Nothing may be quite as rattling for a filmmaker as standing in front of a theater full of strangers at 10 a.m. to show their movie for the first time.
Perhaps it’s even worse when the effort isn’t quite complete, but the focus of a “work-in-progress” screening, thousands of miles from home and for an audience of European festival programmers and sales agents, critics and a handful of fellow writers, producers and directors. If everything flops, at least, they probably won’t hear about it in Peoria.
Luckily for the participants in the recent “U.S. in Progress” program at the American Film Festival in Wroclaw, Poland, there wasn’t cause for too much sweat.
An Exclusive Arena
Over the past four years, the curators of the invite-only event have established a solid track record for identifying rising stars of the American independent film scene. Recent editions have hosted Amy Seimetz (“Sun Don’t Shine”), Matt Porterfield (“I Used To Be Darker”) and Daniel Carbone (“Hide Your Smiling Faces”), among many other festival stalwarts, who often return to the following year to show their finished film in the festival proper, which this year marked the fifth anniversary of its all-American programming. (Imagine the Maryland Film Festival or BAMcinemaFest on steroids.) The selection process tends to guarantee that the final six films are going to be pretty decent, and the environment is largely supportive.
“You’re so nervous in general, you’re the only one who thinks your film is good,” said Robert Machoian, co-director of “God Bless the Child” with Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck. “But right off the bat, being there tells you that you’ve got something that’s good.” The film, which follows the anarchic day-in-the-life of a family of children abandoned by their mother, uses a verite-style camera and non-professional child actors (Machoian’s own) to immersive effect. Though scripted, the haywire energy of the kids creates a spontaneous vibe that feels like a documentary, even though you know better.
As Ojeda-Beck explained, the story began with Machoian’s father, whose mother once did the same thing, leaving behind a note instructing him to take care of his siblings. “It was a fun process to work with an idea that affected Robert’s dad and try to bring it to the screen through his children,” he said.
The film won a pair of the multiple awards given through the program, which include promotion through European distributors, and sound design, color correction, soundtrack composition and other services through Polish studios and production houses. But Machoian and Ojeda-Beck also found value in the expanded social network the festival affords. “The panel ends and everyone goes to the bar,” said Ojeda-Beck, “and then you can take those conversations further.”
Other “U.S. in Progress” titles included genre fare (Fidel Ruiz Healy and Tyler Walker’s life-during-wartime saga “The Homefront”) and slow-burning psychological thrillers (Matt Sobel’s “Take Me to the River,” which stars Robin Weigert in a family holiday reunion with a queasy sexual undertow), as well as quest-driven narratives set in far-flung locales (Thailand in Malcolm Murray’s “Pangea”; Ghana in Kelly Daniela Norris’s “Nakom”).
American filmmakers have long been able to take advantage of market-oriented events like the Independent Filmmaker Project’s Independent Film Week, but the Wroclaw program – organized with New York-based Black Rabbit Films and the Champs-Elysses Film Festival in Paris – expands the territory. “For independent pictures that may not have certain genre elements or cast deemed significant from an international distribution perspective, building relationships and awareness for a film before it’s finished is increasingly important to be able to compete in the crowded indie film arena,” said Steve Holmgren, a producer of “I Used To Be Darker,” which in 2012 won an award that reimbursed European distributors of the film for their print and advertising costs.
The outlier of the batch was Nathan Silver’s “Stinking Heaven,” an ensemble drama staged in an indistinct time period (likely the 1990s) amid the members of a drug-recovery house in suburban New Jersey. The cast, which includes Keith Poulson, Hannah Gross, Deragh Campbell and Eleonore Hendricks, likewise resided in the house during the shoot, crashing in bunk beds and sharing group meals. In the film’s cult-like setting, the actors play motley former drug addicts who engage in role play and emotionally volatile reenactment therapy. The narrative, with its layers of improvisation and use of extreme close-ups and disorienting angles, is given stranger texture through Silver’s use of the Ikegami HL-79E, a vintage professional video camera once used for television news.
“A movie like this is going to have a tough time with sales agents,” said Silver, whose “Uncertain Terms” – another halfway-house psychodrama, set in a home for pregnant, unwed teen girls – played in the public festival. “It’s shot in analog video in 4:3, and it’s extremely abrasive. The issue is when you are getting notes from sales agents, they are going to tell you it’s a hard sell, and we went in knowing that.”
The filmmaker said he was gratified by feedback from other filmmakers and programmers, who were responsive to the movie’s unusual visual palette, characterized by unpredictable washes of color that are a byproduct of the now-arcane cameras. (The Pablo Larrain film “No” boasted similar effects).
The risks didn’t score Silver any awards, but it is the kind of ambition that the AFF celebrates, according to the festival’s artistic director Ula Sniegowska, who offered thoughts on what makes such films appealing to Polish audiences. “I think it lies in a perfect mix or bridging the gap between the storytelling mastery typical of American moviemaking and author-centered European filmmaking,” she said, citing filmmakers like Mike Ott (“Lake Los Angeles”), Nathan Silver or Joel Potrykus (“Buzzard”), who “follow their weird concepts and tell personally motivated stories.” For Sniegowska, these filmmakers represent a necessary alternative. “Their brave and fresh approach, that hopefully will never get embraced by Hollywood, resonates with European audiences like the French New Wave did in the United States of the 1960s,” she said.
Ever intrepid, Silver said he was already working on a new project. Despite strong doubts about seeing “Stinking Heaven” distributed in Europe, he had struck a spark with at least one sales agent. “I’m co-writing a script with them now,” he said.