Striding through the medieval market square in Kraków's Old Town, drops of light evening rain flying off his clear plastic poncho, Bobcat Goldthwait was enjoying one of the last festival moments for his new movie "Willow Creek." Although the found-footage horror-comedy opens in the United States June 6, and has spent a year on the festival circuit, the filmmaker was happy that there was still fresh territory to conquer.
Namely, Krakow's indie-minded Off Plus Camera festival, where Goldthwait had just shown the movie to an audience of Polish fans floating on a boat in the Vistula River. "It was really good because there could be no walk-outs," he said, "and it was perfect for the movie, because it was windy and cold and the movie is set outdoors. A lot with a Bigfoot movie gets lost though. Some of these people think I made up Bigfoot."
The comic-turned-director had a lot of company at the seventh annual festival, beyond celebrity guests such as Parker Posey, Joan Allen and Kim Cattrall. Off Plus Camera includes roughly two dozen American films in a roster of about 120 titles. Often because of a lack of Polish or wider European distribution, films that already are on DVD in the U.S. – such as Andrew Dosunmu’s "Mother of George" or the Oscar-winning “Twenty Feet from Stardom” – are a rare commodity here outside of festival screenings.
In many ways, Off Plus Camera acts as a kind of Eastern European answer to the collegial micro-budgeteer spirit of the Maryland Film Festival (which also concluded Sunday) or a best-of survey of the Next section at the Sundance Film Festival, which makes sense as Trevor Groth, Sundance’s director of programming, and fellow programmer Mike Plante, advise artistic director Ania Trzebiatowska on those selections. But the festival also embraces more nakedly eccentric fare, showing affection for filmmakers whose work has been rejected by other festivals – even Off Plus Camera.
"I was thrown to the floor, but this year they took me," said Nathan Silver, whose Crown Heights psychodrama "Soft in the Head" played Krakow, three weeks after its U.S. theatrical debut and a year after it was first considered for the festival. He noted that his conversations with the festival never really stopped until he got an invitation to attend this year's edition.
"I want to show those films that audiences won't have a chance to see somewhere else," said Trzebiatowska, who also is less concerned with premiere status for her foreign titles, which may benefit in audience enthusiasm because Poland lags behind on access to digital delivery platforms. "VOD is still an issue. People don't use it as much. We don’t have Netflix, which is huge."
Beyond the grace note of validation far beyond the familiar domestic circuit, this unexpected bonus round can prove to be an emotional journey for filmmakers who thought they were done with their project and are busy on the next one. "We screened on [the] boat and I introduced it for what is probably the last time," said Chad Hartigan, the writer-director of 2013 Sundance audience prize-winner "This Is Martin Bonner," which also was shown on the river, "and then I got off the boat and literally watched the movie sail off into the sunset. I took a picture, and now I feel pretty OK with leaving that movie behind."
American filmmakers also represent their culture at festivals such as this one, which can offer fresh interpretations of their concepts. Although Kraków is a university town and cultural center with young, highly educated audiences, there are still specific aspects in U.S. indies that are lost in translation, while the larger point comes through loud and clear.
"For them, it was more like, 'Does this really exist in New York?'" said Dosunmu, whose drama is set amid the West African community in Crown Heights – far from the hipster Brooklyn of "Girls" (whose first season also screened at the festival in an HBO sidebar). "Yes! That's what's so beautiful about some place like New York, it's a metropolis. It was quite fascinating [to them] that this exists in New York. For the first 10 minutes, they think they’re somewhere else. They actually think they’re on the continent of Africa. As a filmmaker, I’m curious to show people these multi-facets of New York that’s not often aren’t seen in cinema."
Shaka King, whose keenly detailed marijuana comedy "Newlyweeds" is set in his native Bedford-Stuyvesant, wasn't sure his audiences caught onto all the cultural nuances of his film but "there's a storyline that people connect to and ultimately they get the movie. I was surprised to get laughs in certain places that we did, but there's certain situations, like kids getting high – human folly – and they can connect to that cross-culturally."
The exposure can be crucial, as "Newlyweeds" has no European distribution at the moment.
Even a project as surreal as Calvin Reeder’s nightmarish fable "The Rambler" can find its frame of reference. Although post-screening debates about the film's use of violence arose, which seemed to amuse the filmmaker, every show was sold out. "That was a first for me for a while," he said. "People told me it was an anti-Western. It is exotic. A lot of indie stuff is set in New York, so a lot of wide open space is something they don’t get to see all the time."
Anja Marquardt's “She’s Lost Control” is one of those New York indies, set mostly inside apartments where the film's protagonist, a sex surrogate (or surrogate partner) played by Brooke Bloom, lives and practices her profession, which leads her to a complex and dangerous relationship with one of her clients (Marc Menchaca) when important boundaries are crossed. The filmmaker, originally from Berlin, was alert to more than the usual cultural tensions because of her subject matter.
"Looking around here in Kraków, the middle class is very strong and they're also Catholic, they're fairly conservative in some ways,” said Marquardt, whose film is still early in its festival run, having bowed in Berlin and played South by Southwest and New Directors/New Films, among other places. "Prostitution, quote unquote, is not quite there where it's called sex work, but at the same time at the [public square] here you have the little umbrella ladies from Ukraine who are luring the British tourists into strip clubs. It’s an interesting dichotomy between being very conservative and the oldest profession in the world being very much active."
That dichotomy had Marquardt anticipating her screenings with more than usual curiosity. "People were able to look at the movie without having any moral judgment about it, which is always what I'm hoping to create," she continued. "They look at it in a sense that has more to do with modern anxiety and the difficulty of connecting to one another. That's a global thing."