FESTIVALS: Florida Fest Retains Regional Crown
by Eugene Hernandez
These days, Orlando is best known as the hometown for any number of boy bands and as the ultimate "family" vacation getaway. Yet, in mid-June, as the humidity reaches nearly intolerable levels, Orlando takes on a distinctly different feel. The annual "Gay Days" at Disney World draw the ire of religious conservatives and Christian locals, while members of the indie filmmaking community descend on adjoining Maitland for the Florida Film Festival.
When asked about the Florida Film Festival, I always tell filmmakers and others who inquire that it is the best regional film festival I have ever attended. "The weather sucks," I always caution, but what can you expect from late June in Central Florida? This year, I was invited for a third consecutive trip to the event, but this time as a juror of the documentary competition. Despite having a slightly different focus during my time in Florida, I maintain my view that this is the top regional festival I have attended, rivaled perhaps by Cleveland, St. Louis, or Mill Valley, as well as newcomer Newport.
The festival now attracts nearly 20,000 patrons annually to its home base at the Enzian dinner theater and at a local multiplex. Founders Philip and Sigrid Tiedtke provide needed continuity for the Enzian Film Society, which oversees the event -- executive director Peg O'Keefe announced her departure after only a single year at the helm, following the similar one-year stint of Melanie Gaspar as festival chief. One month after the eighth-annual event, two-year head of Media & Marketing Rich Grula has announced his departure, with William Gridley set to step in. Clearly a festival goal would be upper-level management stability. Solid however is the programming team, led by regular festival and year-round Enzian programmer Matthew Curtis.
The highlight of Curtis' curatorial efforts is the annual narrative and documentary American Independent Competition. Florida programmers typically veer away from world premieres in favor of the best new work from Sundance and beyond. That more challenging films such as Julian Goldberger's "Trans" and Eric Tretbar's "Snow" screened in the feature competition is a tribute to both the programming team and the local audiences' often daring taste. The narrative jury, and the festival audience, singled out Chi Muoi Lo's "Catfish in Black Bean Sauce," along with a special jury award to Jonathan Kahn's "Girl."
As a Festival juror, it would be unfair for me to survey the doc competition entries, but our award choices indicate our collective view -- we were struck by Roko & Adrian Belic's "Genghis Blues" (which also won the audience prize) and Katya Bankowsky's "Shadowboxers." Our short-doc award went to Rolf Gibbs' "The Last Guy to Let You Down."
In the shorts category, Michael Burke's "Fishbelly White" won the grand jury award for narrative short, Charlie Call's "Peep Show" won the short-subject audience award, while Jeff Taupier's "Big Wheel" and Mitchell Rose's "Elevator World" won special jury awards.
Haxan Films' Eduardo Sanchez, Daniel Myrick, Mike Monello, Gregg Hale, and Robin Cowie, the local filmmaking team behind Artisan's successful "Blair Witch Project," was in the spotlight throughout the ten-day event. The festival scored a local coup securing the movie as its opening night feature -- not a surprise since Haxan producer Mike Monello is a former Enzian marketing head. At the film's midnight screening near the end of the fest, locals lined up early for the showing, a hint at what the movie would experience when it opened in limited release a few weeks later.
Attendance at the festival seemed solid, however doc entries were less trafficked. While screenings at the intimate Enzian theater were jammed for docs such as "Genghis" and the provocative "WADD: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes," non-fiction screenings at the comparatively cavernous Colonial Promenade multiplex were often embarrassingly empty. The festival faces a challenge in luring attendees to lower profile mid-afternoon showings.
A key strength of the event is rooted in organizers' decision to facilitate participation from festival filmmakers. Once in town, the makers are given numerous opportunities to meet each other and enjoy the local atmosphere; spontaneous trips to local amusement parks, from Universal and Disney to Gator Land, provide valuable chances to mingle. Official parties, hotel happy hours, and annual gatherings at the Tiedtke's lakeside home remain other highlights.
Due to a rigorous schedule as part of my doc jury duties, I am unable to offer specifics on the festival's 1999 panel discussions. The event included the now-commonplace festival presentation on digital filmmaking by Next Wave Films, as well as the Festival's traditional Saturday afternoon roundtable with attending filmmakers. Other seminars included a discussion with animator Bill Plympton and a chat with the Haxan Film crew.
On hand again in '99 was festival regular Seymour Cassel. The actor attended screenings and mixed with attendees during his trip, while also participating in the closing night tribute to actress Gena Rowlands. Also on hand to receive festival kudos were actors Christopher Walken, Paul Winfield, and Illeana Douglas -- the latter of whom carted a small dog to festival events including the closing sit-down dinner and awards ceremony. As Douglas stood on-stage accepting her honorary award, her male companion held the dog up above head level so that the pooch could catch a glimpse of its owner's accomplishment.
As the festival came to a close, and with a few hours to kill before the final ceremony, jurors were invited by Festival sponsor Universal Studios to visit their newly christened "Islands of Adventure" theme park. October (now USA) Films' Susan Glatzer and Fox Lorber (now WinStar's) Julie Goldman and I raced through the park for a brief afternoon escape. While I was the only one willing to ride a roller coaster, the group spent most of our time exploring (Dr.) Suess Landing. Following nearly a week of rigorous jury duty, it was a necessary escape and a chance to experience the "other" Orlando.
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