film for those days?” Actually, our festival pass sales have been as strong as ever this year, so all of our regulars are anticipating a program that will come right out of the starting gate as usual.
Are there any common themes emerging among the films you’re showing?
ANSEN There are quite a number of films on transgender issues. One documentary we’re showing called Made in Bangkok is about a Mexican opera singer who goes to Bangkok for a transgender contest, hoping to raise money for a sex-change operation. It’s a movie that really shows how deeply important it is to become the person you want to be.
DU TOIT There’s also a lot about border crossing, melding cultures, displacement and immigration. And I did a quick check of the number of films that have female protagonists. At the moment, I have 42 films marked, and that’s certainly not definite, and that’s out of a program of 170 films, so it’s almost 25 percent. That’s heartening.
The festival is known for showing a large selection of the foreign-language Oscar submissions. How did you arrive at the 40 you’ll show out of the 80 that were submitted?
DU TOIT We have six international programmers plus myself looking at films. We tell all the programmers first to pick the films they think are the strongest and, second, to second-guess the Academy and pick films we think will perform well with the Academy. When I first started back in 2004, we used to program all the foreign-language films, but as their numbers grew, the jurors started to look at us with daggers.
ANSEN I’m sure all the films that make it onto the Oscar shortlist will be at the Palm Springs Film Festival.
The Gala’s A-List of Honorees
Matt Damon, Chairman’s Award
Tom McCarthy, Sonny Bono Visionary Award
Johnny Depp, Desert Palm Achievement Award, Actor
Cate Blanchett, Desert Palm Achievement Award, Actress
Michael Fassbender, International Star Award, Actor
Saoirse Ronan, International Star Award, Actress
Alicia Vikander, Rising Star Award
Brie Larson, Breakthrough Performance Award
Rooney Mara, Spotlight Award
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