As the Palm Springs International Film Festival (Jan 3-13) marks 25 years of bringing the best global cinema to California, Jeremy Kay discovers how it has become a key staging post in the awards season.

The Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) heads into its 25th anniversary edition, running from January 3-13, as one of the pre-eminent champions of international cinema and emerging film-makers from around the world.

The festival’s origins go back to the late 1980s when a former household name decided to improve the city’s economic prospects.

“Sonny Bono [then the mayor of Palm Springs] was looking for something to happen in this city in January that would attract tourism,” says PSIFF director Darryl Macdonald.

“The idea of a festival came up in 1988. At that time there weren’t many film festivals in the US, and because I had been one of the founders of the Seattle Film Festival in 1975 [my name came up] when Sonny talked to Jeanette Paulson [founding director at the Hawaii International Film Festival].”

‘From the start I stressed international cinema, and the festival was successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams’

Darryl Macdonald, PSIFF director

Macdonald joined as director of programming and oversaw a calibre of film selection that rapidly established PSIFF as a staunch advocate of films from both the US and further afield.

“My bent had always been international cinema, although the currency of the realm at the time was [US] independent pictures,” says Macdonald. “In that year, in 1989, Sundance came into its own with Sex, Lies, And Videotape and a lot of US festivals were cropping up in that mode.

“So from that point on I stressed international cinema and that is the road we went down that first year, and the festival was successful beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. Attendance reached 17,500, which was quite a shock for it to immediately take off like that.”

International success

Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso screened at the inaugural festival in 1990, where it won the audience award and, a little while after that, the Oscar for best foreign-language film.

“That success with awards credibility coupled with the outstanding success in attracting an audience got the festival off to a healthy launch and set the tone of what was to follow,” says Macdonald.

The second festival opened with the US premiere of Yves Robert’s My Father’s Glory and screened, among others, US premieres of Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita and Margarethe von Trotta’s L’Africana. “It also featured the festival’s first New Directors Showcase, focusing on the first or second features of then relatively unknown talents such as Thaddeus O’Sullivan, Eric Rochant, Beeban Kidron and Pavel Lounguine, among others,” says Macdonald. 

“It was a successful year, attracting a much larger number of industry participants, Los Angeles-based press and film-makers than the first year, while attendance jumped by 30% to 22,500.”

The stage was set and in successive years PSIFF screened world, North American and US premieres of work by leading international directors including Mike Newell’s Enchanted April, Steven Soderbergh’s sophomore film Kafka and Alfonso Cuaron’s Love In The Time Of Hysteria.

Over the years PSIFF has become an indicator of foreign-language Oscar success with a number of its audience award winners going on to scoop the prize. January will feature plenty of this season’s submissions as well as a special anniversary section called Deja View to showcase some of the greats down the years, including Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives Of Others, Yojiro Takita’s Departures and of course Cinema Paradiso. Deja View will also celebrate early work from Cuaron and others who went on to global recognition, such as M Night Shyamalan’s Praying With Anger and John Madden’s Ethan Frome.

Running the show

Macdonald left after four years to start the Hamptons International Film Festival. He eventually returned to the West Coast to build a year-round film programme at Seattle and was lured back to Palm Springs as festival director by PSIFF chairman Harold Matzner in 2004 following a decade’s absence.

Artistic director Helen du Toit also started out at PSIFF in the early years, working in hospitality. She too left for 10 years to serve at festivals in Vancouver, Seattle, Edinburgh and Toronto before returning. She is also a producer and runs the Toronto Talent Lab. “I took over as artistic director five or six years ago,” says du Toit. “The foreign-language section is very important to me and we now curate the section, rather than accept every submission.”

This year’s picks include The Rocket from Australia, Walesa: Man Of Hope [pictured] from Poland, Bethlehem from Israel and dozens more. “We have a lot of Academy members here and we want to give them a chance of seeing the strongest submissions,” she adds. “Publicists see Palm Springs as a key plank in their publicity campaign.”

This is also true for the annual awards gala, which provides an opportunity to fete some of the biggest names in Hollywood. The glitzy show has become an essential staging post in the studios’ Oscar campaigns. This year’s honorees will include Julia Roberts, Bruce Dern, Sandra Bullock and Steve McQueen.

‘Publicists see Palm Springs as a key plank in their Academy campaign’

Helen du Toit, PSIFF artistic director

But it’s not just about awards. “As an independent producer I love spotting new talent,” says du Toit. “New Voices/New Visions is my baby. We have been trying to help these film-makers find a way into the market. About five years ago we switched it up so the jury exclusively comprises US distributors so we can ensure they are tracking — and hopefully buying — these new films.”

The 2014 selection will feature, among others, Left Foot Right Foot (Switzerland-France) by Germinal Roaux, Patch Town (Canada) by Craig Goodwill and Benedikt Erlingsson’s Icelandic Oscar submission Of Horses And Men. The roster also includes the North American premiere of Medeas (US-Italy-Mexico), which recently earned Andrea Pallaoro best director at the Marrakech International Film Festival and so affected du Toit and Macdonald that they arranged a screening for US buyers in New York.

Canadian club

The 25th anniversary festival will feature a new spotlight on Canadian cinema, which du Toit notes is producing a rich vein of work. Entries include Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, The Grand Seduction by Don McKellar, Sarah Prefers To Run by Chloé Robichaud, foreign-language Oscar submission Gabrielle by Louise Archambault and Richie Mehta’s Siddarth (India-Canada).

Last but not least, du Toit echoes Macdonald’s praise for the strength of the PSIFF programmers. Carl Spence is the lead programmer — as du Toit says, “Carl, Darryl and I are generalists” — while Iberoamerican programmer Hebe Tabachnik oversees Cine Latino and senior programmer Alissa Simon specialises in the Middle East. Therese Hayes covers India and Asia and programming co-ordinator Ken Jacobson oversees documentary.

The generalists have marshalled a winning team that shows no sign of flagging as they move on to the next milestone in the festival’s history


Now in its fourth year, PSIFF’s The Directors Retreat presented in partnership with the Annenberg Center at Sunnylands takes place over a couple of days before the festival. The venue is on the Rancho Mirage estate of the late philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg.

“[The retreat] came about because over the years we spoke to film-makers who said the experience of travelling to festivals and living in hotels could be lonely,” says du Toit.

The event includes a cocktail evening as well as a series of more structured sessions.

“The main thrust of this is for film-makers to be able to speak candidly about their work,” du Toit says. “Last year we had somebody saying one of the things they found difficult was directing sex scenes and everybody had something to say about that. Or they’d talk about how to direct crowd scenes or keep your crew inspired.

“Two years ago we had a conversation with Arab film-makers and it was fascintaing to hear about how they’re perceived by others as one big Arab group, when they all hail from different countries and cultures.

“Directors rarely get the chance to talk candidly with each other so that’s a very important part of it. They all become great friends and travel like a pack to festivals around the world.

“This year we’re partnering with the World Bank which is bringing Marc Forster to talk. He is interested in environmental issues and we are looking to bring other people with films at the festival whose films have something to do with climate chance.”