Taos Talking Picture Festival Feels Growing Pains
by Jeff Winograd
The Taos Talking Picture Festival (TTPF) recently wrapped its fifth edition, reaching record attendance numbers during the weekend of April 15-18, 1999. With more than 10,000 visitors over four short days, Taos is quickly becoming one of the most important regional festivals in the country. The recent publication, The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide, ranked it among the top ten festivals in the world. While all this attention spells success for any festival, it brings with it growing pains that have hit the Taos Talking Pictures particularly hard.
This is a festival that has built itself on community-based principals. The Media Forum exemplifies its moral base as it attempts open communication regarding the effects of film on audiences, as well as the responsibility of filmmakers for the results of what they put on the screen. The Teen Media Forum encourages “informed consumption and thoughtful production.” Writing and directing workshops offer participants a chance to hone their own artistic skills. Artistic Director Jason Silverman proudly acknowledges that “educational issues affect all aspects of the festival.”
Yet the increased exposure has put pressure on the fiber of these ideals. Many screenings were sold out and festival-goers found themselves waiting in the long lines associated with festivals such as Sundance. Howard Zinn’s forum, Untouched Dramas, was completely packed, with people lining the floors and more trying to squeeze in. With more than 30 percent of the audience coming from out of state this year, the festival is faced with increased pressure to show more top billed films and premieres. Pressures such as these push Taos Talking Pictures away from the community that is so integral to its existence. Director of Programming Kelly Clement admits that this is becoming a “truly international festival,” though he stresses that they remain focused on their desire “not to get bigger, but to get better.”
The festival’s desire to get better may be in conflict with its dedication to socially conscious films. “A Voice From Heaven,” directed by Giuseppe Asaro, promised to be a wonderful film about the late Sufi singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Nusrat’s music is so potent and so beautiful, it would seem that any film would easily capture the rarity of his talent. Yet this film proved to be slow and boring, offering little insight into the man or the rich history of this devotional music. Another let down was Danny Schechter’s “Beyond Life With Timothy Leary.” Attempting to offer a glimpse of the final days of one of this century’s great minds, the film boasts strong interview subjects, including Ram Dass, Yoko Ono, and Allen Ginsberg, yet it lacks any real power or prowess. Both films were worthy subject matters, but the quality was severely lacking. This seems to be exactly the challenge that Taos Talking Pictures is being faced with.
The opening night film, “Swing” was another disappointment. A fluffy romantic comedy starring Hugo Speer (“The Full Monty“), Lisa Stansfield, and saxophone great Clarence Clemens, the film offers very little substance. Performances are generally weak and over-acted, and Nick Mead’s direction is completely lackluster. Other disturbingly poor films included Jonathan Kahn’s feature debut, “Girl” starring Dominique Swain, Sean Patrick Flannery, and Summer Phoenix. Phoenix however, does put in a startlingly strong performance. And Czech Republic’s Vera Chytilová, a member of the powerful Czech New Wave of the late 1960’s, presented “Traps,” a silly story about the poor relations between men and women.
The festival’s most prominent and well known award is that of 5 acres of land. This award is slated to go to “the most innovative feature length film at the 1999 Taos Talking Picture Festival.” Competition this year was stiff. Chuck Workman’s highly acclaimed “The Source” documents the history of the Beat movement, Richard Shepard’s “Oxygen” is a stylized thriller and “On the Ropes,” co-directed by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen, tells the story of an inner city boxing club, the trainer whose heart keeps the club alive, and three very different boxers who use the club as their primary retreat. The final entry, David Riker’s much acclaimed “La Ciudad,” is clearly the film to meet the criteria and accordingly, was awarded the prize.
The other award handed out at the Taos Talking Picture Festival is the George Méliès Award for outstanding cinematography. This year’s winner, “pain angel” directed by Gil Cope, will receive almost $17,000 worth of production donations from companies such as Allied’s New Independent Labs, Hollywood Rentals, Kodak, and Ultrasonic Digital. Cope’s film beat out four other shorts; “My Mother Dreams of the Satan’s Disciples in New York” directed by Barbara Schock, “The Water Ghost” directed by Elizabeth Sung, “Herd” directed by Mike Mitchell, and “The Offering,” directed by Paul Lee.
The remainder of films shown at the festival were a mixed bag. Highlights included Sturla Gunnerson’s “Such a Long Journey,” Udayan Prasad’s “My Son the Fanatic” (written by “My Beautiful Laundrette“‘s Hanif Kureishi), and Mweze Ngangura’s “I.D.“
There were also several honors handed out at the festival. The Cineast award is in line with Taos Talking Pictures’ dedication to cultural awareness and is given to a filmmaker whose work supports cultural understanding. Lourdes Portillo was honored this year and her film, “Corpus,” was screened. The Taos Mountain Award for excellence by a Native American media professional was given to director Phil Lucas (“Allan Houser Haozous“). Writer/director Bill Forsyth from Scotland was honored with this year’s Storyteller Award. Forsyth joked that he “never considered himself much of a storyteller” but added that his film, “Being Human,” screened as part of this tribute, was his “best story film.”
The other honor handed out is the Maverick Award, given to an individual whose work has retained personal vision. This year’s recipient, actor/director Dennis Hopper, earned his award by canceling his planned appearance at the last minute. Hopper lived and worked in Taos in the late 1960’s. He also shot and edited parts of “Easy Rider” there. Hopper’s experimental “The Last Movie” was screened.
The TTPF continues to grow. It is a brief festival at only four days, and is in such a wonderful location that it seems primed to become a gathering spot for filmmakers and industry professionals from around the world. Festival organizers are faced with some daunting decisions, however. The present facilities can barely accommodate all the screenings, and lodging facilities in Taos are limited as well. Greater success continues to pound on this festival’s door, but organizers must decide where the TTPF will go. As it grows, the local community will become more and more alienated from the event. Parties will become more closed, screenings will sell out more quickly, and more demands will be placed on them. The staff is dedicated, however, and will face the challenge with the passion that they have always given to this festival. Taos Talking Pictures will continue to be a major player in the festival circuit. With the Land Grant Award secure for the next six years, numbers of submissions will continue to grow. Where this success takes the festival is yet to be seen.
[Jeff Winograd is a writer/director living in Portland, OR. He recently co-created and directed the Sundance Trailers for this year’s festival.]