FESTIVALS: 10th Florida, Still Homespun in the Post-"Blair Witch" Period, but Maybe Not For Long
by Scott Foundas
(indieWIRE/ 07.11.01) -- It's the day before I leave Los Angeles for the Florida Film Festival and I'm standing in Kinko's waiting to use the oversize copier, which is currently occupied by the multihyphenate indie filmmaker Jon Jacobs ("Lucinda's Spell," "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes"), who is making billboard-size posters to promote the upcoming retrospective of his own films co-sponsored by the local Method Fest Film Festival.
Flash forward to Florida. Six days later and the festival more than half-over, I pop in for a quick dinner at Chef Arthur Sturgess' Nicole St. Pierre restaurant (which adjoins the festival's primary screening venue), and find the sort of quaint, personalized bistro that seems an endangered species in cities large and small. Even better, Chef Arthur himself, who belongs in pictures, regales me with stories of his time in the Norwegian Merchant Marines, his emergence from retirement to open this restaurant (his umpteenth) and his friendship with a certain major Hollywood producer.
Why these two apparently unrelated moments to open a discussion of the 10 days of screenings, seminars and parties that was the 10th anniversary edition of the Florida Film Festival? Because Jon Jacobs and Chef Arthur, in their beautifully jagged synchronicity, are perfectly representative of the very grassroots approach to doing your own thing -- in art, in food, in life -- that has remained a hallmark of Florida, just as it has become an increasingly negotiable commodity of Sundance, Toronto, et al. Decked out with lots of down-home charm by festival directors Sigird Tiedtke and Peg O'Keefe, and programmed with a strong lineup of national and regional premieres by programming director Matthew Curtis, this excellent regional film event is a bastion of unfettered moviegoing on an increasingly commercialized/hustling-dealmaking festival circuit.
The festival opened this year on June 8 with the Florida premiere of "The Anniversary Party" (one of a handful of already-sold indies getting a local launch), and the ensuing week revealed a series of choice works, notable both for their quality and for several strains of karmic interconnectivity.
The carny folk and circus performers of Gibsonton, FL found themselves onscreen not only in Melissa Shacahat's serviceable (and occasionally more) documentary "Gibtown," but in the closing moments of John Ryman's quirky and touching "The Zeros" (an audience-award-winner at SXSW this year), despite the fact that only the former was actually shot in Florida.
And while they're a somewhat less exotic bunch, the Mayport, FL trailer-park denizens turned horror-flick entrepreneurs in Stephen Earnhart's "Mule Skinner Blues" may have given me the most pleasure of any characters, real or invented. While it would be easy for Earnhart to mock his subjects in the way of Chris Smith's "American Movie," he instead turns his film into a deeply felt, hee-hawing hoe-down of entertainment whose warmth spills out from the screen and envelops you.
Allison Anders' "Things Behind the Sun" is also Florida shot and set, though it's a horse of an entirely different color. A highly contrived bit of business propelled by a series of crass psychological manipulations performed by one lead character upon another, this semi-autobiographical account of a musician coming to terms with the rape that has haunted her all of her adult life is nonetheless wrenching and harrowing. Despite the flaws, the lingering impression of Anders' film is that of a filmmaker going to a raw, scabbed-over emotional place and plumbing it with brazen courage. This is, alongside "Mi Vida Loca," the best work she has done, fueled by the fiery Kim Dickens, who gives maybe the most affecting piece of acting I've seen in a movie this year as Anders' alter-ego heroine -- a corkscrew, deeply-twisting-inward, behind-the-skin performance.
The uninhibited confessional of Anders' film could also be seen in shorter form in Ari Gold's 21-minute "Helicopter," which was perhaps the most show-stopping and un-self-conscious bit of filmmaking brilliance that surfaced at the festival. Using a kind of organic, mixed-media melange (live-action, hand-drawn animation and extensive model work) to cathartically approach his own mother's untimely death (in the helicopter crash the killed Bill Graham), Gold's remarkable film captures the overwhelming grief of a man spontaneously collapsing at a gravesite, and only becomes more harrowing as it progresses. A difficult sit, but a deeply rewarding one, it has lot of the same mournful, soul-searching quality of Monteith McCollum's "Hybrid," featured in Florida's documentary competition, and perhaps the most all-around impressive work on view. For more info on "Helicopter," see <http://www.arigoldfilms.com>.
"Things Behind the Sun" and "Helicopter" were but two Sundance holdovers putting in a Florida appearance, and with the additional in-person presence of such filmmakers as Cory McAbee, Joel Hopkins and Katie Davis, the festival took on a bit of the quality of a humid, sun-drenched Park City without all the hurry and hype. Hopkins' "Jump Tomorrow" sounds downright terrible on paper -- an arranged marriage, a couple of odd, buddy-movie relationships and a road trip through upstate New York -- but the end result is infectiously charming and smart, the kind of movie that grows on you until it takes on the feel of a vital appendage. Sharply cast, the film will likely do wonders for the English-language career of French star Hippolyte Giradot, the arresting Spanish actress Nathalia Verbeke and newcomer Tunde Adebimpe (who previously played the character of George in Hopkins' popular short film, "Jorge").
McAbee's "The American Astronaut" might also sound like a must-avoid and, based on just one viewing, I'm not sure that it isn't. But this beautifully-shot, crazily inventive (or, perhaps, just plain crazy) space-opera/cowboy-musical is unquestionably a cult event waiting to happen, the sort of movie that seems preconceived with pauses for the reiteration of certain key lines and phrases by devoted, "Rocky Horror"-style audiences.
But the Sundance vet that impressed me most was Ara Corbett's "Roof to Roof," which in 73 minutes offers an extraordinary, desultory rush of images that seem captured by chance -- fragments of poetic instance from the lives of Los Angeles' Armenian immigrant community. Made with a cast of close-to-the-bone nonprofessionals and resounding with a profound humanism and attention to workaday struggles, this is a mightily impressive debut work.
Among feature films in the fest's main competition, only Christian J. Otjen's "Milwaukee noir" "Lady in a Box" disappointed (it doesn't really belong in theaters, let alone film festivals), while the out-of-competition screening of Campbell Scott's and Eric Simonson's "Hamlet" was certainly the least necessary. But if there was one minor, general quibble to be had with the festival's programming this year, it was the paucity of undistributed foreign-films. And those that were present, including the Dutch tearjerker "The Black Meteor" and the Danny Boyle-begat-Guy Ritchie-begat-"Dog Eat Dog," didn't help to avail thoughts of what else might have been available.
In-between this all, there was time for a series of capacity-attendance seminars and panels, including one featuring nearly all of the festival's visiting filmmakers and industry execs, and another at which Panavision demonstrated the 24P HD camera used to show "Star Wars: Episode II."
The most consistent factor from screenings to panels to just-hanging-around between movies? The overwhelming number of film students, hailing from such relatively new-on-the-block programs as University of Central Florida and Florida State University, many of whom were themselves responsible for the 20 local works that comprised the festival's student-film competition. If this post-"Blair Witch" surge in local filmmaking interest is any indication, the Florida Film Festival may face, in its second decade, its greatest dilemma yet: how to remain homespun amid every hint that it could become the Sundance of the South.