FESTIVALS: Bigger is Better: RESFEST Continues to Rise
by G. Allen Johnson
(indieWIRE/ 09.18.01) -- Bigger isn't necessarily better, but the organizers of RESFEST 2001 have created a monstrous hit, and they have to feed the beast. Thus the fifth annual traveling digital festival has expanded, and hopefully, will never shrink back. This year's edition kicked off at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco (Sept. 6 - 8) and moves to Chicago's Biograph Theater on Thursday (Seattle's scheduled event last weekend was postponed due to the tragedies in New York and D.C.) -- and proved that bigger is excellent, as the creators of RES magazine remain on the front lines of the digital filmmaking revolution. Alternative film fans rejoice; wanna-be filmmakers, here's your kick in the ass.
Really, this was inevitable. RESFEST organizers mulled through a record 1,500 short film entries from around the world. The ever-increasing quality of these works -- as digital technology becomes more accessible and early pioneers refine their techniques -- put festival director Jonathan Wells and executive director John Scalise in a bit of a quandary: How to winnow down the entries to the spots allotted the traditional two RESFEST programs? Answer: In celebration of the fifth anniversary, expand to five programs of shorts -- and that's in addition to the always-sold-out Cinema Electronica, a cutting edge compilation of music videos. Hungry for more? Twenty bucks gets you RESFEST's first compilation DVD of shorts, featuring 16 films with director commentaries from the past years of the festival.
"As digital filmmaking has hit the mainstream, well, that was what we were all about in the very beginning," Wells said. "Now it's not unique. Digital features are more and more being picked up for theatrical distribution -- but what continues to be unique for this festival is the type of work we show, the innovative short films and music videos."
However, there are two feature-length films that utilize digital technology in different ways. Hiroyuki Kitakubo's "Blood: The Last Vampire," is a Japanese anime film by the creators of "Ghost in the Shell" (the director of "Shell," Mamoru Oshii, came up with the idea and assembled the team; "Blood" director Hiroyuki Kitakubo was an animator on the recently revived 1988 classic "Akira"). It follows the plight of Saya and her quest to kill all the vampires in Tokyo with her sword. Creative, covered in a sheen of cool, it's a "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" on digital steroids. The main feature is Doug Pray's documentary portrait of club turntable DJs, "Scratch." Pray, whose "Hype!" chronicled the Seattle grunge scene, traces the turntablists from South Bronx in the '70s to modern-day San Francisco and New York.
There are also, for most American stops on the tour, informative back-to-back demonstrations of digital editing and DV cinematography, sponsored by Canon, and a program looking at state-of-the-art title designs. RESFEST has expanded to four additional cities (dropping Montreal), and the stops, include London, New York, Los Angeles, Seoul, Bristol, England; Cape Town, South Africa; Tokyo and Osaka in Japan, and Rio De Janeiro and Sao Paulo in Brazil. In the Asian markets, "Blood" is replaced by the recent American indie hit "The Anniversary Party," co-directed by Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
But features and programs aside, RESFEST's main strength is shorts, an art form largely ignored by many festivals. So Wells and Scalise's decision to expand to five programs (plus the usual Cinema Electronica) is good news indeed. It actually works better; the two programs in previous years used to be divided into short and long films. But the five programs this year are ordered according to themes, so longer shorts are mixed with the quick-hits to create a better rhythm for the viewer.
"One of the things we're really good at is shorts," said Wells, fighting off the advances (but not too vigorously) from his 17-month-old son and traveling companion Griffin. "We're in a really tough timeframe, with Venice, Toronto and the New York film festivals; we just can't get some of the features we'd like."
Who can argue, for example, that "Copy Shop" (Virgil Widrich, Austria 2001) or "Keen Yellow Planet" (Mark Osborne, USA 2001) -- both in the "Altered States" program -- provide less emotional impact than any feature film this year? Or that the been-there-done-that laughter induced by "Avenue Amy Outfriended" (Joan Raspo, USA 2001) or "Bike Ride" (Tom Schroeder, USA 2000) trumps all fabricated TV sitcoms currently on the air? The program that includes those two lighthearted romps, "Human Nature," also offers "Helicopter," Ari Gold's moving (quite literally, as it is largely set in a limousine) tribute to his mother, Melissa Gold, who died with her significant other, rock impresario Bill Graham in 1991. And the Jerry Springer/Sally Jessy Raphael genre has nothing on "Delusions in Modern Primitivism" (Daniel Loflin, USA 2000), which clues us in to the latest rage in body modification. Tattoos are so passe.
RESFEST also introduces "Director's Club," and for their inaugural effort asked previous "Cinema Electronica" directors to present their early short films -- you know, the ones that aren't timed to music. And speaking of, "Cinema Electronica" features 17 music videos, including a pair of Fatboy Slim tomes, the oft-shown "Weapon of Choice" starring Christopher Walken and directed by Spike Jonze, and Traktor's "Ya Mama," a weird Caribbean fantasy.
The poster child for "Cinema Electronica" is Jamie Hewlett and Peter Candeland's "19-2000: Gorillaz," which graces the spiffy cover of the bi-monthly RES magazine's 5th anniversary issue. Hewlett, a British artist who created "Tank Girl," has created a virtual band, Gorillaz, and this is the band's third virtual music video. Think R-rated anime fused with hip-hop ("Chuck Jones has been a consistent influence," Hewlett told the magazine. "But I'm also into the early '70s horror films, especially George Romero's. I just start my day watching 'The Exorcist' or 'Dawn of the Dead' and then go off to work.").
If RESFEST causes you to look back on the last five years and how popular entertainment in general is being transformed, you realize that the punks who doodled those strange caricatures in their three-ring notebooks are now wielding DV cameras, Avids and PCs. And they've got some pretty damn good ideas, too.
As Wells notes, "People can make films with any type of tool. In our shorts programs, we have stuff that was shot on high-end 35 mm and stuff that was done on a laptop. And we have stuff that was done in Flash and anime-style music videos. It doesn't matter how you make it, it's like, do you have something interesting to express?"