Asked by a first-time filmmaker to define what he does when he's directing a nonfiction project, Hugo Perez, whose latest work-in-progress, Summer Sun, Winter Moon, played at this year's fest, replied, "I manage reality."
Paul Sturtz and David Wilson are the dynamic duo of all dynamic duos and did a bang-up job of doing just that. Festival co-directors since its inception five years ago, they and their staff and hundreds of volunteers help bring the best of world nonfiction cinema to their small Missouri town. Agnes Varnum calls it "an international doc outpost masquerading as a regional festival." From the welcome letter you receive upon your arrival to the friendly, smiling faces that greet you everywhere you go (okay, the night manager at the Regency Hotel was always a bit grumpy), you feel at home pretty darn quickly. And the fact that you're in the heartland of this country gives it a resonance for both American and foreign filmmakers and artists, that it just would not have were it in, or near, New York City or Los Angeles. Nonetheless, it's become, very rapidly, a destination for documentary lovers.
And the programming. Superb. Really superb. Wilson and Sturtz both rocket around the planet sniffing out what's interesting, engaging, artistically fierce in vision and craft, and bring it back home. They are both deeply embedded in community and want to be part of this idea that there can be an important cultural center someplace else besides the usual suspects. They actively enrich the place they call home by bringing artists and musicians and filmmakers from all over the world to come play in their sandbox for a bit. Suffice to say, the two got a standing ovation at the closing night film, the fresh-from-Sundance Man On Wire, (more on that in a future post when the lump in my throat that that film evoked goes down in size a bit so I can speak about it intelligently) from 1,200 folks--filmmakers, guests, press, industry and local community, all intertwined. And passionate about film, these local community people. Because it's something that two of their native sons have embraced. And so they embrace it, too.
What can I tell you? I cried a lot; I was constantly moved by it all. The two young men are well-liked, well-respected and well-versed in the ways of mixing high art with down-home warmth. It's a potent combination. I cried the whole last day I was there from just sheer joy at being part of a community like that, even if it was just for four days. No wonder festivals are addictive to the indie filmmaker. Instead of all hanging out at Starbucks "reading scripts," they actually create little communities in various places for a little while, and if that community is smart, they'll come out and mingle with those people from other lands and check out what they brought for show-and-tell. And they do a hell of a yearbook--their superstar printed piece becomes a keepsake, helping you remember what you saw, who was there and why it mattered so much. And that, even though you're middle-aged you can still stay up all night partying and look glorious the next day. (Admittedly a stretch that last bit.)
So on to the films and panels so I can tell you what I saw, heard, felt during those four wonderful days in Columbia. Oh, did I forget to mention that it was also about 70 degrees and sunny with gentle winds? It almost got kind of Cannes-like, without the red carpet bullshit.
Now I don't know the protocol here about premieres and all that so I'll say that some of what I saw there will be at South by next week and have been uncannily picked already by my friend Agnes as SXSW potential faves. She's a smart girl. I kept wishing she was there. I'll miss the Austin par-tay, too, because of other niggling duties I have to attend to here in New York. So I guess we'll see one another in Marfa, girlfriend! Whoo hoo.
The advice I'd give every first-time festival-goer, is very first thing after putting away your stuff, go see a film. So at 6:30 p.m., shortly after arriving, I found myself sitting in the Forrest Theater at the Tiger Hotel all tarted up for festival days. The hotel was tarted up. Not me. What I saw was a film called Sons of a Gun, a work-in-progress by filmmakers, Rivkah Beth Medow and Gregory O'Toole. It took O'Toole a while to hop on board and one can see why--very dicey proposition to go and steep yourself in an environment that could be called a "crazy house." Containing, so their main character, says, a sawed-off shotgun. Okay, we can call that brave. The thing is, the caretaker of the bunch is the sickest of them all. He is the one man among three others who looks just plain beaten-up. Even though one character has no teeth and is gray and wrinkled, because of his limited "socialization," he looks like a child, a wondering child. But wise like one, too. It's a really fascinating character study with really nice interaction between interloper and potential collaborator in some organic film project. It's a really brave camera in front of that brave filmmaker. It lingers and moves to places that, clearly, we are not meant to see. There's something so satisfying and terrifying about that, all at the same time. And that's what this film is about--the satisfaction of connection. And oddly, this seemed to be an unconscious theme of the festival, almost. Almost every film I saw had some kind of family struggle at stake in it. Almost every one. Coincidence? Who knows? Who cares? It was great stuff.
Then, honestly, a proper dinner with friends which we richly deserved since we ate nothing but crap all day long. So instead of bolting to another film (a bit of guilt for that too!), we decided to order more wine and chill out for a minute and talk about the coming days and how excited we were to be there. The town is filled with really cozy places to sit and eat but you have to get there early if you want to eat like a grown-up. Otherwise, it's join the kids at El Rancho for a burrito the size of your head, or Hot Chix. I have to write about Hot Chix--I'm sorry. I had all kinds of fried things at midnight. And I was with other people who did the same thing. Yikes.
Next up, at 3:00 the next day--I was working on the Cinema Eye Honors yearbook on a beautiful sunny day up until then. Thanks to Joel Heller, here's the picture to prove it. But at three, it was quits to get something in FedEx (did we get a tracking number?) and go have some fun. There was a panel called "Instant Soundtrack," with T. Griffin and, my new hat-wearing, friend who's always clothed for any eventuality the evening might bring, Ionic Fujanic. The first conversation I had with him over the phone left me, literally, breathless. I had to take some air--the guy spins out one fantastic idea after another. It's a bit disconcerting but charming, nonetheless. And you learn a hell of a lot, too. This panel was nice because there were just two artists up there sharing their craft with an audience, because due to Mac-badness, they can. So there's no moderator, no multi-panel thing going on--just an exchange, a peek inside someone's creative process. They were wonderful. Ionic will be DJing our ceremony at the IFC Center on March 18. You'll be able to see a taped (and edited) version of it on AOL. Did we forget about those pesky little "rights" again?? The young artists at this year's True/False are a group that worships those artists from which they borrow--it's not vampirism, people, it's respect!
And I know this is shocking news, but I decided to miss the Mucca Pazza in the March on March in order to go see a film. I saw Antoine Cattin and Pavel Kostamarov's The Mother. Not light fare--holy crap. The two exquisite filmmakers follow a woman with nine children and film her domestic scene so intimately it makes you squirm (I love that!). These characters are filmed in every sort of human moment you can think of. It's really satisfying that way and yes, it feels like stalking. All the best docs do, that's just the way it is, we don't know why. I think some scenes were a bit shocking for me. Maybe at some other time I would be amused by it? No, not too many people were laughing. You could if you wanted to. But you'd be unpopular. So quietly, respectfully, we watched this story unfold. And unfold it does, infinite times in its 80 minutes. It was curious because when he introduced himself, the filmmaker said he considered it long. But he's European, so what does he know of economy? It turns out he knows a lot. That's the sign of a true artist, I think.
Are we going for a back-to-back and force ourselves to watch an equally intense film called Forbidden Lies? There was already buzz and it was day two, okay? News travels fast. Can you see why these festival programmers are the people that should decide what's good and what's not? Suffice to say in my next post, I'll fill you in on the wicked ways of Norma and Anna. They went the Thelma and Louise route but did a film instead of driving off a cliff together. This film toyed with audiences' expectations festival-wide and pushed the form with wit and intelligence. We all loved it.
And then we partied. The End.