Skip to main content

Docs Bloom in the Desert: The 2011 Palm Springs International Film Festival

By Kathy McDonald

With sold-out screenings, lively Q&As and impassioned audiences, the 22nd annual Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) drew a record 132,000 attendees out of the sunshine and into theaters in January. Of the 205 films screened, 43 were feature documentaries, including four world premieres.

A combination of submissions and films sought out by PSIFF programmers from other festivals and industry contacts, the documentary line-up featured a wide range of current international and US-made nonfiction films. "It's an eclectic round-up in content and style," says Ken Jacobson, the festival's programming/education coordinator, adding that  the documentary selections were narrowed down from approximately 300 submissions. "We're committed to playing the best in documentary," he affirms.

Twenty-two countries were represented in the festival's True Stories documentary program, which varied from 2010's most notable documentaries such as the Academy Award-nominated Waste Land to the world premiere of directors Alex Dawson and Greg Gricus' debut feature Wild Horse, Wild Ride, to New Directors/New Films standout Bill Cunningham New York to PSIFF Audience Award winner and DocuWeeks 2010 participant Louder Than A Bomb.

 "We really want to continue to raise the profile of documentary films," Jacobson asserts. To that end, the festival's juried John Schlesinger Award, previously awarded to a debut feature, is now presented to an outstanding documentary. In 2011, the award went to Summer Pasture from filmmakers Lynn True and Nelson Walker. The film, which also screened at DocuWeeks 2010, chronicles a traditional, nomadic Tibetan family's summer in remote grasslands, set against the lure of modernization.


From Lynn True and Nelson Walker's Summer Pasture, which won the John Schlisinger Award for Outstanding First Documentary at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. 


The majority of PSIFF's filmgoing audiences are retirees, a demographic that responds enthusiastically to nonfiction, historic and cultural subjects. Art-themed documentaries resonate strongly and often screen to overflow crowds such as those at the Bill Cunningham New York screening in the 400-seat Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum. "The audiences were so smart and sophisticated," says Richard Press, the film's director. "It was a total pleasure to watch the film with them,"

A profile of famed New York Times fashion photographer and writer Bill Cunningham, who writes and shoots the On the Street and Evening Hours photomontages for the Sunday Styles section, the documentary chronicles the octogenarian's extraordinary work ethic and process. "He has such a passion for what he does," explains producer Philip Gefter. "Audiences get the purity, essence, integrity and simplicity of the man, which is gratifying to us."


Fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, subject of Richard Press' Bill Cunningham New York, a Zeitgeist Films release.


An original, charming and ultimately shy and self-deprecating character, Cunningham was reluctant to participate in the film and has never seen the finished work. As the filmmakers related at a festival Q&A, it took them more than eight years to convince Cunningham to allow them to capture his daily forays across Manhattan, where he shoots of-the-moment fashion trends as they happen on New York's sidewalks. 

 "We tried not to give the appearance of making a movie," explains Press, as Cunningham would never agree to be tracked by a full-on film crew. Press and cinematographer Tony Cenicola trailed Cunningham inconspicuously, using two lightweight, hand-held Canon pro-consumer cameras. An engaging portrait, the film also demonstrates the photographer's influence and wide reach. "Bill's work is basically the chronicle of fashion and society in New York City," Gefter notes. "It is very important in terms of documentary photography, as well as anthropologically and journalistically significant." Cunningham's knowledge of fashion from the 17th century to the present is astonishing. "He's a walking encyclopedia of fashion and brings all that to his images," says Press. Distributed by Zeitgeist Films, Bill Cunningham New York, which was a runner-up for the Audience Award at PSIFF, opens March 16 at Film Forum in New York City and March 25 at the Nuart in Los Angeles, to be followed by a roll-out to 50 US cities.

Throughout the festival, audiences lined up well in advance of screenings; many make a point of coming every year, drawn by the chance to see films not usually available in the desert community or elsewhere in the southwest. Per Jacobson, approximately 50 percent of the documentary screenings included Q&As with the filmmakers and sometimes the subjects of the films. Documentaries were screened at all festival venues, from the 1,000 plus-seat high school auditorium to the multiplexes at the Regal Cinemas and Camelot Theaters. 

The festival is one of the high points of Palm Springs' social calendar and its black-tie awards gala has become a prestigious pre-Oscar event too, drawing major stars such as Colin Firth and Natalie Portman in 2011. It's also a major fundraiser for the Palm Springs International Film Society--more than $1.3 million was raised at this year's event.

For the first time, the festival expanded beyond the city limits, hosting a pre-fest filmmakers' retreat in Rancho Mirage, co-sponsored by the Annenberg Foundation Trust, at the soon-to-open Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands. Both narrative and nonfiction filmmakers were invited to the inaugural event. "It was a really great and totally unique experience," reflects Jon Siskel, Louder Than A Bomb's co-director and co-producer. Case studies were presented, and each filmmaker screened their film's trailer for the assembled filmmakers. Per Siskel, the filmmakers formed strong connections, and often went out en masse to each other's screenings during the festival.

Because of its subject matter--a youth poetry slam competition in Chicago--festival organizers also screened Louder Than A Bomb for free for area high-school students. Co-director Greg Jacobs and the film subjects Nova, Nate and Kevin Coval (founder of the Chicago Youth Poetry Festival) also conducted poetry slam workshops at the high school.


From Jon Siskel and Greg Jacobs' Louder Than a Bomb.



The enthusiasm of festival audiences guarantees that Louder Than A Bomb will return to Palm Springs during the film's theatrical run. "We now have an army of high-school students supporting the film," says Siskel. "We doubled our Facebook fan numbers from that one screening alone." Grey or young, Palm Springs' film fans have taken documentaries to heart.


Kathy A. McDonald is a Los Angeles-based writer.