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FESTIVALS | Going for the Maverick; Cinequest ‘Empowers’ 18th Edition

FESTIVALS | Going for the Maverick; Cinequest 'Empowers' 18th Edition

“Empowering The Maverick” announced the signs visible everywhere throughout the small pedestrian area in downtown San Jose, California, striking sentiment for a city less known for its rebellious spirit than its more popular older sister, San Francisco. Swarms of uniformly enthusiastic young filmmakers converged excitedly in the pedestrian area surrounding South First street, clearly feeling the empowerment as the 18th annual Cinequest Film Festival got underway last Friday. “We didn’t want to say ‘independent’ filmmaking,” explains festival director and co-founder Halfdan Hussey, a filmmaker who started the festival in 1990 with his directing partner Kathleen Powell. “We felt that ‘maverick’ described the spirit of the best of cinema and the best of technology and innovation, something that leads the way.”

“I’m not totally sure what a maverick is, but I suppose I am one,” says actor Michael Keaton, one of this year’s recipients of Cinequest’s Maverick Spirit Award, along with Danny Glover and screenwriters Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine“) and Bobby Moresco (“Million Dollar Baby“). “I really liked the title of this tribute, I respect that they’re saying, ‘we dig people who walk to their own beat.'”

As a self-proclaimed “discovery festival,” in which the majority of the films — for better or for worse — are either premieres or largely unknown even to festival circuit regulars, Cinequest digs a lot of unlikely people walking to a lot of improbable beats.

“The reason we made this movie is because every year there’s an unused category for the Academy Awards, because they don’t have enough films, and that’s Best Original Musical” explains actor/director Robert Peters of his film “Half Empty,” an offbeat musical about a pathologically chipper motivational speaker whose positive attitude thoroughly irritates every European he meets. “We improvised the whole thing in eight days, in three countries.”

“I’m a full-time Christian missionary to prostitutes on the streets, strippers and porn stars,” says ex-stripper Heather Veitch, the subject of Greg Day‘s documentary “Pussycat Preacher.” “I’ve had death threats, stalkers… not only do I have the religious fanatics trying to kill me, but the pimps are after me too.” The movie was one of three “Vuze Audience Favorites” playing at the festival, winners of an online competition; its success hinges largely on Ms. Veitch’s charisma. “The church thinks my breasts are too large to preach the gospel,” says Veitch, “but I think it’s OK to have big knockers and spread The Word at the same time.” Sounds like a maverick to me!

While it’s not the most dynamic city in Northern California, San Jose has given a lot to Cinequest over the years, as its location in the heart of Silicon Valley ensures the festival receives a bounty of good techie love.

Heather Veitch, the subject of Greg Day’s doc “Pussycat Preacher.” Photo by Charlie Olsky.

“Back when we were starting out, one of the best things we had to offer was hospitality,” explains Hussey’s brother, Cinequest’s publicity director Jens Michael Hussey. “San Jose’s a nice city, but it’s not really a tourist destination.”

“Everything began changing with the development of digital filmmaking technology,” says Halfdan. “Since then, we’ve been the showcase for a lot our sponsor’s technologies.” Cinequest became the first festival to utilize all-digital projection, thus freeing up low-budget directors from the requirement of making costly 35mm prints, and the first festival to use digital servers. When Panasonic released its DVX100 24p camera, the company sponsored the first 48-Hour Film Project at Cinequest, a competition wherein filmmakers could write, shoot and edit their films on the cameras in 48 hours; the competition has now gone national.

The festival’s most recent change has been the unveiling of its distribution label a year and a half ago. “We had seen so many great films premiere at film festivals, build audiences during the time of the festival, and grow,” says Halfdan. “But then they didn’t go anywhere after that.” Cinequest’s response was to create its own label for DVD and internet distribution, called “Film Festival Favorites.” comprising around 50 titles from Cinequest and other film festivals around the world. The titles are promoted through partner websites Vuze and Jaman.

The California Theater in San Jose. Photo by Charlie Olsky.

“These are really social networking sites, as much as they are distribution channels” says Powell. “Think Myspace meets Netflix… it allows people to really talk about the movies after they see them.”

This year’s festival has been seeing record attendance, and Jens predicts their attendance will exceed 80,000 (last year’s festival, for contrast, saw an attendance of 71,000). The films are as wide-ranging in both subject and quality as one might expect from a “discovery festival”; the further one strays from the glossy, crowd-pleasing Amerindies (“Sherman’s Way“, “The Village Barbershop“), the more the surprises the festival yields.

Two of the best films at the festival were made by local filmmakers. Alejandro Adams‘ “Around the Bay,” making its world premiere at Cinequest, is a true find — the quiet, beautifully realized story of a 20 year-old girl who moves into her estranged father’s house to help take care of his young son, only to be quickly overwhelmed by the child’s hyperactivity and her father’s emotional neediness. Every single moment of the story rings true, aided by uniformly excellent performances by the unknown cast, particularly Katherine Ceilo as the aimless young protagonist.

Kurt Kuenne‘s devastating documentary “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About his Father,” which premiered at Slamdance this year, is one of the most powerful, personal films I have seen in a long time. The story begins with the murder of Kuenne’s childhood friend Andrew Bagby by his unstable, much older ex-girlfriend Shirley Turner; proceeding through as many shocking twists as last year’s “Crazy Love,” it’s best viewed with as little prior knowledge as possible.

“Other Guy From Tenacious D” Kyle Gass and Cinequest PR director Jens Michael Hussey. Photo by Charlie Olsky.

Emily Ting and Helen Jen‘s documentary “Family Inc.” is another highly personal film, detailing Ting’s frustrations after giving up her filmmaking dreams to help her ungrateful father run a floundering toy company. Jeremy Konner‘s “D-Tour: A Tenacious Documentary,” which follows the band Tenacious D on its ‘victory tour’ after its film (“The Pick of Destiny”) unexpectedly flops at the box office, similarly understands the pathos of being second-fiddle. The heart of the film belongs to “other guy” Kyle Gass, who suffers the indignity of anonymity in the shadow of his famous co-bandmate Jack Black; his pathos is strong enough to affect even those of us who find Black hard to take.

Also premiering at Cinequest is Jim Comas Cole‘s “Three Preists,” an operatic western about two brothers feuding over the same woman whose striking gold-hued cinematography, dreamy tone and naturalistic performances (from Olivia Hussey, among others) keep the film engaging even as the story threatens to become overwrought. Argentinean director’s Esteban Sapir nearly-silent fantasia “The Aerial” is a wonder, the story of a city without voices, a singer without a face, and a child without eyes. The design in particular is stunning, and the film plays as if it were “The City of Lost Children” as directed by Guy Madden.

Cinequest continues through Sunday, with a day of forums for screenwriters, the world premiere of Charles Oliver‘s “Take” [March 9] starring former Maverick Spirit award recipient Minnie Driver, and the presentation of the Maverick awards. As far as the future of the festival is concerned, Halfdan says it’s anyone’s guess. “Part of remaining on the cutting edge,” he explains, “is never being exactly certain where you’re going.”

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