FESTIVALS: Savannah, A Feast of a Fest in the Garden of Good and Evil
by Richard Baimbridge
With film festivals popping up in nearly every city in North America, it’s not surprising that Savannah would toss its hat into the ring. In fact, what is surprising is that it didn’t happen much sooner. This is only the second year of Georgia’s fledgling Savannah Film and Video Festival, sponsored by the ubiquitous Savannah College of Art and Design, (or SCAD, which is to downtown Savannah what Disney is to the experimental Florida town Celebration). One would think that Savannah would have capitalized on its Austin-esque small town charm long ago. The downtown area is tailor-made for a film festival, with abundant and unquestionably beautiful theater space, all within a square mile area that surrounds the Savannah River tourist district.
Even though it has arrived late in the game, the Savannah Film Fest is making up for it in leaps and bounds. In just one year, the number of submissions has quadrupled to 475, with 78 screenings, compared to just 23 screenings the previous year, with attendance up 300 percent — and they managed to bring in such names as A.C. Lyles, legendary president of Paramount Studios, to emcee the awards ceremony.
The quality of submissions is improving dramatically, as Savannah is gaining more and more recognition in the indie film community (mostly by word of mouth.) And there is good reason to spread the word, because what this festival lacks by way of media attention, cash-rich distributors or even particularly good films, it more than compensates for in its treatment of filmmakers and its serious commitment to becoming a bigger, better festival.
One gets the sense, being in Savannah, of what it was like in the early days of Park City or Austin, before Sundance and South by Southwest snowballed into the media monsters they are now, bulldozing the native environment for two solid weeks, like an elephant in a doll house, instead of coexisting peacefully with the local community.
Admittedly, this is well before my time, but I have heard stories from Sundance veterans about how filmmakers and press used to gather around in informal conversations that sound more like Roosevelt’s fireside chats than today’s flack-controlled state of the union addresses. That’s the allure of being invited to a festival like Savannah — there are so few people there, and such little hype, that conversations are refreshingly disarmed. And there is no avoiding one another — if you see someone’s film, they’re going to know whether or not you liked it, based on how quiet you are the next time you ride the elevator together.
That’s not to say there weren’t any good films — quite the contrary. There were, in fact, some very pleasant surprises, including Mishael Porembski‘s compelling new documentary “Burning Questions,” which traces her father’s steps back to his native Poland, where he was interned with the rest of his Catholic family in a Nazi concentration camp. “Burning Questions,” which had only its second showing in Savannah, deservedly won the Judges Award, and has already been picked up by PBS for national broadcast.
Another father-daughter success story came from Elle Travis-Peterson, whose short film “Broken” created a buzz at the festival. “Broken” tells the true story of Travis-Peterson’s father, a California surfer caught in a nightmare situation after a car accident in Mexico leads to imprisonment by crooked Mexican police, who rape his girlfriend and torture him, leaving him paralyzed for life. Travis-Peterson will likely continue to cause a stir when she proceeds with plans to organize a U.S. boycott of Mexican tourism based on a recent similar incident that left a young American surfer dead.
Short films were, in fact, the saving grace of the Savannah Fest. Were it not for people like Scott Forrest, who brought a hard-hitting cache of short films with him under the Smash Cuts umbrella, the film festival would not have had a leg to stand on. It’s a telling sign that best drama went to a short film this year – Sara Pratter‘s “Pharaoh’s Heart,” based on the D.H. Lawrence short story “The Rocking Horse Winner,” (already adapted once before by Michael Almereyda), which was indeed well-deserving of praise, but didn’t belong in a category reserved for features.
On that note, best short went to a short, David Garrett‘s “Clown Car,” which is a crowd-pleaser for sure, but in this humble reviewer’s mind, was far outdone by some of the other shorts at the fest, including the utterly hysterical “Titler” by Jonathan Bekemeir, and the equally entertaining “A Dog’s Life” by British director David Squire.
Aside from a projectionist from hell, there were few complaints coming from anyone at this year’s event. The mood seemed very upbeat and hopeful that the festival will continue to grow. Some even spoke of keeping a lid on it as a well kept secret. But with special guests like Bruce Vilanch, who made a welcome appearance at the screening of Miramax’s “Get Bruce,” a brilliant documentary about the most unfamous (or should we say infamous) famous man in Hollywood, word is bound to get out. A special screening of “Cool Hand Luke” also brought another welcome visitor, Best Supporting Oscar winner George Kennedy, who led a rare and interesting Q&A on the making of that film.
So the fixtures are all in place, from great short films to interesting guests and informative panels to wildly decadent parties, but where are the new features? Part of that may have to do with bad timing. Savannah may be too close to Sundance’s deadlines for better filmmakers to submit, weary of giving up a possible Park City competition slot. And unfortunately, for now, far too many of the shorts have screened exhaustively elsewhere, and too many of the feature films at Savannah are walkout material.
There is also a bad precedent for bringing in feature films that appeal to the after hours Showtime variety of cheap, erotic romance flicks (I shall name no names here), instead of something more artistic, meaningful, or even controversial– although it was nice of the SCAD hierarchy, who are apparently so smitten with themselves they named the main venue (Trustees Theatre) in their own honor, to allow a film like Kenya Winchell‘s “Cannabis Conspiracy” to screen.
In a city like Savannah, which is racially backward to the point of almost outright segregation, it was also nice to see an award go out to Michael Cargile for best director for his short, “The Light of Darkness.” Unfortunately, the fact that Cargile is white — as his black producer who received the award on his behalf blushingly informed the audience — took some of the wind out of the Trustees’ sails. But the recognition was appropriate, nonetheless, for a film that teaches a crushing lesson in racial prejudice.
All in all, the Savannah Film and Video Festival has the makings of an outstanding event, and as its reputation grows among filmmakers, it’s sure as molasses to become an increasingly popular and well-respected forum. Quite honestly, it’s just too much fun and too sweet a deal for any struggling indie filmmaker in his or her right mind to pass up. As one young filmmaker best summed up over a plate of prime ribs (three proper meals a day are provided in the luxurious hotel headquarters), “This is the most compensation I’ve received as a filmmaker so far.”
The complete winners for this year’s festival were:
Best Feature: “Coyotes” directed by Kevin McCarey
Best Director: Michael Cargile for “The Light of Darkness”
Best Drama: “Pharaoh’s Heart,” directed by Sara Pratter
Best Short: “Clown Car,” directed by David Garrett
Best Animation: “That Strange Person,” directed by Eileen O’Meara
Best Documentary: “Colors Straight Up,” directed by Michele Ohayon
Judges Award: “Burning Questions,” directed by Mishael Porembski
[Richard Baimbridge, a compulsive gambler and lifelong admirer of Sigfried und Roy, will next be covering the Cinevegas Film Festival in December for indieWIRE.]