'Parents' of Indie Films Still Fiercely Independent

Director Atom Egoyan, a darling of the indie film world, remembers the first time he went to the offices of Zeitgeist Films in New York. It was the late 1980s, and he needed to check in with Emily Russo and Nancy Gerstman, Zeitgeist's head honchos, who were distributing "Speaking Parts" to theaters.

It's a film that wasn't necessarily everyone's cup of tea, a sort of meditation on the alienating effects of video technology on our lives (think: early days of the medium), set partly in a hotel laundry room, a film that Egoyan himself described as "a carefully harnessed union of despair and lunacy."

"It was so exciting, I was coming down to New York," said Egoyan, who lived in Canada and was not yet 30. "And I had this image of them as being real players."

When he arrived at Zeitgeist, in Greenwich Village, that image took a jolt.

"Their office was the size of a closet, this tiny place on Waverly Place, there were Nancy and Emily, it was fax machines on top of typewriters, just the two of them," he said.

Ask Russo and Gerstman, celebrating their company's 20th anniversary (now with eight employees, an Academy Award winner and, yes, bigger offices), how they first decided to set up a film distribution company, and their answers are simple:

They love films.

They didn't want to work for anybody else.

They got this great deal on an office: $175 a month.

Voila! A business. Gerstman had left First Run, another independent distributor, and was consulting for community organizations setting up film programs. Russo was repping films, like the photographer Bruce Weber's "Broken Noses," a black-and-white documentary about a boxing club.

"It was so easy," Gerstman told ABC News in an interview in the Zeitgeist offices in New York's SoHo neighborhood. "We didn't have families or spouses. We had substantial alliances with filmmakers. Emily was working with Bruce Weber. I knew Todd Haynes [director of films, such as "I'm Not There" and "Far From Heaven"], and they were talking to me about a project."

Today, Zeitgeist releases five or six carefully chosen films each year (their DVD division is now some 70 percent of their revenue, but they maintain a strong commitment to theatrical releases). In theaters now are "Chris and Don: a Love Story," "Up the Yangtze" and "Jellyfish." Each is a critical success.

"Chris and Don" chronicles the relationship between the writer Christopher Isherwood, whose "Berlin Stories" was the basis for "Cabaret," and Don Bachardy, a painter 30 years his junior. Writing in New York magazine, David Edelstein called the film "the rarest of documentaries: a realistic portrait of the human spirit."

"Jellyfish," a poignant tale of three lonely Tel Aviv women whose lives cross paths in unexpected ways, won the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year; though set in Israel, it is surprisingly not about politics or the nation's troubles.

"Up the Yangtze" follows two employees of a tour company as an entrée into the effects on China of the construction of Three Gorges Dam, which will displace some 2 million people. The film, wrote Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times, "blends this empathy with its subjects with a striking visual quality, haunting images that show both the beauty and uncertainty of this pivotal time."

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