FESTIVALS: Taos Talking Pictures Bridges the Gap Between Makers and Audience
by Karla Esquivel
(indieWIRE/ 04.16.01) -- The weather during the seventh annual Taos Talking Pictures Film Festival was just about as diverse and dramatic as the festival's film line-up. Rain, snow, hail, sun and wind all made an appearance almost simultaneously during the event.
Nestled in the picturesque town of Taos, New Mexico, the film festival has become a genuine forum for up-and-coming filmmakers, film buffs and media kids. Community is a prominent theme at Taos. Pretensions are virtually non-existent and for odd reasons, cell phones hardly work. It's a place where actors and directors are brought into close contact with audience members. If you're lucky, you might be able to pet Liz Taylor's dog or catch a ride to the next film from the festival director. According to Morten Nilssen, Executive Director of Taos Talking Pictures, "During this festival we want to make sure all of our guests -- even if they aren't officially our guests -- feel welcome. Our goal is to create a sense of community for filmmakers and audience members."
The opening night film and fiesta fell nicely into this hospitable category: the world premiere of "Face to Face," a somewhat sappy but crowd-pleasing ditty about male bonding and father/son relationships. Directed by first time director Ellie Kanner, and starring Scott Baio, Dean Stockwell, Alex Rocco and Thomas Calabro, "Face To Face" is at times funny (Dean Stockwell gives a hilarious performance as a junk yard dog-dad), but ultimately predictable. Scott Baio, who wrote the film, addressed the audience in a Q and A session after the movie, "The film is very autobiographical except that my dad was probably meaner," Baio joked. Afterwards people made their way to the opening night Gala where Stockwell and Baio mingled among decked-out locals. Hipsters danced to the San Francisco-based salsa band Los Mocosos, while a dread-lock-horned-hippie did his fire-eating routine.
Aside from a handful of films that have already gotten lots of publicity at other festivals, Taos Talking Pictures has a hefty crop of premieres by first-time filmmakers. "We really like encouraging new directors here at Taos," Nillsen told indieWIRE in a car interview. "The point of the festival is not so much to be a marketplace as it is to be a venue. Of course we like to hook-up filmmakers -- and there are distributors walking around -- but it's very low key."
The documentary, "Five Girls" directed by Maria Finitzo, made its world premiere at Taos this year. Produced by the same folks (Kartemquin Film) that brought us the award-winning "Hoop Dreams," the film thoughtfully examines the lives of five different teenage girls growing up in Chicago over a two-year period. One girl is bi-sexual, one a product of a privileged environment, another emigrated from Vietnam at the age of ten, and the two others are African-American. All girls deal with the same rights-of-passages, but in very different ways. It's a realistic, funny and refreshing glimpse into the lives of our future. The film shares a similar style and process to "Hoop Dreams," but "Five Girls" focuses less on dramatic tactics and more on astute realism.
Other films made some impressive US premieres. The Czech film "Loners" by director David Ondricek, is a hip and wacky look into the lives of group of young people searching for love, self-fulfillment, UFOs and the meaning of life. The story is strung together by Peter, a radio DJ who ponders existence by recording live snippets of everyday life and playing them over the air. Meanwhile another friend carries around a video camera and captures the "realities" of everyday life in order to expose the absurdities of living. Expect to hear more about this film on the festival circuit.
The film "Cahoots" by first-time writer/director Dirk Benedict has almost everything going for it -- strong writing, a great sense of humor and stunning performance by Keith Carradine. It's a male bonding movie with balls. Caradine plays a wayward outlaw type who returns to LA to visit his stable old buddy, Harley (David Keith) and in the process causes nothing but trouble. The pacing is slightly awkward, but other than that, it's insightful, highly charged and impressively shot on digital video (and worth a look for distribution).
The Indian import, "The Wrestlers" is a surreal and startling film that delves into the subject of masculinity and violence: two men become obsessed with wrestling one another while their world around them disintegrates. It's an eerie and poetic look at humanity. Buddhadeb Dasgubta is currently one of India's hottest filmmakers and the film, which made it's US premiere in Taos, won a Special Director's Award at last year's Venice Film Festival.
Another spooky, but perceptive film is "Undertaker's Paradise" by director M.X. Oberg. The English/German production is a creepy little black comedy about a young German boy (Thomas Schmauser) who wishes to start up his own undertaking business in Wales. Meanwhile he meets an arthritic old American Jazz musician (played masterfully by Ben Gazzara) who decides to take him under his wing. The film is excellent, but may be hard to take for those mortified by the realties of death. This is Oberg's follow-up to his cult hit "Unter der Milchstrsse" ("Under the Milky Way").
Other audience favorites included: "The Uncles," by Canadian director Jim Allodi, Tony Gatlif's "Vengo," and Jehane Nojaim's documentary "Startup.com" -- about the dramatic rise and fall of Internet dot-com govWorks.com. Billy Wirth's "MacArthur Park" was all the rage and Lukas Moddyson's film "Together" earned The Taos Land Grant Award and five acres outside Taos.
There was a little buzz around Randy Redroad's film "The Doe Boy" a few months ago at Sundance. But after collecting the Perrier "Bubbling Under" award at Taos for first-time feature filmmakers, Redroad shouldn't have too many problems garnering more support. The film, about a mixed-blood Indian with hemophilia, examines Native American stereotypes and identity. Like "Smoke Signals," Redroad manages to bring real Indian characters to the screen. The script is well crafted and James Duval's performance as Hunter, the oddball Native kid, is out of this world. Redroad will soon compete with four other first-time directors for the grand prize of $50,000, which will go towards a new film project.
Many of the shorts programs at Taos were impressively curated. Matt McCormick's tongue-in-cheek "The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal" is hilarious. Alex Rivera's "Las Papas del Papa" ("The Popes Potatoes") cleverly examines the marketing value of the Pope in Mexico City. The Spanish film "Dedos" ("Fingers"), by Beatriz Anton and Felix Pinvela, is an entertaining work about the day in the life of performance fingers, and Vikki Blanche won the festival's George Melies Award for her short "The Other Days of Ruby Rae."
The festival neared its end at the Awards Gala Saturday night held at the swanky Taos Country Club. It was there that Dame Elizabeth Taylor took to the stage (impressively the second time in one weekend) in order to receive the Maverick Award. People gathered around her as she sat with her dog and made jokes about her numerous ex-husbands. It was a sight to see a film legend of her stature interact so intimately with an audience. But then, that is what Taos Talking Pictures sets out to do: bridge the gap between filmmakers and film lovers and create an authentic media dialogue.
[Karla Esquivel is a Seattle-based writer who was mugged after the awards ceremony, but does not harbor any bad feelings towards the festival.]