Given the timing of the first Scottsdale International Film Festival, it’s a wonder the event made it through year one, much less year nine. It’s a testament to festival founder Amy Ettinger’s faith and tenacity that she went ahead with that first festival, opening it just over two weeks after September 11, 2001. She was happily surprised when double the seating capacity came out to support her diverse program.
This year’s schedule includes the chance to see films from 25 countries, and the opportunity to catch high-profile films like Clive Owens’ The Boys Are Back and Cheryl Hines’ directorial debut, Serious Moonlight, starring Meg Ryan and Timothy Hutton and written by Hines’ Waitress costar, the late Adrienne Shelley.
Of special interest to the GLBT community is the documentary T is for Teacher, which tells the inspiring story of four transgender teachers who transition from male to female within the American school system (including one Phoenician).
I spoke with Ettinger about how the festival has changed, and the surprising reason she gave for closing the once popular Out Far GLBT Film Festival.
NC: What’s new in the festival this year?
AE: First and foremost, this year the programming includes nine Oscar contenders, and what I mean by that is that for the Best Foreign Film category, most countries submit something. Whether or not they get nominated or win, these are the films that they consider their best each year. I’ve got nine of those contenders from the most recent Academy Awards season. And you know what? I’ve got to tell you that there are a couple of them that I think are every bit as good or better than the one that won. I worked extra hard to track down those Oscar contenders because I’ve been asked for them repeatedly year in and year out by people who say, “Gosh, we hear about them, but we never see them. What are they like?” I’m pretty pleased to say that I’ve been able to deliver on that request.
NC: I also want to touch on T is for Teacher. How would you describe it?
AE: What makes it unique is that it’s documenting the realities of these trans individuals who are doing this in the schools, whereas you and I know, there’s been such backlash for all sorts of the alternative designations, gay, lesbian, transgender, queer, whatever you want to call it. Whenever you have an educator who’s in a position of authority and people find out – I mean, look what happened to Obama who wanted to make the Stay in School speech! You take that and ratchet it up several notches, and the beauty part of this is that these two women have been highly successful, even going through their process in full view and being completely accepted. I think it’s a very loving, hopeful message, especially since one of the schools is here (in Arizona). The students are so excited and so proud and so supportive, and one of the programmers thought that this would be a good educational tool.
NC: Tell me about a couple of movies that might need pointing out so that people don’t miss them. What’s exciting to you?
AE: Exciting is a good word for one of the films. I have a film in the festival from Germany and Austria called North Face (Nordwand), which is a mountain-climbing film pre-World War II, a true story about climbing the Eiger. It’s as close to action as I’ve ever had in the festival. It’s not a special effects movie either – they use the real mountain and they do real climbing, and you can feel the thin atmosphere.
Another film, Shameless, from the Czech Republic – gosh, it’s funny. It’s really an off comedy. This guy, you don’t know whether to slap him or to just laugh at him. He wakes up one morning and realizes that his wife’s nose is gigantic and it just unravels from there. Most films are selling really well, but I want to make sure people don’t miss these fringe films.
Ettinger explained how she lost one of her favorite films, Jerusalema, only to score two other films she thought were lost causes, France’s Séraphine and Italy’s Mid-August Lunch. “I’ll take those two over the one.”
She said this has been a good year for GLBT themed films, which is a sentiment her fellow festival programmers have echoed. She did have the gay sidebar of films last year, but was a little disappointed by the turnout, although she thanked her core GLBT audience who have stuck with the festival for years.
She revealed the surprising reason she stopped putting on the Out Far Festival. “I can almost pinpoint the day Out Far died,” she said. “And that was with the release of Brokeback Mountain. That same year, we had Brokeback, Transamerica and Breakfast on Pluto and they all came out within a 45 day period, and then my festival hit, and nobody came. I lost 3,700 audience members over the previous year. I think they thought ‘ Well that’s that. We’re in the mainstream now and we can go to the multiplex whenever we want to, and we don’t have to be ghetto-ized.’ That audience dried up. I don’t know…” She said she received only four emails of protest when she shuttered Out Far.
Ettinger offered advice to anyone trying to decide whether to attend this year’s festival. “Just go to one film – that’s it. Don’t make any high-falutin’ plans about buying a pass, and then make your decision afterwards. I say that with a smile on my face because we haven’t lost anybody with that. Inevitably, I’ve got people coming to me and saying, ‘I took your advice and then I bought six tickets for the rest of the weekend.’ And then people who’ve done that come back to me and say ‘I bought a VIP Pass this year!’”
The 9th Annual Scottsdale International Film Festival begins tomorrow and runs through October 6. For more information, visit their official website.
Interview by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.