Venice Biennale College Finalists Discuss 'Guinea Pig' Edition of the Ambitious Film Lab

From "Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy"

The films, which hail from Italy, Thailand, and the U.S., were picked after an exhaustive selection process that earned all three a prestigious screening on the Venice Lido.

ROME – For the first time in its long and storied history, the Venice Film Festival’s lineup will include a trio of films the festival itself funded and shepherded through the production process.

The three are the finalists from the inaugural edition of Venice’s Biennale College, which got underway last year with 433 submissions from 77 countries that were culled to 15 semifinalists, which all participated in a series of workshops before the final three were selected.

What happened next was groundbreaking. Unlike other film lab initiatives, the 70-year-old festival worked with the three teams every step of the way: from script advice and expert technical help to a production budget of €150,000 ($198,000) and a guaranteed spot in the festival’s program.

The films are even part of the festivals tentative early steps into the online world, allowing film lovers far from the Lido to tune in and watch selected films from the official selection online on the day of their Venice premiere.

“It’s an extraordinary opportunity to be part of the ‘guinea pig year’ for this new initiative,” said Aditya Assarat, the producer of Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy, one of the three finalists.

John Baker, producer of Memphis, another of the finalists, agreed: “All the different ways the Biennale College supports the projects is unprecedented in many ways,” he said.

Representatives of all three teams praised Biennale College and talked about the discipline needed to make a feature-length film with high production values on such a modest budget in less than a year.

“The final result is lean because you have to decide what is absolutely essential,” said Yuri Esposito producer Max Chicco.

The Biennale College is the brainchild of Alberto Barbera, now in the second year of his second mandate as Venice artistic director. When Barbera was appointed as artistic director in December 2011, the Biennale College was one of two new initiatives he immediately announced (along with the new Venice Film Market). In fact, the teams behind all three projects cut their teeth at the Turin Fillm Festival, a discovery fest run by the well-regarded Italian National Film Museum Barbera has headed since 2004.

“I am very, very proud of the Biennale College initiative and the three final projects,” Barbera said after the full festival lineup was announced in July.

The three films:

• Italy’s Yuri Esposito, directed by Alessio Fava, tells the story of a protagonist -- played by Matteo Lanfranchi -- who moves through at a snail’s pace. “We had to work fast to make a film about someone who moves at one-quarter the pace of most people,” said Chicco, the producer. “We’re hoping Venice will provide a good launching pad to get Italian distribution for the film and the move forward from there.” The film’s trailer.

Baker said the U.S.-made Memphis, directed by Tim Sutton, is made with a kind of “heightened documentary style.” The film stars Willis Earl Beal as a musician with a hauntingly mesmerizing singing voice. “Willis’ performance is totally natural and understated,” Baker said, adding that he hoped the film would emerge from Venice ready to play at other film festivals. The film’s trailer.

 Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy, made in Thailand and directed by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, is made up of 410 separate ultra-short scenes that tell the tale of a year in the life of the film’s protagonist based on her Twitter feed. Assarat said producers will release a book of all the “tweets” along with the film when it is distributed in Thailand late this year: “The film is our interpretation of what was behind these ‘tweets,’ and later we’ll find out what was really behind them,” Assarat said.

The process of picking the finalists for the sophomore edition of the Biennale College is already underway.

The Venice festival gets underway Wednesday and runs through Sept. 7.

Twitter: @EricJLyman