FESTIVAL: The Taos Talking Picture Festival: Bringing it Back to the Ranch
by Karla Esquivel
(indieWIRE/ 04.19.02) — Ask any filmmaker, and they will tell you it’s those exotic, out-of-the way festivals that almost always pique their interest. Only in its eighth year of existence, the Taos Talking Picture Festival (which took place April 12-15) has earned quite the reputation as being a venue where both seasoned and independent filmmakers can find solidarity and discourse in a relaxed, high-altitude, sun-drenched environment. This year the likes of John Sayles, Bruno Barreto, Susan Sarandon, and Julia Roberts all made appearances. While you do find a few investors and movie stars curiously wandering the bumpy tangled streets, Taos asserts its goal as being a “truly independent” film festival. The focus is not so much big on industry as it is on discovery. This year, however, Taos experienced its first series of growing pains. Tickets to most of the screenings immediately went into “rush” status after only two days of being made available to the public.
One has to wonder whether this four-day festival, which (this year) featured a total of 46 film programs, including 17 world and U.S. premieres, has to either grow in venue size or length. Artistic Director Jason Silverman noted that while the interest in the festival does steadily grow in demand each successive year, it isn’t completely out of control. “The real problem is that Taos is a small town with small venues,” Silverman told indieWIRE on the adobe steps of the historic Mabel Dodge Lujan House, where the likes of D.H. Lawrence and Georgia O’ Keefe once mused. “Our dream would be to have a nice big venue where we could put out bigger shows.”
As for changing the venue into a longer, week-long event, Silverman strongly insists that a shorter, more compressed festival builds a feeling of solidarity and community. “I really like the idea that everyone comes out for the length of the festival, that people see the same films and the fact that you stand in line next to strangers and talk about the films you saw,” Silverman said. “A real dialogue is created, so that by Sunday you are in a hothouse environment, where everyone is talking about the same things.”
The opening night film was the U.S. premiere of Sturla Gunnerson‘s “Rare Birds,” starring William Hurt, Molly Parker, and Andy Jones. Gunnerson’s 1998 film “Such a Long Journey” was more or less “discovered” at Taos several years ago. “Rare Birds,” which was picked up by Lions Gate, is a romantic comedy/buddy flick in which Hurt’s character tries to save his restaurant, The Auk, by fabricating the existence of an odd duck to attract tourist attention to the area. While the film is at times clever, “Rare Birds” ultimately gets lost in its own cuteness. Filmgoers were immediately shuffled to the opening night gala where they danced to the world beat sounds of Brave Combo, sipped mescal and savored a thick and smoky Mexican hot chocolate under a starry night.
There were several world premieres that created quite a buzz. Richard W. Bean‘s offbeat romantic comedy “Tattoo, A Love Story” tells the story of an uppity, anal-retentive school teacher who finds solace in a huge biker/tattoo artist with the soul of a poet. The unlikely duo is made believable by Bean’s savvy and hilarious script. The subversive tattoo element is very authentic, as lead man Virgil Mignanelli has spent many years owning his own tattoo parlor. “Tattoo” was graced by cinematographer David Klein, whose past work include Kevin Smith‘s “Clerks.” As a meditative effect, the film intersperses live interviews with people who have chosen tattoos. “Tattoo” was a hero of a sort at Taos this year, as the film was finished and shipped the day of the festival, but half of it was routed to San Diego. The print arrived hours before its first screening.
Another world premiere, “Home Room” by director Paul F. Ryan, deals with the adverse psychological and emotional effects of modern day school shootings. This film had its share of mixed reactions but it’s solid and twisting script kept it out of the after-school special category. The performances by Erika Christensen (“Traffic“) and Busy Phillips (“Dawson’s Creek“) are quite remarkable. It’s likely this film will find a home somewhere as it touches on important, contemporary issues in a realistic and intelligent way.
Audience favorites included Tony Shaloub‘s middle-aged comedy “Made-up,” Chris Eyre‘s “Skins,” and the world premieres of Rich Thorne‘s “Mother Ghost” and Zev Berman‘s “Briar Patch.” People lined up around the block to see the Czech-produced “Wildflowers” by director F.A Brabec as well as Finn Taylor‘s Sundance favorite “Cherish.” Lucy Walker‘s intense documentary, “Devil’s Playground,” which takes a rare behind-the-scenes look at Amish teenagers, fascinated many. The film has been picked up by HBO.
The illustrious Taos Land Grant award deservedly went to Ralph Ziman‘s “The Zookeeper.” Ziman, who is best known for his work in music videos, has made a powerful feature film about a civil servant in a fictional Balkan town who remains behind during the wretched war in order to take care of the animals in the zoo. Each year, Taos awards five acres of land to the most innovative filmmaker in the program, in the hopes of amassing a talented community of filmmakers. Last year’s recipient was Lukas Moodysson, for his hippie utopia film “Together.” It’s possible that Taos is trying to create cinematic “commune” by bringing the talent back to the ranch.
The Georges MeliesAward for best short went to Jeff Wadlow for his word play film “tHE tOWer oF BaBBLe.” There was also a downright hilarious short called “The Horribly Stupid Stunt (Which Has Resulted in His Untimely Death)” by Jacques & Igor, which follows the filmmakers as they obtain the old email address of the WTO and get invited to VIP world meeting disguised as VIP (though loopy) WTO officials. Another favorite was “Richart,” by Vanessa Renwick, which follows an eccentric Washington man who has crafted an intricate art castle.
Other programs of interest included the teen media forum and Taos talking pixels, where Negativland‘s Mark Hosler spoke about the future of culture jamming, fair use, and copyright laws. Also of interest was a forum held by Jack G. Shaheen, whose book “Reel Bad Arabs” explores how Hollywood has created Arabs to be the “cultural other.” This year the talking couch was hosted by Chris Eyre, Drew Lacapa, and Gary Farmer, who helped put Native American stereotypes into perspective.
The awards ceremony honored legends John Sayles and his partner Maggie Renzi with the storyteller award, while Brazilian filmmaker Bruno Barreto (“Bosso Nova,” “Four Days in September“) was awarded the Cineaste award. The maverick award went to Susan Sarandon, and was presented to her by her buddy and surprise guest Julia Roberts, who has made the Taos area a home. Even with a few stars in the spotlight, Taos still includes the regional community; the awards doled out were all made by local artists. In quirky Taos fashion, sculptor Larry Bell, who was to present Sarandon’s filmography and talk about his work, got on stage, apologized to executive director Morton Nilssen and wandered off saying “I just can’t do this.” It’s those kind of little events that keep Taos the homegrown festival it initially set out to be.