The hectic pace of a film festival may slow down a bit during the week, but that doesn’t mean lots of interesting things aren’t going on. I may not have been able to attend the closing weekend of this year’s Florida Film Festival, but the midweek activities kept me quite occupied. During those four days, I was able to view a comedy, a drama, a documentary, plenty of shorts, and attend two special events.
I guess the movie which I enjoyed the most was the comedy, “The Big Bad Swim,” about an adult beginners swim class. There were a dozen characters in the class but the movie wisely chose to focus only on a few—a cop who is afraid of the water, a high school math teacher whose marriage is falling apart, and stripper who ends up falling for the swim class teacher (Jeff Branson of “All My Children”) who’s battling his own problems with depression. And there are just enough other eccentric classmates—a rich businessman who just built a pool, a mother and daughter who don’t get along, a cute young Asian looking for a single guy—to give the class some real character.
The director, Ishai Setton, was there and took a lot of questions from the audience. He’s a graduate of famous NYU film school and this was his first feature film. I asked him about the budget and shooting schedule and he said it was made for under half-a-million and was shot in 19 days. Pretty impressive. Also, we learned that the movie just got a distribution deal and will have a limited run in art-house theatres this summer and will be released on DVD in the fall. So congratulations to Mr. Setton.
The drama I saw was called “Heavens Fall.” It was the story of the infamous Scottsboro trial in 1930s Alabama where nine black men were falsely accused of raping two white women. The main character was defense attorney Samuel Liebowitz, played by Timothy Hutton. He was very good and so was the supporting cast which included David Strathairn as the judge and Leelee Sobieski as one of the two girls who cried rape. But the real surprise here was Bill Sage who played the prosecutor. Although he was not the main character, I think in some ways he was more interesting. Sage’s character, despite being on the wrong side, is shown to be a man of honor and respect. In fact, when a mob threatens to lynch one of the defendants, it’s him who talks them down.
It’s an important bit of history and it was worthwhile to make the film, but to be honest, I didn’t see anything new or fresh or breakthrough about it. There have certainly been plenty of films before about innocent black men getting an unfair trial in the South in the 20th Century. That Alabama was racist and justice was not colorblind is not news. The movie seemed to evoke plenty of previous legal dramas, from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” to “Inherit the Wind,” to “A Time to Kill,” to even “My Cousin Vinny.” And one scene in which Timothy Hutton slowly poured a glass of water before questioning a witness seemed like a trick stolen from the TV show “Ally McBeal.” Call me Mr. Unreasonable Expectations, but when I go a film festival I want to be blown away. I want to see something exciting that I haven’t seen before.
The film that came closest to fulfilling that unreasonable expectation was “Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa,” a documentary about a small community in the New Mexico desert that is basically divorced from society. No utilities. No electricity. No phone. The closest water source is the Rio Grand River which is five miles away. And the closest town is even further.
The desert terrain is harsh. Conditions resemble that of a third-world country. And the director, during the talk-back afterwards, referred to these people as expatriates, except they are technically within the borders of the US. And interestingly, many of them strongly believe in the American ideals of freedom and individuality; they just don’t believe the current society and government are living up to those ideals.
This interesting community is a loosely-formed group of military veterans, aging hippies, back-to-nature survivalists, runaways, mentally ill, and various others. It’s not quite anarchic because there is some very lose structure, but they basically live without law except for treating your neighbor with respect. Trouble comes when a group of younger and far-more-radical anarchists move in but then begin to steal from the others, justifying their actions by arguing against the concept of private ownership.
This film was shown with a really amazing documentary short called “Fridays at the Farm.” It had some really beautiful time-lapse cinematography of growing vegetables and just beautiful music. It was about a communal farm which grows everything organically. The director, Richard Power Hoffman, was a member of the farm and he added some personal touches. Although I had expected a documentary about raising produce would be boring, I was totally wrong. The film really gave me a new appreciation for the earth, vegetables, and organic produce.
There were just so many really amazing images, but the one that stands out in my mind the most was a close-up shot of an ear of corn with the silk strands waving around it. Afterwards, I was able to talk to the director and I learned that he had worked in animation before. Somehow I had sensed that based on the style of the film. I have a feeling this guy’s going to really go places.
Unfortunately, some of the other shorts I got to see during the rest of the week weren’t quite as good. The best of that lot included one called “Bitch” about this real tomboy who had to beat up the guy she liked before he finally started to respect her. That ended up winning a special Jury Award for Best Female Role Model. There was also a good short called “City” which was a brief conversation between a white New York businessman and the Egyptian-American who was driving his cab. They discussed 9/11 and American prejudice against Muslims. It was fair and honest, but you can’t really get too in-depth in less than 10 minutes. I wanted something more.
Besides screenings, there are other interesting events at film festivals. One which I got to attend was the Kodak “Stop by Shoot Film” workshop. Since video is becoming increasingly more popular as a medium for independent films, Kodak is sponsoring these workshops to push the concept of film, explain the advantages it has over video, and give new filmmakers some real hands-on experience with actual film cameras. Although I realized there was a commercial motivation behind these workshops, I have too much of an interest in the processes and issues involved to not pass up such an opportunity.
There were a dozen of us in this workshop; some had had a little experience with film, most had not. Everyone had had experience with video cameras though. First we spent about a half-hour discussing the camera and film and video. A guy named Randy who represented Kodak was very nice and thorough and helpful. Then we gathered in the courtyard of the motel and each took turns shooting our own very short shot. The cameras we used were Aaton cameras and we shot on Super 16. (That’s 16 millimeter film but it only has perforations on one side instead of two so you get a slightly larger image.) Although the big Hollywood studios shoot on 35mm, many of the smaller independent films, including “The Big Bad Swim,” shoot on Super 16. (That is if they haven’t gone digital which is so much cheaper. The real advantage of film, though, is that it can capture much more information because the grain is so much smaller than a pixel and can reproduce an infinite range of true colors.)
We all watched with great interest as each of our workshop-mates took their turn. Eventually it was my turn, and with some guidance from Randy, I set up my shot of people on the motel balcony, chose my lens, got a light reading, set the t-stop, focused, shot the slate, called “action,” and shot about 15 seconds of actual film. And then did a second take. Although some people might consider that a little silly, I actually got a thrill out of it. After all, how many people can actually say they shot real motion picture film?
But the biggest thrill for me this week was attending the Full Sail Film Showcase forum with the famous actor Chazz Palminteri. He’s been in over 48 movies and was nominated for an Academy Award for his role as the playwright hit-man in Woody Allen’s “Bullets over Broadway.” A moderator interviewed him just like an episode of “Inside the Actors Studio.” I found it incredibly interesting as he talked about his career, how he made it by writing and performing “A Bronx Tale” as a play and then refused to sell it to the studios unless they let him play the lead role. They all refused until one day after doing the show in New York, Robert De Nero saw it and came backstage and said he would make the movie with him the way Palminteri wanted.
He told other anecdotes from his career including an interesting story about working with Woody Allen and his style of directing. He talked about “method” acting and how it usually works, although not always—occasionally he uses other techniques. “Whatever gets you there, gets you there,” he said. He also spoke about the fact that he often plays despicable characters. “The audience doesn’t have to love you, they just have to understand you,” he said, as he talked about the necessity for making the characters three-dimensional. Overall, he was a great speaker and quite inspirational; he offered a lot of good advice to prospective filmmakers and actors. He spoke of passion, success, karma, helping others. And he said not to be afraid to take others’ ideas: “It takes just as much talent to recognize a good idea as to come up with it yourself.”
So overall I had a great week. For those who have never been to a film festival, I highly recommend you go. They are great fun for the film-lover as well as the filmmaker. And I’m eagerly looking forward to my next festival.
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