Real Films for Real People: 2005 L.A. Film Fest Chooses Diversity Over Monotony for 11th Consecutive Year
by Jonny Leahan
When people think about Los Angeles and the movie business, the first word that comes to mind might be "premiere" or "paparazzi," but it's almost never "diversity." Yet somehow, amid a sea of mega-budget pictures about evil aliens or friendly witches, the 2005 Los Angeles Film Festival has once again managed to offer up a summer slew of genuine films for moviegoers from all walks of life. Presented by Film Independent, or FIND (formerly IFP/LA), LAFF not only offered a slate of over 260 films from around the world, but also assembled an array of panels and special events packed into a ten-day festival, which ran from June 16-26.
Among these special programs were the Diversity Panel and the Diversity Expo, both presented by FIND's Project: Involve, a diversity mentorship and job placement program. The panel, entitled "Marketing Outside the Box," explored alternative ways of financing and marketing projects that are considered too "culturally specific" for the Hollywood machine. Instead, filmmakers are increasingly turning to grassroots methods, which were explored at length through discussions moderated by producer Stephanie Allain ("Hustle and Flow" and "Biker Boyz"). At the Diversity Expo, one of the festival's many free events, filmmakers were able to meet with over 40 film and entertainment organizations interested in networking with, or providing products and services to, filmmakers of color.
Another free event, dubbed "Family Day" was held at the Santa Monica Pier, and became a mini-festival unto itself. An entire day of entertainment was offered, from celebrity storytelling and a kiddie red carpet, to hip-hop classes and pony rides. There were even live local bands and magicians performing, not to mention face painting and a petting zoo. After sunset, the crowds settled in for the tenth anniversary screening of Chris Noonan's "Babe," always a family favorite.
For the grown-ups, the festival opened with "Down in the Valley," written and directed by David Jacobson, with an impressive cast featuring Edward Norton, David Morse, Evan Rachel Wood and Rory Culkin. The appropriately LA-centric film tells the story of Tobe (Wood) and Lonnie (Culkin), a brother and sister who live with their stepfather (Morse) at the edge of the San Fernando Valley. On a trip to the beach with some friends, Tobe meets a man at a gas station (Norton) who introduces himself as Harlan Fairfax Carruthers, a rancher who recently moved to town. Earning points for originality, "Down in the Valley" smartly invokes the style of an old western, juxtaposed with the harsh urban sprawl that is Los Angeles, creating a unique odyssey that certainly showcases the talents of its cast. In the end, however, many audience members were left bewildered, unsure of what they thought of the film until there was time to let it sink in. That always makes for stimulating conversation at the after party, held this year at the Hollywood Palladium, where there was plenty of great food and a seemingly endless supply of Absolut cocktails.
For those who prefer caffeine to cocktails, LAFF presented seven Coffee Talks, each focusing on a different aspect of the film business, allowing attendees to discuss their particular area of interest with industry professionals in an intimate setting. At the Screenwriters Coffee Talk, moderated by film and television writer Howard A. Rodman, a lively hour-long discussion served as a reality check for many of the budding movie scribes in attendance. Panelists Mark Norman ("Shakespeare in Love") and Michael Tolkin ("The Player") often gave responses that made it clear there was no formula for breaking into the business. Instead, they explained that it was up to each person's individual creativity to discover how they would bring their scripts from the humble page to the silver screen.
In one of the most creative screenplays in recent memory, Miranda July presented a preview of her giddy first feature "Me and You and Everyone We Know," reviewed earlier in indieWIRE, and currently in theaters thanks to IFC Films. July, already a well-known multimedia artist, has managed to condense her varied talents into the feature film format, giving birth to a surprisingly self-assured debut that pits her wild creativity against some beguiling storytelling, delivering a truly unique movie experience. An intimate after-party was held at a nearby restaurant, where July and other cast members mingled with guests into the wee hours, as generous bartenders kept the delicious wine flowing.
Among the standout documentaries was Rebecca Dreyfus' "Stolen," a fascinating exploration of largest art heist in modern history, still unsolved, in which two thieves disguised as Boston cops entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, making off with 13 priceless works of art. One of the more fascinating aspects of the documentary was the unexpected discovery of its most compelling character, art investigator Harold Smith, who is tragically disfigured due to skin cancer resulting from a military experiment, but remains full of enthusiasm and wit. "I guess that's what you hope happens in a documentary," Dreyfus told indieWIRE, "that you go about your business and you stumble upon something that changes the course of your film... We went to do an expert interview with Harold, and it turned out that he was kind of flabbergasted that we were doing this, because he had his own private obsession about what had happened to the Gardner art. So I think we opened the door to that, and once we met him he started calling us every day... it just kind of unfolded very naturally."
Another unexpected treat in "Stolen" is the beautiful camera work of legendary documentarian Albert Maysles ("Grey Gardens," "Salesman"), a mentor to Dreyfus who graciously agreed to help her shoot the film. "It was really cool," says Dreyfus, "and what was particularly cool about it was that I'd been getting a lot of feedback... because the main character in my film is physically disfigured, people have been saying to me the way he's photographed, which was a lot by Albert, is with so much love. He approaches his subject with so much love that even though this man is disfigured you wind up loving him."
Physical illnesses like cancer, although difficult to confront, are generally easy to understand - but mental illness can sometimes bring out the worst in people. In "Cheeks," one of the standout short films at LAFF, directors Tal Sharon and Daniel Barcelowsky explore the life of Joe Cheek, a folk musician and loving son of two paranoid schizophrenic fundamentalists. Constantly belittled by a father who blames him for everything, and lacking any support from his pathologically ill mother, Joe finds himself in a no-win situation. His only escape is to create music with the father who torments him on a daily basis.
"Our personal experience at LAFF was amazing," Sharon told indieWIRE. "The festival is doing a great job of promoting... and introducing its filmmakers to the industry and audience. It was key for us to showcase our film, which had an overwhelming response, and we were thrilled to discuss our new feature in development with new contacts - and who can forget the parties!"
Dreyfus agreed. "I was very surprised by how much this festival really seemed to be about the filmmakers," she said. "It is kind of surprising at how much thought they've given to what would be good for you as a filmmaker. They seem really focused on the festival becoming a place where you not only can show your film, but where you can meet people to help you make your next film. I'm really touched by the festival, and feel inspired by what I've experienced here. I'm leaving thinking to myself, 'I can't wait to make another film,' so I guess you couldn't ask for more than that."