Celebrating Innovation as RESFEST Kicks Off Its 8th Global Tour
by Wendy Mitchell
Nowadays, nearly every film festival in the world will offer at least a few digital selections, but few truly revel in the medium the way that RESFEST does. This international touring film festival (which will visit a record 33 cities from Austin to Osaka) is now in its eighth year, and while the digital realm becomes more mainstream, RESFEST continues to present selections that show the film and design world's more innovative minds at work.
Like the digital film biz, RESFST has itself evolved over the years. "We've always shown work that has inspired us -- made us laugh, cry, or just go, 'Wow!,' says festival director Jonathan Wells. "In some cases that work is made with digital video tools, in other cases it is made on motion picture film, still cameras, crayons or -- in the case of one music video this year -- a flatbed scanner. This year was particularly strong across the board for innovative filmmaking."
Filmmaker Shari Roman, also the author of "Digital Babylon," showed a film at RESFEST 1999 and returned this year with "ADM: DOP," about famed cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. "It's an interesting festival because there aren't that many festivals that focus primarily on the digital experience," Roman told indieWIRE. "Yet it's not over intellectualized. Sometimes people think digital filmmaking is academic, it's art nerds, but RESFEST approaches it an a far more fun way, as a creative event."
For the first time, the festival kicked off its tour in New York City -- again at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, a great venue for the event, offering superb projection and plenty of room for RES to set up its lounge (complete with a new tent, thankfully, because of an opening night downpour). The New York dates overlapped with the Toronto International Film Festival, which meant that most New York-based film industry execs may have been up north, but the event was well attended nonetheless, drawing filmmakers, film lovers, graphic designers, and other assorted hipster types.
Jason Wishnow, who offered the New York premiere of his short "Oedipus," was happy with the audience response, and even the size despite some challenges. "It was the week after Labor Day, it was the week after the Republican National Convention, and it was the start of Fashion Week, so I think that bit into the crowd size a bit. But the audience was great -- and RESFEST generally attracted a lot of people." Also, one beauty of the festival is that his film will also get 32 more screenings, and Wishnow hopes to also attend the stops in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The festival may have lauded underground work, but it also showed plenty of commercially viable projects, and even held a commissioned films panel to discuss how digital artists are working with major corporations. "One trend that we've spotted is the explosive growth of commissioned short films," Wells says. "Nike, Diesel, Getty Images, and Dr. Martens among many others all have new short film projects and they've chosen to launch them at RESFEST. Unlike the BMW Films project which commissioned big budget short films from Hollywood directors, these new films are much more risky. These new commissioned films projects involved young filmmakers, much lower budgets, and the results are much more innovative." Stefan Nadelman, who showed his award-winning short "Terminal Bar" at RESFEST 2002, came this year with his new project "One Step Ahead," which is part of the Nike Art of Speed series. He was very pleased with the response in New York. "As always, the audience was really great and emphatic," he told indieWIRE. "There was a lot of clapping and cheering."
One highlight in this year's fest is the topical "Bushwacked!" program featuring politically motivated shorts, most starring George W. Bush as a bumbling idiot. Many of these films used existing news footage of speeches and edited them to create new messages -- "Bushwacked 2" turned a State of the Union speech into a platform for Bush to utter statements such as "We are building a culture to encourage international terrorism," and "I have a message to the people of Iraq: Go home and die." "Terror, Iraq, Weapons" edited Bush's speeches into a frightening repetition of those three thoughts. Filmmakers also found musical inspiration -- having politicians seemingly lipsync to songs such as "Gay Bar" by Electric Six and soft rock classic "Endless Love" (a hilarious duet between Bush and Tony Blair). "Closer: The Fall of Baghdad" offered war images and a news ticker that revealed the true cost of the war. The Yes Men's "The Horribly Stupid Stunt," about their WTO impersonations at one particular conference, was entertaining and also provided an enticing preview to Dan Olman, Sarah Price, & Chris Smith's forthcoming feature film, "The Yes Men." The program was laugh-out-loud funny, frightening, and ultimately enlightening. When the audience filed out of the screening in New York, which happened to be held on September 11th, a few blocks away from the venue were the towers of light commemorating 9/11, which seemed all the more poignant after the screening we'd attended. (And because this was a RESFEST crowd, dozens of audience members quickly whipped out their cell phones, digital cameras, and camcorders to document the light display.)
The festival's shorts selections (divided into three programs) offered startling variety (even within the same program). I caught Shorts Program One, with highlights including Wishnow's "Oedipus," a retelling of the classic Greek myth told with vegetables (a russet potato as Oedipus, a broccoli stalk and a tomato as the King and Queen of Thebes). The film had the feel of an old Hollywood epic, with some amazing lighting and cinematography, not to mention the humor inherent in talking veggies. On a more serious note, "Jojo in the Stars" was Marc Craste's gothic animated romance set in an ominous black-and-white world where monsters are exploited for mass entertainment. I found it heartbreakingly beautiful. Douglas Avery's "Bikou" (shot on 35mm) at first had the feel of a pretentious dream sequence but then went in a delightfully unexpected direction that left the audience literally gasping. Another program of short work, By Design, concentrated on more experimental graphic design films, including new work from such artists as MK12, Psyop, Tim Hope, and more. (The one feature-length film shown at the New York stop, Thomas Campbell's "Sprout," did have some beautiful shots but won't hold much appeal far past the surfing crowd.)
The festival tries, on occasion successfully, to elevate music videos to art status, with its "Cinema Electronica" and "Videos that Rock" programs. Among the "Videos that Rock" selections, the standout was Michel Gondry's "Walkie Talkie Man" video for the band Stereogram. It offered further proof of Gondry's genius: this video created a world almost entirely made of yarn, either knitted or unraveling out of control. It left this audience buzzing. Also inspiring were Elliot Jokelson's TV on the Radio video, "Staring at the Sun," which used electric soundwaves in an eerie manner, the collage-y "Equus" by Chris Hopewell for Blonde Redhead, and the cut-outs and line drawings of The Charlatans' "Try Again Today" by Run Wrake.
More music videos were included in the Jonathan Glazer retrospective, which showed some of his brilliant Radiohead videos, commercials for clients such as Nike and Guinness, and the trailer for his debut feature film, "Sexy Beast." (Glazer was in Venice unveiling his sophomore feature, "Birth," and was unable to attend). Other tributes this year were a program of rarities from U.K. animation collective Shynola and a program of music videos from electronica label Warp.
RESFEST wasn't just about films -- there were parties (closing night was a VJ night with Hexstatic and Emergency Broadcast Network), and a lovely musical performance by England's Mojave 3. "This year we evolved our live music presentations in some cases taking them out of traditional clubs," Wells says. "We also looked for artists that had a strong A/V element to their shows."
In addition, certain cities on the RESFEST circuit incorporate studio tours; in New York, attendees could visit the workplaces of artists such as Tomato, Freestyle Collective, and Ryan McGuiness. The tours gave filmmakers an opportunity to interact with one another, as did a "meet the filmmakers" BBQ held on Saturday afternoon. Q&A's can be hurried after the screenings, so the festival lounge (also only erected in select cities) was a place for filmmakers to hang out and discuss their work with other professionals and audience members.
Roman says that sense of community at RESFEST has grown since she showed her previous film five years ago. "It's not competitive, filmmakers that I've met there aren't jockeying for position, it's a supportive environment, which seems rare," she says.
[ The RESFEST tour continues next week in San Francisco and London, with numerous other stops to come. For more information, please visit: http://www.resfest.com. ]