By Greg Cwik | Indiewire April 18, 2014 at 9:39AM
To some, the sun-drenched, tourist-magnet city of Maitland, Florida may seem like an odd place for an art-house movie theater and film festival. Disney World is right around the corner, so who wants to go sit in a dark room and watch a John Cassavettes film?
But, contrary to these misconception, Maitland does have a thriving movie-loving community: a thirsty, film-savvy coterie. The Enzian, the quirky single-screen theater in which the Florida Film Festival is rooted, and around which the local community has grown and thrived, acts as a sort of Mecca for Central Florida filmgoers. And this isn't a group of old people wearing flower-pattern shirts and flip flops with socks, to usurp another bias. A couple hundred people showed up at 11am to hear indie filmmaker Shawn Christensen talk about how he expanded his Oscar-winning short "Curfew," which played the Florida Film Festival in 2012, into a full-length feature, "Before I Disappear." ("I'm not a morning person," Christensen said, "So I applaud anyone who can wake before noon to come to a movie.")
Earlier in the week, Giancarlo Esposito gave an enlightening 90-minute talk following the still-relevant "Do the Right Thing," and later, on a warm, rainless Friday night, Susan Sarandon was in attendance for a showing of her Oscar-winning film "Dead Man Walking" followed by an interview. The line to see Sarandon snaked around the outside of the theater. People stood outside the doors for up to four hours waiting to catch a glimpse of the icon, who discussed, among other things, the tricky definition of "feminism" and her voiceover work for social activist documentaries. Earlier that day, Paul Sorvino showed up for his new film "Last I Heard," and the next day he was back for "Goodfellas," shown on glorious 35mm. Sorvino recited poetry, sang a bit of opera, and sought to "dispel notions that [he is] a slow-moving, lead-footed Mafioso." Notion dispelled, Paul.
Oh, and the Enzian's film-savvy faithful would like you to know that Disney World is 35 miles away. There are no Mickey Mouse ears in sight here.
The Enzian, established in 1985, is at once a familiar place for moviegoers, and an altogether different kind of entity: you'll find that all-enveloping darkness unique to movie theaters — the kind of darkness through which you can still make out the silhouettes of the backs of heads, and just barely see the butter gleaming on the mound of popcorn harbored in waxy paper bags, and watch the harmonious swirling of dust caught in the swath of light spilling out of the projection booth and washing over the screen in 24 frames of luminous chaos per second.
But you'll also find a selection of beer, from Miller to craft favorites Terrapin and local brew Swamp Head; you'll hear the feint clatter of silverware, and smell the distinct aroma of fried chicken, and sit in a thickly-cushioned seat with ample room on either side of you. They could easily fit another couple-hundred seats here, but then you wouldn't have the beer, the fried chicken, the thickly-cushioned seats with ample room. Someone accustomed to the dingy confines of tiny, sometimes squalid (but lovably squalid) New York art-houses may find it jarring sit in such absurd comfort while watching, say, Bergman's "The Silence."
There's a kind of tranquility to the whole endeavor, like catching a matinee on your off day. And the lack of journalists descending en masse upon the stars, trying desperately to grab a quick pic, or catch a headline-making quote, is a pleasant change. (More than one person, from Susan Sarandon to passersby having a drink after a screening with some of the filmmakers, made fleeting comments on the manipulative nature of journalists, sentiments echoed by the scary cult-leader in Ti West's "The Sacrament," which played at the Florida Film Festival this year.)
So, at a time when myriad film festivals offer myriad ways in which a film fan can consume myriad films of high quality, what purpose does the Florida Film Festival, which doesn’t offer many world premieres or that deluge of super stars and parties affixed to New York and LA, serve? Why does the Florida Film Festival exist?
Whereas the trek from screening to screening at big film festivals is circuitous and nerve-shredding, the Florida Film Festival feels like a long weekend, where you can recharge and relax while watching depressing art-house indies about suicidal drug addicts in Brooklyn. The FFF, which turns 30 next year, is an intimate affair, and its relatively small lineup means only two or three films overlap, so you don’t have to pick between six or eight films (everything in competition also plays twice).
The festival was birthed from the ashes of the one-and-done Orlando International Film Festival, which hinted at the possibilities for a central Florida film festival, and showed that there was in fact an audience for art-house movies in Mickey Mouse's big back yard. There were far fewer film festivals in 1992 than there are now, explained Siggy Tiedtke, chairman of the Enzian; like creative writing workshops, Tiedtke, artisan coffee shops, film festivals are proliferating like rabbits kept in confined spaces.
Tiedtke (or Siggy, as everyone calls her) waves her arms with enthusiasm, describing the roots of the Enzian's name: an enzian is a beautiful blue flower, found in the Alps—and, if one looks closely, is discernible among the more well-known edelweiss in "The Sound of Music." (An enzian is also a WWII-era surface-to-air anti-aircraft missile, but that’s just a coincidence.) Aptly, the Enzian is wreathed by beautiful foliage. The theater, which is "bursting at the seams" with programming, plans on adding two more screens, ideally in time for the festival's 30th anniversary next year, which would mean popular indies like "The Artist" and "Moonrise Kingdom," which played for about nine weeks each, could take up one screen while the other two screens would be dedicated to a revolving selection of less-popular films and cult favorites.
Variety's Scott Foundas, who first attended the FFF when he was a high school student in Tampa ("Those were the days when the gang who went on to make 'The Blair Witch Project' were still working on the festival staff," he said) and has acted as a juror for the short films program and as a guest curator for the festival, is a big enthusiast for smaller regional festivals.
"In a bigger city like New York, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco,” Foundas said, "you can be reasonably confident that the major indie and art-house films of the year will eventually come your way via a week at the local art-house or a one-off at the local film society or museum screening series. But if you're in Orlando or Nashville or St. Louis, the options are considerably more limited, and so the role of a festival like FFF becomes more crucial."
Programming Director Matthew Curtis has been at FFF since the beginning — originally as a member of the selection committee, before becoming full time in the summer of 1996. During the Reagan era he helped bring cult films like David Lynch's "Eraserhead," "The Grandmother" and the Coen brothers' "Blood Simple" to a new audience while working at Corinth in the early eighties, so he's no spring chicken in the independent film world. He thinks diversity — in subject matter, tone, origin, audience appeal — is integral to making a film festival good.
"We want to enlighten viewers," Curtis explained. "We're showing films from countries that don't get a lot of distribution down here."
Poland is represented by Pawl Pawlikowsiki's gorgeously bleak "Ida," shot in Bergman-approved 4:3, and Turkey by Can Evrenol's tar-black Satanic short "Baskin," which preceded Ti West's "The Sacrament." Australia’s Jennifer Kent offered her debut "The Babadook," a fairytale nightmare that's been heralded by horror fans.
Curtis, whose unabashed penchant for "dark, twisted" films warms the horror fan's heart, is especially proud of this year's selection of "insane" midnight films, which act as a (stomach-churning) alternate to the more family-friendly films.
Driving home the handmade quality to the lineup are whispers that Curtis doesn't use a computer for his work. He somehow makes use of a wall plastered in Post-It notes, rumor has it, to coordinate his endeavors. The staff lovingly refers to him as "completely analog."
As a relatively minute festival, the FFF at once competes and works in tandem with the many other festivals against which it goes up. The festival has congenial relationships with Sarasota (with which it overlaps), Tribeca (which starts before FFF's projector bulb has cooled on closing night), and Ashland Independent Film Festival, at which Shawn Christensen's debut feature "Before I Disappear" (screening at FFF, with Christensen in attendance), won Best Cinematography.
When Christensen's Oscar-winning short "Curfew" played the FFF two years ago, it ironically placed second in both the audience and jury's selections, though it spurred the most conversation of any film that year. The competition for shorts is intense, since the FFF, according to Christensen, is completely earnest in its treatment of short films, which are often designated “second-class citizens” by other festivals.
"You either get a good vibe from a festival," Christensen said, "or you get a bad one. It can be exhilarating or defeating. The shorts have a good audience here."
Unlike, say, Sundance — the monolithic festival at which filmmakers vie for the attention of potential distributors and backers — smaller gatherings like FFF offer a more intimate atmosphere, devoid of distribution pressures, which seems to lend itself well to short film programming. And FFF is now an Oscar-qualifying festival for narrative short films: if a short film wins the Grand Jury Award, it automatically qualifies for Oscar consideration. This year’s winner was "Aftermath," a dark, 20-minute tale of two brothers seeking refuge in a frigid, predatory new age.
So, to get back to our root question: Why does the Florida Film Festival exist? Why should a moviegoer go to this festival, and why should a filmmaker screen his or her film here, where there are no distributors, very few world premieres, and far more palm trees than there are movie screens?
It’s pretty simple, actually: It feels like a vacation. The staff and moviegoers are unequivocally friendly, the selection of films is good, the beer is good, and the theater is absurdly comfortable. It isn’t going to challenge its bigger brethren in terms of audience size or world premieres and prestige factors, but it doesn’t have to — it has its niche, and the dedicated followers.
"We're here because we love movies," said a volunteer driver who only gave his first name, Matt, as he gunned it through a yellow light in an attempt to get a certain journalist to an interview on time last weekend. It was a moment that encapsulated what's so great about a small festival like FFF: a volunteer adorned with a big smile and beaming sunglasses, driving around in a rented mini-van, talking about movies, pointing out the best Thai restaurants in town as they pass, determined to do his job — his non-paying job — with gusto and aplomb. Even when this certain journalist offered to walk the short distance from the Enzian to the Reagal, which lends two screen to the festival, the volunteer staff maintain with swift persistence, at 2:00 a.m., and say no, no, no, we’ll drive you: "We have to maintain our reputation for southern hospitality."