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Dana Kennedy

Dana Kennedy

Posted: May 18, 2009 02:17 PM

Gonzo Cannes: The Toughest 22-Year-Old Director at the Festival


How do you learn to make a movie good enough to be accepted at the Cannes Film Festival when you're only 22?

If you're Dara van Dusen, whose 12-minute film, Malzonkowie (Significant Others,) was one of 17 chosen from more than 1,500 for the prestigious student film competition at Cannes called Selection Cinefondation, you do it the hard way: You go to a film school in Poland, make movies in Polish -- and get screamed at in Polish.

Van Dusen rejected the idea of applying to film schools like NYU or UCLA after graduating from the Fieldston School in New York City at 18.

"I'm just weird and different," she said over coffee on the Croisette. "I wanted to learn how to direct right away."

Van Dusen, who is the granddaughter of actress Carroll Baker (Babyface) and Czech-born director Jack Garfein (who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland,) admired Polish directors like Roman Polanski and Agnieszka Holland -- so she applied to their alma mater, the venerable Polish National Film School in Lodz.

She didn't speak any Polish when she arrived in September 2004 for the week-long entrance exam. (You can't apply beforehand; you take the exam, and if accepted, start the next week.)

The crux of the exam came when Van Dusen was ushered into a room with the school's board of professors, working Polish film directors called the Commission - and some Polish actors who didn't speak any English.

"The professors were these old, chain-smoking guys," she said. "They gave me a one-sentence concept. You had 20 minutes to tell the actors how to act it and to rehearse before putting on the scene."

Van Dusen calls the experience "surreal. None of the actors could understand me. I had them repeat lines in English after me and made crazy hand gestures. The Commission watches you the whole time. "

When it was over, van Dusen stood onstage under a spotlight while the professors fired questions at her.

"You can't see them and they start this mean critique of what you've just done. The opening question was, 'That was terrible. How do you expect us to like that?' I was terrified and shell-shocked. Later on I realized they wanted to see how you handled pressure."

Van Dusen made the cut -- and began her first year at the school, which for foreign students means studying Polish eight hours a day, five days a week. Even so, Van Dusen barely understood her teachers when she started her first year of actual studies.

"It took another six months for me to be comfortable in Polish," she said. "I struggled making my first film that year. None of the technical guys understood English nor did they like taking orders from a 19-year-old girl."

Van Dusen made six short fiction films and two short non-fiction films by the time she graduated. The Lodz school is very traditional. Students make movies the old-fashioned way -- on film with 35mm cameras.

But she almost didn't get her diploma when she showed her graduating film -- the same one ultimately chosen for Cannes - and almost all of the school's professors hated it.

"First you screen your film for the professors and they're talking and smoking and making rude comments the whole time."

After that part was over, Van Dusen left the room while the professors spent an hour discussing her film. Then they called her back in.

Van Dusen had to sit on a big, throne-like chair covered in red velvet and face the professors, seated behind a table. "I was quaking."

Van Dusen's film, about a troubled young couple, is very stylized, she says. It took her three months to write it (in Polish), 10 days to shoot it and a month in post-production. But she says the Commission doesn't like anything stylized.

"They were actually angry," remembers Van Dusen. "I mean, screaming. And you have to defend yourself. The first question I got asked after they saw my movie was, "Do you really think you deserve to be here?'"

Fortunately, says Van Dusen, a key professor at the school liked her film. Without him, she said, she would have been kicked out, sans diploma, for sure.

Not surprisingly, Van Dusen's film was not chosen by the school to submit to Cannes. Van Dusen did that on her own.

When she got word that Cannes had accepted it, "I thought the worst was over and I could relax."

But when she took the negative to a Lodz film lab to make a show print, they tore a piece of it by mistake. "That's when I kind of lost it," she said.

The lab couldn't fix it and she sent it to Copenhagen and some other European labs with no luck. She'd already asked the Fondation director at Cannes for three extended deadlines when she finally found a place in London that repaired the print.

"I got it to Cannes on the day of the my third extended deadline," she said. Her movie screens May 21. The first prize winner gets 15,000 euros ($20,240) and is guaranteed that his or her first feature film will be presented at the Cannes Film Festival.

Win or lose, Van Dusen knows what lies in her future after her sojourn in Poland.

"I just want to go home," she says. "I can't wait to make a film in English."