20th Palm Springs International Film Festival

USA, January 6 - January 19 2009

The jury

Peter Keough (US), Lisa Nesselson (France), Roger Clarke (UK)

Awarded films

* Films awarded at Palm Springs receive the Best Foreign Language Film Award.

The Palm Springs International Film Festival celebrated its 20th edition from Jan 6-19, 2009, during which time the desert community was one of the three warmest locations in the continental United States — a non-negligible plus when “Attack of the Killer Temperatures”, “Return to the Ice Age” and “Journey to the End of the Thermometer” were playing at the nation’s Weatherplex.

Palm Springs’ entirely warranted claim to fame is its annual effort to show as many of the films submitted for the Foreign Language Oscar as possible. The Academy’s short list of 9 contenders — all of which were screened in Palm Springs — was made public midway through the fest. Festival attendees had a crack at nearly all of the 67 films in the running, which means an assiduous festival-goer could take in more reigning examples of global cinema than the voting members of the Academy are required to watch.

With over 200 films being screened, one would assume that there would be an empty seat now and again. One would be wrong. Through a system of pre-paid passes and ticket sales, almost every screening sells out.

Palm Springs makes a compelling case for senior citizens as the future of filmgoing. Audiences skew very clearly toward the over-60 demographic. They are rabid, dedicated filmgoers, who clearly feel energized by exposure to stories — however challenging or obscure — from far flung locales. Individuals in wheelchairs or using canes think nothing of lining up over an hour prior to showtime.

People whose optic nerves have been functioning for 60, 70 or 80 years are perfectly happy to read subtitles. That may be because they are perfectly happy to read, period. A national report released the first week of the fest revealed that 32 million Americans — that’s 1 person in 7 — are illiterate.

Because the climate is so pleasant, many Americans flock to the fest from New York, Chicago and less-prominent corners of the Midwest.

And while audiences are not afraid of complex geo-political or artistic explorations, it is strong emotions and engaging narratives that garner the highest marks in the race for audience awards. The caliber of questions asked at Q & A sessions is high although “What was your budget and how long did it take to shoot your film?” seems to be as crucial to fest-goers as are taking their cholesterol drugs and watching their blood pressure.

Palm Springs is a two-hour drive from Los Angeles which means film industry professionals pop in, including many en route to overlapping Sundance. But it is the senior viewers, armed with still-youthful curiosity, who give the event its unique — and heartening — flavor. (Lisa Nesselson)

Palm Springs International Film Festival: www.psfilmfest.org