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Two Boston indies are hits at Taos

     There’s no distribution deal for two Boston-made narrative works, The Blue Diner and The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein, even though at last month’s New England Film and Video Festival they were named Best Feature and Best Independent Feature respectively. So is their local success due merely to local boosterism? Or can they make an impact wherever they’re shown?

     Distributors, lend me your indie ear. I saw both movies when they played recently in the mountains of New Mexico, at the Taos Talking Picture Festival. And the Taos audiences seemed even more effusive and excited than those in Massachusetts. The screenings I attended were packed with vocal, articulate spectators who, in the Q&A sessions afterward, kept expressing their gratitude that such compelling, unusual fare was being made. Again and again the filmmakers were asked, “When will your movies be brought back to our local theaters?”

     “We have a big tag on our movie that says, ‘For Sale,’ ” The Blue Diner’s producer, co-screenwriter Natatcha Estebanez, said of the Boston-set romantic comedy that features an extraordinary cast of Hispanic actors. “It’s one of the only bilingual independent features ever made, and distributors are fools not to think there’s an audience out there. It’s a film my aunts would like to see!”

     “When it meets the right people, it gets a passionate response,” said John Gianvito, the Arlington-based maker of The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein. Gianvito seems resigned to the fact that the bottom-line-obsessed Miramax types haven’t come calling. “The almost three-hour length, the ardency of the politics, the fact that the audience must meet me halfway or it doesn’t happen” are distributor turnoffs, Gianvito admitted to the Taos audience. Most wouldn’t know what to do with this pensive, slowly unveiling tale of three unrelated American lives during the Gulf War.

     “I asked a few trusty friends whether I was crazy keeping the film this long,” Gianvito said, at the end of his five-year edit. They assured him that the 168-minute length was the appropriate one. (I agree.) Likewise the very deliberate pace. Gianvito noted, “A peace activist told me it’s a film that works on Indian time.”

     The Mad Songs was shot in 1995 in Santa Fe, so some of the cast and crew came the several hours to Taos to see the completed film. At last! “There were times that I just had to forget we’d ever shot and move on,” I was told by Thia Gonzales, who plays the title role. “I’m sure some people thought I’d fallen into a hole somewhere,” Gianvito joked about the frustrating six years that have passed since he filmed.

     At the Taos screening, he was forgiven. Several people stood up and said, “This is the best independent film I have ever seen.” One Taos local called it “the most realistic picture of New Mexico ever on film. It’s mind-boggling.”

     The same exuberant good will was evident at the Blue Diner screening, where Estebanez, a long-time WGBH producer, appeared along with the film’s director, veteran Cambridge filmmaker Jan Egleson. There were lots of teenagers in the audience, and they cheered wildly when Estebanez announced that there’s no violence in the movie: “This film is not about Latinos with guns! . . . It’s not about prizefighting or drugs!”

     Someone asked Egleson whether he speaks Spanish. “My speech I’m shy about, my comprehension is pretty good, unless it’s two women speaking fast.” He defended the movie’s key plot point, that the bilingual main character loses her ability to speak her first language, Spanish. “It’s unusual but possible. We had a microbiologist as an adviser. We came across a story of a woman who lost her ability to play cello, and we met a woman in Boston who lost her first language, French.”

     The Blue Diner’s daring move is the way it keeps switching between English and subtitled Spanish. That was fine with the Taos audience. “I hope your movie plays in northern New Mexico theaters,” one man said. “Here we speak Spanish and English at the same time.”

     And elsewhere at Taos? A STAR! Elizabeth Taylor! Live! Straight from LA, with her fluff of a dog, Sugar. She appeared in all-mink after a screening of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to accept the Taos Fest’s Maverick Award.

     After some good-sport bantering about her late husband, Richard Burton, on the Virginia Woolf set (“We’d scream the hell out of each other and be pussycats at home”), Taylor settled down to talk about her commitment to battling AIDS in South Africa: “Nelson Mandela is a good friend of mine, and I asked if I could go over and give seminars. People there don’t know what’s happening, why they are dying like flies. . . . I’ve started hospices, sending them condoms. . . . It comes out of my pocket and goes straight to the patients. They don’t know it’s coming from me, a white woman. I’m doing as much as I can.”

     Go, Liz!

(Boston Phoenix, April 19-26, 2001)


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