By Annette Hinkle
Tonight, the 21st edition of the Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF) opens at theaters across the East End. More than 100 films from 35 countries — shorts, features, documentaries and narratives — will be screened at locations in Montauk, East Hampton, Sag Harbor and Southampton now through Sunday. In addition to soon to be blockbusters, among the offerings are 13 world premieres, seven North American premieres and 10 US premieres, as well as panel discussions and conversations with film makers and actors.
Despite the massive line-up and coordination required to pull of a film festival of this scale, late last week David Nugent, artistic director of HIFF, remained remarkably calm and composed — and for good reason… he’s got a track record.
“We have had a good run lately,” concedes Nugent. “We screened the film that would go on to win the best picture Oscar in four of the last five years. I think we’re one of the only film festivals on the East Coast that has done that.”
Those films, in case you’re keeping track, were “Slum Dog Millionaire” in 2008, “The King’s Speech” in 2010, “The Artist” in 2011 and “Argo” last year.
“These films we have seen, liked and championed have done really well,” he adds. “There were 32 Oscar nominations for films that were in the festival last year. Among them was a win by Sag Harbor’s Terry George for ‘The Shore’ for best short subject.”
Nugent who has a bachelors and masters degree in film studies from Syracuse and Boston University respectively, joined HIFF as a consultant in 2007 and came on as artistic director in 2008. At this point, he has a pretty solid idea of how his year at HIFF will go — beginning with a trip to the Sundance Film Festival in January where audiences get a first look at many of the big films of the year.
“We’re thinking through a lot of things in late fall and early in the year,” he says. “We open for submissions in late January.”
While some years it seems like there’s an overarching theme in HIFF films, Nugent notes that is by destiny, not design.
“There’s not an intentional theme, by which I mean we’re at the mercy of the films that comes out,” explains Nugent. “If a theme emerges, it’s from the work that’s out there. We don’t say, ‘we want to do immigration or heartbreak,’ but there will be times when it does seem like you see a lot of that.”
Among the big films to catch this year is “Nebraska,” directed by Alexander Payne (“Sideways” and “The Descendants”) starring Bruce Dern, who takes part in “A Conversation With” at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor this Sunday 4 p.m. Also getting a lot of early attention is “12 Years A Slave” which is directed by Steve McQueen and produced by Brad Pitt and tells the true story of a free black man from upstate New York who is abducted and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War years. From the Spotlight Films category, Spike Jonze’s “Her” as well as “Labor Day” by writer/director Jason Reitman (of “Juno” fame) are two that Nugent likes.
“I don’t have an obvious run away favorite,” says Nugent diplomatically. “But there are some I think that are strong and will do well.”
For Nugent, among this year’s highlights is the festival’s “Focus on UK Film,” and a tribute to Working Title Films (“Bridget Jones Diary,” “About A Boy” and “Frost/Nixon” to name a few). The company’s co-chairs Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner will receive a lifetime achievement award from the festival and will take part in an interview with special guests (including Renée Zellweger, star of “Bridget Jones Diary”).
“There are a lot of strong films coming out of the UK and we have a really wide range of films screening,” says Nugent, pointing to director Stephen Frears’ film “Philomena” and “The Invisible Woman” acted and directed by Ralph Fiennes as examples. Also having its North American premiere will be “Burton and Taylor” starring Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth Taylor (Carter takes part in “A Conversation With” at Bay Street Theatre on Saturday at 2 p.m.) as well as “Get The Picture,” a documentary about photojournalist John G. Morris, a colleague of Robert Cappa and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
“He’s 94 years old….and he’s coming too,” notes Nugent. “This is a documentary — so it’s not just a film you might not get to see elsewhere, but certainly not with the 94-year-old subject of the film.”
“It’s not just that sometimes we show films before you can see them otherwise, but we can bring the filmmakers or subjects in as well,” he adds.
Along those lines is HIFF’s awarding of the Alfred P. Sloan film prize to Steven Bernstein’s “Decoding Annie Parker,” which stars Helen Hunt and Aaron Paul and will screen on Friday, October 11 at 12:30 p.m. at the East Hampton UA followed by a panel discussion.
“The film tells the true story of Annie Parker who had breast cancer three times,” explains Nugent. “She reached out to scientist Mary-Claire King [played by Hunt] who starts looking into a family connection. The real life woman is coming and we will have a panel discussion on breast cancer.”
Other highlights will include the festival’s “Films of Conflict & Resolution” section which offers films from around the world that deal with issues and effects related to war and violence. Among the offerings this time around is “Plot For Peace” which traces the diplomatic maneuverings to release Nelson Mandela from jail in South Africa in the 1980s and “The Square (Al Midan)” a documentary about the Egyptian revolution which won the audience award at Toronto Film Festival.
“That’s a signature series for us. This year series has films from Egypt, France, Lebanon and Israel,” says Nugent. “We deal with a lot of these sorts of issues. It’s something we consistently try to do. We don’t just want a star studded festival, we also want shorts and documentaries — and these films, which are really important.”
The Hamptons International Film Festival runs October 10 to 14. For a full schedule and tickets visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.