[Editor's note: This article was originally published in indieWIRE's sister publication, SF360.]
It's difficult to put a finger on the precise difference, but if there was one thing I could say for sure other of the world's film festivals have that San Jose's Cinequest lacks, it's this: Posers. Here, just about anyone wearing black who looks like they've recently crawled out from under a nightclub is almost certainly a visiting filmmaker. These are locals, and unlike, say, Sundance, this event's audience is (festival guests aside) entirely grassroots. In my 14 years of attending Cinequest, the festival has gotten bigger, but in essential feel hasn't really changed at all.
These San Joseans are an unpretentious bunch: They'll go to anything in the program that sounds interesting (and it all seems to be so). They will be appreciative, not least of the fact that somebody present actually managed to make a movie. (One tends to forget that this really is impressive, always, even when the movie itself is not.) They will never, ever hiss. Even if they hate something and leave early, they do not colorfully storm out of the room; nor do they stay in order to ask angry accusatory questions. (The only person I noticed doing that last weekend was...er, me. See "Sublime," below.) Maybe "posers" is too harsh a word. Perhaps the main thing they are not is jaded.
Many other things about Cinequest are pleasant. This year the theatres, seldom far apart, covered an expanse of less than two and one-half blocks--just TRY to get winded "running" from one screening to another. Afraid of not getting a seat? You worry too much. The occasional big-name event or other exception aside, nearly all shows are moderately (not sparsely, but nowhere near waiting-list-full) attended, with stadium seating and nobody saving ten seats for their friends who might or might not show up. Nearby eating options are perfectly decent if you're not a big snob about such things. They tell me parking is easier (more validations, free hours, etc.) this year, but somehow I doubt it was all that hard before. Yep, this festival is user-friendly with a capital You.
Other plusses include the now-annual lineup of "Filmmaking and Technology" forums aimed mostly at helping attending filmmakers (or just aspiring ones) negotiate the minefields of production, financing, distribution, marketing, etc. Then there are the big names accepting "Maverick" awards, this year including actress Minnie Driver, veteran indie producer Christine Vachon, ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland (who made a bad documentary about them, "Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out"), and J.J. Abrams. The latter, creator of TV series "Lost" and "Alias," was the only one whose chat I caught last weekend. He came off disarmingly as a fanboy who still can't quite believe he's become an industry himself (within The Industry). It was interesting to hear just how rushed the conception and launch of "Lost" was, though his gush about how ueber down-to-earth Tom Cruise is (Abrams directed "Mission Impossible 3") sounded like a press release.
Yet I confess to mixed feelings about Cinequest. Pretty much the same one experienced since my first year there, 1994, when something called "Pterodactyl Woman from Beverly Hills" first induced a feeling I will dub "What the &#$% is this doing in a film festival?" (I know, "PWFBH" is a great title-but that and even Beverly d'Angelo doing her estimable best to be funny can't float 90 minutes all by themselves.) This response has duly occurred elsewhere, but nowhere nearly as often as at Cinequest. This year, I kinda realized what was at fault: My expectations. Cinequest 17 is being billed as "a revolution of discovery and empowerment." The discovery is of world premieres, more than other general interest festivals outside the big guns (Cannes, Toronto, etc.) program. The empowerment is of their makers, largely first-timers, largely American independents, largely youthful. Which makes it sound a lot like Sundance, eh? Except: Sundance is a cut-throat meritocracy. Cinequest is more like a democracy. It seems you can make the cut just for finishing; excelling is not a requirement.
Other general-interest regional festivals (as opposed to specialized thematic ones--GLBT, or Latino, or fantasy-horror) tend to cherry-pick the best of foreign and U.S. features already seen at other fests. After all, these movies are still going to be new to their audience (and most won't see theatrical distribution here), so why not? Premieres are less of a priority because these festivals are seldom going to get the scoop on a great hidden gem (though it does happen). Programmers are out there scoping too restlessly for such finds, and the most prestigious event bidder will win premiere rights.
Cinequest, on the other hand, programs world and North American premieres by the bulk. Sure, it also shows titles theoretically devalued in premiere wattage--in other words, they've been around a bit. But these usually aren't the movies you've heard raves about at recent A-list festivals. Instead, they're OK-to-occasionally-very-good films one might have easily missed elsewhere even if you travel the fest circuit. Then there are all the world premieres, on which Cinequest has largely built its reputation as a "discovery" festival. (I'm not gonna get into their use of the word "maverick," which is a good marketing tool, but can seem awfully indiscriminate in its applications at times.) This year's Cinequest had 21 world premiere features, comprising nearly one-third of its feature slate--and probably two-thirds of what I saw at Cinequest as a reviewer for a certain L.A.-based trade publication.
In four days encompassing the festival's first weekend this year, I saw 15 films. As at many festivals, the strongest category in general was documentary. All four nonfiction features I caught were competent investigations of fascinating subjects: Melody Gilbert's "Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness" (about the subculture of folks who "trespass" to explore abandoned buildings, old drainage tunnels, etc.), Cullen Hoback's "Monster Camp" (costumed live-action role-playing gamers), John McDonald's "Ghost Mountain Experiment" (the "first hippie family" who attempted a utopian desert existence in the 1930s) and Cristina Khuly's "Shoot Down" (analyzing how Cuban fighter planes came to fire at two U.S. civilian aircraft in 1996, killing four).
Amongst narratives, the two non-U.S. titles seen were particularly good. Liu Jie's "Courthouse on the Horseback" offers a side of China rarely glimpsed as its main characters travel on foot to the most remote mountain villages, their visits providing locals with an al fresco government legal forum for settling disputes (which are most often about livestock). Based on a true story, Suzie Halewood's English "Bigga Than Ben" is a disarming, eventually poignant tale of two young Moscow "hooligans" who come to London in order to make some easy bucks in a check-cashing scam. But nothing turns out to be as easy as expected, and soon the would-be ripoff artists are in way over their heads.
Amerindies are the bread-and-butter of Cinequest's program, particularly amongst its premieres--and here is where the programming quality control can most often seem to be on hiatus. Introducing his first feature "A Dog's Breakfast" (actually one of the better U.S. features here), "Stargate" actor turned writer-director-star David Hewlett urged everyone to go out and make a movie, saying that with today's evolving distribution channels and cheaper digital formats it's easier than ever. "The thing that holds you back is thinking it has to be brilliant," he said, shrugging "You do your best, but..."
"But" indeed. There are many legitimate reasons to make a movie--among them personal fulfillment, career-launching, and hopes for monetary gain--yet why actually watch it, let alone program it in a film festival, if it's not at least trying to be "brilliant?" If it's just trying to be a low-end cable or direct-to-DVD genre movie, or a misguided personal vanity project? Every year a certain number of Cinequest premieres strike one as the tree-that-fell-in-a-forest: No one would hear them if they weren't shown here, and it wouldn't be much of a loss.
Among the world-premiere titles I caught this year that might better have stayed unpremiered were "Dimension," a tortuous drama about sad Chicago lives that comments on them with endless onscreen text ("Chance is struggling. Monty is struggling. We are all struggling."). Michael Moriarty can be a wonderfully eccentric actor, but "Hitler Meets Christ"--in which two mental patients who think they're the titular figures wander around yakking ponderous "philosophical" dialogue--is the worst kind of insular actor wankage, needlessly adapted from his own stage play. Would-be sexy omnibus "The Trouble With Romance" is like something you'd see late night on the Spice Channel, except the well-toned actors keep their undies on. (So what's the point?).
Scheduled for DVD release by Warner Home Video next month, slick but tedious horror film "Sublime" was an attempted hallucinogenic hospital nightmare. Its failings would have been forgivable if not for the jaw-droppingly offensive character of "Mandingo" (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs of "Welcome Back Kotter"!), a sadistic black male nurse who chops off our bedridden yuppie hero's digits while delivering a monologue so racially inflammatory it defies belief. This is presumably intended as a commentary on racist paranoia. But due to the filmmakers' naivete or ineptitude, it comes off as a grotesquely pure expression of the same.
Other Amerindies seen were just mediocre, but fortunately a couple exceptions brightened things up, both modest but lively black comedies. There was the previously mentioned "Dog's Breakfast," about a peculiar man (Hewlett) who has a possessively negative, murderous response when introduced to his sister's fiancee. Then there was the Atlanta-shot shoestring horror comedy "Blood Car," another one-joke enterprise, but a good one. Set in a near future where petrol costs $32 per gallon, its highly P.C. vegan kindergarten-teacher hero (Mike Brune) invents a new fuel that requires human blood--and the freaky nymphomaniac girl he likes will only put out when he can drive her around. Much mayhem ensues. This movie runs out of, ahem, gas after a while, but it's good tasteless fun getting there.
The phrase "You pays your money, you takes your chances" could be applied to any film festival. But it's especially relevant at Cinequest, where the good, the bad and the (digitally-shot) ugly often seem to be on equal footing. Here, you can expect the unexpected: Meaning sometimes your investment will be amply rewarded, and sometimes you will less happily end up one of the few viewers a particular film will ever get-deservedly. It is a credit to the festival's loyal, polite, anti-edgy audience that they almost always find something nice to say to the director in the post-screening Q&A. They'll surely ascend to Heaven before moi. I'll still be stewing in Purgatory, bitching about the precious Earth time I surrendered to "Hitler Meets Christ" and "Sublime."