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Hello, Stranger

By S.T. VanAirsdale

The tantalizing winter 2008 leg of the Stranger Than Fiction documentary series launched Tuesday at IFC Center, where host Thom Powers welcomed director Peter Raymont and author Ariel Dorfman for the New York bow of his latest doc A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman. The film traces Dorfman's -- you guessed it -- exile journey from his birth in Argentina to his family's ouster to New York, then his leftist father's banishment to Chile and his own subsequent relocation to Europe after the bloody 1973 coup that left Chilean president Salvador Allende and nearly all of Dorfman's colleagues in the Allende administration tortured and killed under the eye of Augusto Pinochet. Throughout, Dorfman upholds his "promise to the dead" -- to maintain their disappeared legacies and memories through acclaimed literature like his play Death and the Maiden.

Ariel Dorfman in front of La Moneda, the Chilean presidential place at the heart of Peter Rayomnt's doc A Promise to the Dead (Photo: Julio Donoso)

Short-listed for an Oscar, the film and its principals were warmly received in New York. "The opening I had in Amsterdam [at IDFA] was very important because that was the most important city for us in exile -- they kept us alive at the worst moments in our lives," Dorfman said in a Q&A following the film. "We still have to open in Chile and Argentina, but then there's New York. This is the city where I arrived when I was two-and-a-half years old -- more years ago than I would like to say. The city welcomed me with pneumonia, and because of that I was shut up in a hospital, and I also decided to lose my Spanish and get the English you're hearing at this moment. ... New York is a place where I feel intimately, sensually welcome all the time. Though every experience for me is a homecoming in some sense -- I assure you that if I were in Tashkent, I would find a reason for saying that's home as well."

"He's a citizen of the world now," Raymont said.

"If I ever go, I will find a reason for telling them how special they are," Dorfman vowed, coaxing a laugh from the audience. "But I would deceiving them somewhat, whereas in this case I'm not deceiving you at all. This city is very, very important to me. It's been a part of my dreams for many years."

Promise, in fact, may be the exception that proves the rule for this winter's STF line-up, which largely breaks away from the festival-circuit sensations that populate Powers' fall program. "This season, we're probably a little more weighted to something else I try to do, which is bring in overlooked films or unusual pieces that audiences probably wouldn't have any other chance to see," said Powers, also the lead documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival. Among the selections is the Feb. 12 program devoted to doc shorts from the last few years of Wholphin, the DVD quarterly published by McSweeney's. The following week Powers welcomes Dan Streible and films from his biannual Orphan Film Symposium. "It's a collection of oddities discovered by film archivists from around the country," Powers explained. "The term 'orphans' refers to films whose origins are uncertain, and one of the great things about the Orphan Film Symposium night is that it really is a collection of work that you may never have a chance to see again if you don't show up that night."

Among the feature-length highlights is first-time director Eric Latek's boxer chronicle Sweet Dreams (Feb. 5). "He's an example of a director who's working completely off the map of traditional film centers like New York or Los Angeles or even Boston or Washington, D.C. -- outside the traditional support network that exists in those types of cities," said Powers, who revived the film for STF after its acclaimed 2006 Full Frame Festival premiere and subsequent vanishing from the scene. "It has an incredible lyricism to it unlike any other documentary I can think of. His access and intimacy with these subjects is so close that it really does play out like a fiction film. ... He's working in a very singular vein; I don't see any other documentary filmmaker really working at this level of lyricism."

New York film buffs should take note of Jan. 29, when director Paul Cronin's Amos Vogel: Film as a Subversive Art screens with Vogel's Cinema 16 colleague Jack Goelman in attendance for a Q&A. "This film honors Amos Vogel, and in a way, all of us who program film series in New York City owe a debt to his pioneering spirit with Cinema 16," Powers said of the seminal New York film society Vogel established in 1947. "It's a wonderful profile of someone who, even though he was the co-founder of the New York FIlm Festival and an extremely influential figure to a previous generation, isn't as familiar to audiences today. It's a nice opportunity to bring him some recognition."

Visit IFC Center's Web site for complete program information and details about both season passes and individual tickets.

Posted at January 9, 2008 11:09 AM

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