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Palm Springs International Film Festival opens tonight

The 24th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival begins Thursday night. One of its debut presentations is “Smiling Through the Apocalypse – Esquire in the Sixties.”

The documentary pays tribute to Harold Hayes, editor of Esquire Magazine from 1963 to 1973. He died in Los Angeles in 1989.

His son Tom Hayes produced, directed, edited and wrote the film. He said he spent two years interviewing writers like Nora Ephron and Gore Vidal about his father’s work – and his cynical personality. 

“That personality is my personality ‘cause I was raised with him," Hayes said. "So, the magazine kind of became like an older brother I never had and I never realized it at the time until I went back and really examined what was in the pages.”

Hayes said he first got the idea to document his father’s life in 2007. That’s when Vanity Fair magazine published a tribute to Harold Hayes 18 years after his death.

“Who gets that? He had done something great. That was a flag for me to go out and interview as many people who had worked with him and assemble a narrative about him,” Hayes said.

One of Harold Hayes’ more controversial editorial decisions was to run a photo of William Calley on Esquire’s cover. He’s the former U.S. Army officer convicted of organizing mass killings in the My Lai Massacre.

Hayes said his father lost many advertisers after he published the photo of Calley surrounded by smiling Vietnamese children.

 “Running that cover was to show not who had killed all those people, but who was responsible. That was the question. Was it the government? Or the guy doing his job?” he said.

For his day job, Tom Hayes produces news magazine stories for German television. The documentary about his father is his first film.

“How much of this film is about me? How much of this film is about me and just my relationship to him?” Hayes mused. “The balance of me in this film was really difficult. A lot of people compare it to a film called ‘My Architect.’ It was the benchmark for the father-son genre.”

“Smiling Through the Apocalypse - Esquire in the Sixties” debuts Friday at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. It’s one of 180 films from around the world the festival will screen through Jan. 13.