FESTIVALS: Short Films, Short of Breath; Crested Butte's Reel Fest
by Brian Keithline
(indieWIRE/ 8.28.00) -- "The mountain humbles us," said screenwriter Holly Payne. "We can throw out our egos and get down to business. You can't get that anywhere else," she continued, speaking of the largest-ever Crested Butte Reel Fest, held August 16-20 in the shadow of the 12,162-foot Mt. Crested Butte in Colorado.
"Where else can you have your film screened and run out of breath walking up the stairs to the theater?" asked one filmmaker. It's a part of the High Altitude attitude that exists during this shorts festival that focuses on 40-minute and under narrative and experimental films, and 60-minute and under documentary works.
If first impressions count, then the huge gathering of first-time filmmakers left its mark on both the mountainside and the indie film community here. Nearly 300 films competed for a screening spot in the third annual Reel Fest. First-time filmmakers accounted for about a fourth of the selected films, but these newly christened directors created works far from being amateur.
Comprising the group of novice directors and producers were both the young and the old, which gave the festival a wide scope of experience and themes. Andrew Bloch, who debuted his first film "Sunday" (19 min.), gave insight into post-WWII culture through the eyes of a boy's aunt. "Sunday" won the Reel Fest Gold Award for Drama, and a cash prize of $300. At the other end of the dramatic spectrum, a fresh look at a musically inclined boy bonding with his Dad, "Dominant Seventh" (13 min.) directed by Martin Nowak, took the Silver Award for Drama (and $150).
"All these films have talent to them," says Robert Peters, who starred in "Certain Guys," a feature film that had a special sold out premiere in the Victorian-style Majestic Theatre. Directed by Stephen James, the film stars a cast of familiar actors: Diedrich Bader ("Drew Carrey Show"), Jerry Hardin ("The Firm"); and Tracy Lords, among others. "It's a place free from industry influence and it's good for feedback from the audience," comments Peters. The directors, especially the newer ones, credited the audience -- and even applauded them -- for their helpful input. Tickets quickly sold-out and at the 240-seat Center of the Arts theater, mere walking distance from the main street, there was always a full house.
The Reel Fest gives top honor to the most innovative filmmakers with the Bob Award (presented by producer Robert "Bob" Nowotny). This year, Canadian filmmaker Coreen Mayrs won the prize for "The Rememberer," produced in part with the Vancouver International Film Festival, for "pushing the envelope." She also received a wooden plaque with a letter opener attached to it for, as guessed, pushing the envelope, and 150 bucks.
Another award presented at the fest is the Tom Skerritt Family Illumination Award, as the noted actor's sister lives in the area. Recognizing films that "illuminate the human condition," the top prize went to the documentary "Doing Time, Doing Vipassana" (which also won the Golden Spire in San Francisco) for its coverage of how meditation reforms prisoners in India. The Gold Illumination award comes with a cash purse of $250. "You need open minds for documentaries to grow," said Judy Sammons, who accepted the Gold Award since directors Ayelet Menahemi and Eilona Ariel couldn't attend. "And here we found a home for ideas."
Ed Zwick, a homeowner in Crested Butte and producer of such films as "Glory," emceed as the Silver Illumination award (and $100) went to "Little Man," a sports drama directed by Howard Libov.
"I don't think there's a better place to premiere a short film and learn while being there," commented John Atkinson, who won the Silver Award for animation with his inspiring six-minute animated work, "Aspire." It was his first project submitted and he said he'll attend next year, if not because it begins on his birthday and he sees it as omen to return. "I learned so much and shared what I could and this turned out great," Atkinson said, reflecting on the two workshop seminars held during the Fest.
The difference between seminars in Crested Butte and those in other places? A.) The first seminar on Short Film Distribution took place in a glorious ski condominium filled with buffet tables of food. Though promised reps from AtomFilms did not show, there was a representative from Big Film Shorts who spoke -- however there was little talk of acquiring shorts from the festival. B.) The screenwriting workshop was hosted in the Crested Butte hostel, which more resembles a resort lodge. As writer Holly Payne ("Graven Image") led a discussion on pitching scripts, muscular backpackers geared up outside and beautiful girls brushed off their bikes to peddle up into the mountains.
The real talk of the Reel Fest happens during a program called Jackson's Lucky Shorts, which starts at 11 p.m. and lasts until early the next morning. It is here that Reel Fest encourages exploitation films. Director Seth Liebman proved this with "Shhh," the story of a man who silences those who talk in theaters with the help of a gun. "We all think this," Liebman said. "People just don't shut up during movies, and if I hadn't done this movie, who knows what'd happened," he joked.
At each screening, audience members cast votes for their favorite films. One of the most popular films according to the audience was a comedy that later won the Gold Award and $300, "Damned If You Do." James Zeilinger directed this devilish 35mm, which came off a first-place win at the Hollywood Film Fest.
High altitude does different things to the body. In Crested Butte, it seems to enhance the mind by letting it fully appreciate the short film format.
For more information, visit: http://www.crestedbuttereelfest.com
[Brian Keithline is a writer and novice filmmaker currently living outside the Denver area in mountainous Colorado where he also produces an on-line news show.]