Few events straddle the glitz and grit of world cinema quite like the Palm Springs International Film Festival. That's thanks to the affair's wildly divergent aims — to be the U.S.' definitive, highbrow showcase for international movies, and the Coachella Valley's starry, hard-partying answer to the Golden Globes.
Both objectives will be served at the 22nd annual festival, which opens Thursday with a screening of "Potiche," a French screwball comedy starring Catherine Deneuve. Other highlights include a roundup of African cinema, a black-tie gala honoring nearly every actor mentioned in the same breath as "Oscar" this year — including Javier Bardem, Robert Duvall, Colin Firth and Natalie Portman — and a tribute to Michael Douglas, who has recently begun making public appearances after being treated for cancer.
"We try for a mix of Hollywood star power and great, if sometimes obscure, international cinema," says festival director Darryl Macdonald.
Many of those lesser-known world movies will come from the festival's Cinema Safari section, a showcase of 13 new African films.
"We were noticing more and more strong films set in Africa, about Africa and made by Africans," says Helen du Toit, director of programming.
Western directors have been making use of the continent's dramatic scenery for decades, but now a nascent native filmmaking scene is emerging in several countries, one festival organizers wanted to acknowledge and encourage.
"It has a lot to do with technology," says Hawa Essuman, the Kenyan director of a coming-of-age tale called "Soul Boy" having its U.S. premiere at the festival. "That's dropped the price of how much it would cost to make a film. But also, we just stopped waiting. We just decided to tell our own stories."
Essuman was assisted by Tom Tykwer, the German director of "Run, Lola, Run," in making her film, and "Soul Boy" shares the ticking clock motif of Tykwer's thriller.
Filmmakers from 68 countries are telling their stories at the festival this year, including 40 of the 65 official submissions to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for foreign language film. In the days before the festival's opening, several of the international filmmakers convened at Sunnylands, the Annenberg estate in Rancho Mirage, to trade strategies on funding, producing and promoting their movies.
"It's part of an ongoing initiative where the festival will be able to play a role in not just screening international films, but helping to generate new cinema around the world," Macdonald says.
On Saturday, the wattage in the desert will rise and the dress code will shift from rolled-up sleeves to tuxedoes for the festival's awards gala.
Jake Gyllenhaal will present Portman with an acting award; Oliver Stone will deliver Jennifer Lawrence of "Winter's Bone" the Rising Star Award; "The Fighter's" Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams will deliver a prize to their director, David O'Russell; and Duvall will be on hand to collect a career achievement honor.
Ben Affleck, Danny Boyle, Carey Mulligan, songwriter Diane Warren and the cast of "The Social Network" will also be acknowledged at the sold-out 1,850-person event at the Palm Springs Convention Center.
"The gala does what this event is supposed to do for this valley," says festival chairman Harold Matzner. "That is, carry its brand throughout the world and that's palm trees, good weather and Hollywood glamour."
On Jan. 13, the festival will devote an evening to the career of Douglas, who recently finished chemotherapy and radiation for throat cancer.
"He's anxious to get back to normal life," says Matzner. "When we contacted his people, they were almost immediately open to it, they were just delighted at the prospect. It's a great time to celebrate his work." Clips from Douglas' movies will be shown, and the actor will have an onstage conversation with Variety columnist Peter Bart, followed by a screening of his film "Solitary Man."
More than 190 movies will screen before closing night Jan. 17, including 37 documentaries and the world premieres of American features such as the James Gandolfini vehicle "Down the Shore" and "Fifty-Nothing," a comedy about aging that stars Wendie Malick.
Despite the weak economy, the festival, which draws 70% of its 130,000 attendees from out of town, is having one of its best years financially, according to Macdonald. "Advance ticket sales are off to a record start," he says. "In terms of dollars, we've sold nearly 80% of what we have to sell to make our budget for the entire festival."
Essuman, who is flying in from Nairobi for the event, is eager to see how Palm Springs crowds respond to "Soul Boy."
"I don't know anything about American audiences for this film," she says. "'Soul Boy' is not about 'woe is me' or corruption or all the other stereotypical ideas people have been exposed to about Kenya. My friends who are American here really enjoyed that it wasn't about some exotic aspect, that it was a Kenyan story."