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April 28, 1998 2:00 AM
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Taos Talks Strong Docs, "Smoke Signals" Receives 5 Acres

Taos Talks Strong Docs, "Smoke Signals" Receives 5 Acres

by Jeff Winograd




Some 1,300 years ago, drought forced the Anasazi Indians to leave their
nomadic homeland in the Grand Canyon area, so they wandered east and
organized permanent homes along the Rio Grande. One such "pueblo", as
they were called, was founded in what is presently Taos, New Mexico.
Traditionally a meeting ground, this Pueblo has been occupied
consistently for over 900 years. It is the deeply resonant spirit and
magic of this place that drives the Taos Talking Picture Festival.
While founding director of Taos Talking Pictures, Josh Bryant expected
this artistic community to embrace the festival, he could not have
anticipated to what extent it would involve itself.


This community revealed its deep respect for films and filmmakers
during the Q & A sessions following each screening. The audience
participated with interesting comments, and their probing questions
often lead to in-depth conversations that were cut short only by the
need to keep the festival on schedule. This level of participation
lends itself perfectly to the festival's focus on media literacy and key
issues. The festival also concentrated on film workshops about writing and
directing.


The films themselves represented a wide variety of approaches and
subject matter. Director of Programming, Kelly Clement, did an
excellent job of building a program filled with soulful and spiritual
films. Not bowing to pressure to show only the hottest new films,
Clement and his two key staff members, Jason Silverman and Dan Marano,
have managed to create a festival with this thread of spirituality.
Clement made it clear that Josh Bryant had made a distinct choice in
naming the festival "Talking Pictures" rather than simply "Film
Festival." The broader, more diverse implications of the name leaves
room to work with other formats and to stress the importance of talking
about these media pieces. An unfortunate consequence of this approach
is that what was gained in thematic thread was sometimes lost in
quality.


"Windhorse," the new film by Academy Award-winning director Paul Wagner,
offers us a look at the profoundly disturbing treatment of Tibetans at
the hand of their Chinese oppressors. The message of this production is
powerful, but its low-quality video and mediocre talent leave it well
short of what can be called a great film. Yet it is hard to fault
Wagner for his format choice. Wagner needed to work around the strict
limits enforced by the Chinese and felt that footage from Tibet was a
necessity in this film. Another narrative piece, Spanish film "La Buena
Estrella," (The Good Star) was far more convincing as a piece of art.
Powerful characters helped this story that was well constructed, but at
times a bit predictable.


The festival's approach to picking films shined in the arena of
documentaries. A few of the stand-outs included "Sam Shephard :
Stalking Himself" and a wonderfully resonant film by Lutz Leonhardt,
"Zakir and His Friends." Nicholas Barker's "Unmade Beds" blurred the
line between documentary film and its fictional counterpart. The
intriguing characters and their lives were interesting as the film got
started, but fizzled as time dragged on. "Punching the Clown" also made
a valiant attempt at clouding the lines between the real and the
surreal. Using the life of singer/songwriter Henry Phillips as its
basis, "Punching the Clown" attempts to give story to the songs that
Henry sings. Although the songs are humorous, the stories didn't always
work in this context. "Punching the Clown" was preceded by one of the
festival's hidden gems, "Wayne Freedman's Notebook." This short film by
Aaron Lubarsky is a warm look at television investigator, Wayne
Freedman.


The Taos Talking Picture Festival gives out several awards throughout
the weekend, but clearly the treasure of this festival is the Land Grant
Award. Given to a film that is considered "innovative," the award
includes five acres of land for the winner. Jeff Jackson, whose Taos
Land and Film Company administers this award, noted they hoped to
"build a community of film makers." This year, the award was given
to Sundance audience favorite, "Smoke Signals." On accepting, director
Chris Eyre smiled and said simply, "My mother never taught me how to
accept five acres of land."


Showing great spirit and soul, many of the pretensions felt at other
festivals were hard to find in Taos. Even as this festival grew
astronomically (nearly 1,400 submissions in only its fourth year), the
festival staff stayed true to what they believe in. Programmer Jason
Silverman said, "It is the small choices that help keep the festival
small." While Taos Talking Pictures could strive to be one of the prominent
venues for independent fil, their dedication to the filmmaker, to media literacy,
and to their community, has remained more important. Given the choice of
flying a distributor out or a filmmaker, Kelly Clement says he
chooses the filmmaker. "Media is more than just entertainment," said
Founding director Josh Bryant. With Bryant's understanding of the power
of media (not just as fluff, but as tool for change), Taos Talking
Pictures will evidently remain on the right track.

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