By Brian Brooks | Indiewire April 7, 2008 at 3:41AM
It seemed the heavens were yearning for attention Saturday night in Orlando as torrents of rain poured down and the booming thunder crashed the party at the Winter Park Racquet Club where the Florida Film Festival capped its nine-day event, within the tony confines of a clubhouse overlooking an expansive lake. A well-heeled crowd sipped champagne as the festival, organized by the town's beloved Enzian Theater, unveiled its jury and audience winners. Also receiving FFF praise Saturday was actress Jennifer Tilly, taking home an artistic achievement award.
"One of the best things about receiving this award is I don't have to practice my loser smile," said the Oscar-nominated actress. "I got to get up and dress up like Jennifer Tilly and just do my thing..." Earlier that week, Tilly hosted a screening of Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway," which earned her an Academy Award nomination for best actress in 1994.
But of course filmmakers shared the spotlight at the event, with Alex Holdridge's romantic comedy "In Search of a Midnight Kiss" winning FFF's grand jury award for best narrative feature, while Nina Davenport's story of an Iraqi film student on the set of Liev Schrieber's "Everything is Illuminated" took the grand jury award for best documentary feature. Jeremy Zerechak's "Land of Confusion, " meanwhile received a special jury award for "bold truth." The filmmaker joined the Pennsylvania National Guard after high school hoping to raise money for film school, and his unit was sent to Iraq to search for the former regime's alleged weapons of mass destruction. Zerechak brought his camera and what is captured is a very intimate portrait of life in the troubled country from a soldier's point of view.
"I only got stopped once or twice, but I was very surprised in getting away with what I did..." commented Zerechak following a screening earlier in the week. "I was asked what I was doing and I said I was shooting home video, which I was... I was shooting video then sending it home."
Also receiving a special jury award was Adam Rapp's "Blackbird," in recognition of directorial achievement. Myna Joseph's "Man" won the grand jury award for best narrative short, while "Teat Beat of Sex" by Signe Baumane took best animated short. "A Day's Work" by Rajeev Dassani won a special jury award for best ensemble acting in the shorts category.
In audience nods, Tom Gustafson's "Were the World Mine" won for best narrative feature and Ron Davis & Stewart Halpern's film on the Miss Gay America contest, "Pageant" won in the doc category. Bill Purple's "Hole in the Paper Sky" took audience kudos for shorts.
Though decidedly a regional event, albeit a well established one, the Florida Film Festival nevertheless lathered on a decent helping of the glitz factor. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain helped kick-off the festival with a "film and cuisine" event, while Malcolm McDowell also traveled to central Florida for the fest. Actress Mary Stuart Masterson took her directorial effort, "The Cake Eaters," about the travails of two families in rural Upstate New York, to Orlando.
"My agent represented [screenwriter] Jayce Bartok," Masterson told indieWIRE, about how she became attached to the project. "I read it and I thought they wanted me to be in it, but then I was told I was to direct it... The financing came together and the film took on a life of its own. The advice I was given was that dramas are a hard sell, so just make it good," Masterson laughed. Masterson continued telling iW that she had long wanted to direct and is planning to continue behind the camera with her new production company Barn Door Pictures, which she is running with her brother, Peter and Steve Weissman.
"We're going to be lean and mean. We're hoping to find stories with a lot of heart and character-driven." Upcoming projects include a female baseball project called "Slugger" and an Iraq film which will star Masterson and John Leguizamo. Also upcoming is another family drama called "Tickling Leo" also shot in Upstate New York.
In addition to the winners, David Redmon and Ashley Sabin's ("Kamp Katrina") "Intimidad" were among the doc favorites at FFF. The film follows a struggling young Mexican couple who leave home for the north to work in the factories near the border in order to raise money to buy a parcel of land back home where they've left their young daughter with relatives.
"We've been filming this for five years. We lived in [the northern Mexico town of] Reynosa for a year and had the intention of following the production of a Victoria's Secret factory, but it moved to China. Then we met [our subject], Cecy." The directing duo had only planned to follow the couple to the moment they were finally reunited with their daughter during Christmas vacation, but when she seemed to not fully recognize her parents, they decided to continue. What is captured is an amazing portrait on the micro-level of how globalization is shifting the lives of individuals.
Economic upheaval also lurks behind the scenes in Aaron Hillis, Brian Cassidy and Jennifer Loeber's "Fish Kill Flea." The film spotlights eccentric entrepreneurs working in a flea market in a once thriving shopping center in Fishkill, New York. Odd knick knacks, colorful personalities and a scene devoid of corporate conformity attract locals and out of towners alike, until economic realities threaten to destroy the market to make room for a Home Depot.
Chris Bagley and Kim Shively's "Wesley Willis's Joyrides" packed in a rowdy crowd of fans one evening last week. The film is a portrait of unlikely artist/musician Wesley Willis who grew up around the mean streets of Chicago's south side. Despite debilitating bouts with schizophrenia, Willis found a loyal fan-base in the mid-'90s underground rock scene, even grabbing national attention from MTV and the Howard Stern Show despite his homeless appearance and 350 pound frame.
"I went to one of Wesley's shows and I asked him to call me when he was in town and then he called and said he was coming to stay with me for a month," said Bagley about meeting Willis. The musician often greeted admirers with one of his signature "head butts," which became a synonymous trait of the artist. "I got the head butt from Wesley and it was my right of passage. I was never interested in doing a doc before this, but he changed me..."
[EDITOR'S NOTE: indieWIRE Managing Editor Brian Brooks served on the documentary jury at this year's Florida Film Festival.]