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Cinema on `The Cutting Edge'

Finding a niche for unusual films isn't easy in the United States, but a series is bringing them to a wider audience

HIGH cost of advertising. High price of distribution. Laziness among moviegoers who prefer English-language voices to subtitles or dubbing. These are some of the reasons why non-American films have a hard time finding space on American screens. There are exceptions, of course, usually major-star pictures from Western European countries. But in the realm of motion-picture marketing, only big productions with the biggest promotion budgets have a strong chance of finding their way into widespread release.

The spread of multiplex theaters and the growing home-video market are providing some relief for distributors of Asian, third-world, Eastern European, and other non-American movies, since they create a greater demand for films than Hollywood can fill. But even here, resistance to subtitling and the quest for maximum audiences give mainstream American films a major edge.

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Some movie lovers have raised their voices against this longtime trend, and none has been more vigorous than Wendy Lidell, whose aptly named organization, the International Film Circuit (IFC), swims energetically against the Hollywood tide.

In recent years the IFC has distributed movies from the Netherlands, the Soviet Union, and other lands to a long list of American cities. The secret to success in this enterprise, according to Ms. Lidell, is to seek out independent-minded exhibitors and make arrangements directly with them, bypassing conventional distribution networks that are conditioned (like their audiences) to standardized American fare.

The centerpiece of IFC's activity is a series called ``The Cutting Edge,'' which appears in a new edition every two years, always comprising six features made in nations around the world. The first ``Cutting Edge'' began its tour of American theaters in 1987. The third edition is now debuting at the heartily independent-minded Film Forum here, and will go on to many more cities and towns in coming months.

As always, the latest ``Cutting Edge'' program is refreshingly diverse and unpredictable. It seeks more to challenge and provoke than to soothe and entertain. Lidell, who chooses every film distributed by the IFC, says she is pleased with the geographical variety of this year's program, the greatest of any ``Cutting Edge'' slate presented so far. Movies from Ecuador and Bulgaria, nations almost never represented even on ``art theater'' screens in the US, have been included.

Although she emphasizes cinematic qualities when she makes ``Cutting Edge'' selections, instead of looking for interconnected themes or story ideas, Lidell does see a common thread running through most of this year's program.

``Many of the films deal with issues of cultural and personal identity,'' she notes, ``and how this is manifested differently in different societies.''

An example is ``Women's Story,'' a Chinese film directed by Peng Xiaolian, about three women who travel to Beijing in search of experiences more rewarding than those available in their native village. ``It's about women struggling for identity in a new China,'' says Lidell, ``and trying to create new personhoods by striking out on their own.''

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Another example is ``The Tigress,'' directed by Camilo Luzuriaga of Ecuador, where only one previous feature film has ever been produced. The story of a woman who uses her beauty to dominate her lovers and her family, it confronts what Lidell calls ``the identity of woman - or the myth of woman - as reflected in a culture of machismo.''

Like other films on the program, these indicate the importance IFC places on ``dealing with alternative voices - the voices of minorities, of the underrepresented - both culturally and geographically.'' By representing these voices on the screen, Lidell hopes IFC will also be serving an underrepresented audience that rarely finds its concerns addressed in Hollywood.

As in the past, not every ``Cutting Edge'' offering is suitable for every taste. ``Barocco,'' a Spanish-Cuban coproduction directed by Paul Leduc, uses music instead of words (and excessive, overheated images instead of conventional storytelling) to trace the growth of today's Latin American and Caribbean cultures from Mayan, Aztec, Spanish, and African sources. ``The Garden,'' a British production, is filmmaker Derek Jarman's alternately lyrical and anguished examination of his own homosexuality in the light of cultural and religious influences that have surrounded his life. Both are guaranteed to raise controversy, even among the adventurous moviegoers who are the primary ``Cutting Edge'' audience.

By contrast, ``The Countess'' is universal in its subject and uncommonly moving in its effect, as Bulgarian director Peter Popzlatev tells the story of a teenage girl whose dismal family life and bad experiences in a ``reeducation camp'' lead her to drug abuse and the risk of a ruined future. Also on the program is ``Barres,'' a short comedy about the Paris subway by French director Luc Moullet, and ``Palombella Rossa,'' the uneven but colorful tale of an Italian Communist having a midlife crisis, directed by and starring Nanni Moretti.

Lidell says she chooses ``Cutting Edge'' films by seeking cinematic works that couldn't possibly have been made as novels or plays, and by looking for gaps - geographic, cultural, artistic - that commercial programming doesn't fill. The third ``Cutting Edge'' program shows both priorities in full operation.

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