Dynamic Docs and Scintillating Shorts: Mammoth Lakes Film Festival

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The second full day of programming at the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival brought two dynamic documentaries and a great group of shorts. The docs program is incredibly strong at MLFF this year, and both “What Lies Upstream,” an indictment of government handling of a massive chemical spill, and “Forever B,” a fascinating and appalling look at the fallout from a child molester are compelling projects.

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Shorts Block 2 brought a wide range of films including “Sadhu in Bombay,” an intimate rough and tumble portrait of a bitter Mumbai chauffeur, the pencil-drawing animated “Insect Bite,”  and “Oui Mais Non (Yes but No Thanks),” a French Canadian film about the relationship between a zany/crazy neighbor girl and a young wife which was strange, funny, and exhilarating. “Cold Shivers” gave the audience just that, as director Marius Myrmel deals with the fall out from an incestuous mother/son relationship. Abstract animation came to the fore with the projected animation visuals of “Chella Drive,” a reflection on a Southern California suburb; “The Sacred Mushroom Edition” amusingly details a conversation between two fallen angels about rock and roll. “Lucas Camry Alex” is a wild slice of life set in New Orleans that focuses on relationship problems and ends with an indelible image of a burning car in the Gulf of Mexico.  Michael Arcos, one of three directors on the sultry,  fascinating film says “Lucas was the actual guy who owned a car he wanted to destroy for insurance reasons…the project cost us $400 and a car. We shot with four different cameras. We made it for ourselves,” he says. New Orleans, which itself is a character in the film is “Like a junk Disneyworld, it has a pretty harsh underbelly. ” Arcos says he’s drawn to that slightly seamy side of life, and is now focusing on another short called “The Booth” which depicts private viewing booths in adult stores. “4:15 PM The End of the World” rounded out the shorts program in which a cynical deliveryman meets a hitchhiker who claims to be Jesus but may in fact be a murderer. Eerie and darkly comic, this is an assured and memorable work.

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Now to those docs: “What Lies Upstream”  is every inch the passion project of investigative filmmaker Cullen Hoback, who traveled to West Virginia to uncover the truth behind a massive chemical spill that left no doubt about the power of lobbyists and bureaucratic cover-ups all the way to the top levels of government. As much a suspense thriller as a documentary, Hoback’s exacting eye became tuned to two vast problems involving pollution today: “There is so much money influence, and then bureaucracy and careerism. The mentality in agencies like the EPA and the CDC is that in order to look like they’re doing their jobs, they don’t do their jobs at all. That’s the crux of it.” The West Virginia spill left 300,000 people without drinking water for months, and leads to a trail of corruption. “Every documentary filmmaker will say the same thing,” Hoback reports. “If you haven’t figured out the real meaning to your story, you just need to wait. What I found was that if you wait long enough, the money will find a way.  Without campaign reform, you can’t address lobbyist dollars and political appointments. There’s a lack of a firewall between politicians and science. It’s like a corrupt police department, and we need independent research and an auditing system.” Beautifully shot and masterfully told, this is a must-see film about the environmental perils – and the governmental ones – around us.

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“Forever ‘B'” presents the fascinating and deeply strange story of the Broberg family circa the 1970s. Mother, father and 12 year old daughter Jan fell under the sway of a charismatic pedophile – who had affairs with both parents and kidnapped Jan twice.  The film had its world premiere at MLFF. Director Skye Borgman notes “It’s a very messy story, and it was hard to get that sympathy in there for the parents, but we always came back to the truth and how it would guide us. The book that Jan and her mother eventually published had more crazy twists and turns in it than I presented in the film, but didn’t reveal all that we did. I’m not sure how we gained their trust – we sat and listened for eight hours. It took them forty years to get to the point where they were able to reveal what they did.” Borgman says the editing process was extremely difficult,  inter-cutting the horrifying and intense interviews with Jan, her sisters, and her parents with reenactments of events, audio tapes provided by the FBI, and family photographs. A jaw-dropping story, the film serves as a cautionary tale in the extreme.

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Another day of provocative, exciting programming at MLFF – and another reason to make the drive “into the woods” for films you won’t want to miss.

  • Genie Davis; Photos: Jack Burke

Mammoth Film Fest Does It ‘Strad Style’

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In case you haven’t yet heard of the truly terrific doc Strad Style, you will. The funny, sweet, suspenseful story of believe-it-or-not a self-taught violin maker is the perfect example of the eclectic programming and wonderful filmmaking you can spot at MLFF.

At what marks the first full day of films at the festival, we took in Shorts Block 1, the doc The Challenge, the aforementioned Strad Style, and the visually wild narrative film Space Detective. 

Shorts Block 1 included the fascinating, sinuous claymation of Adam, the spooky dystopian nightmare of Ape Sodom, and the visually beautiful abstract Serpentine, whose creator Bronwyn Maloney notes that “part of the aesthetic of the film came from technical limitations and just embracing them. It began as a narrative film, but I became less interested in that as I went along.” One of the short’s central images, a crocodile with arms and legs, comes from a metaphor she herself embraces as a symbol for self-identity and “feeling fierce.” More abstract cinema:  Fault Lines, an exploration of spatial forms, and Coacinae, the title of which refers to the name of the Roman goddess of the first sewer of modern civilization. This visually lush piece carried a somewhat narrative throughline connecting money and the sewer – the ultimate in filthy lucre. My Gay Sister is a lovely slice-of-life that is both a coming of age story and a tender look at a ten year old’s burgeoning sexuality. Director Lia Hltala shot in the north of Norway and did intimacy exercises with cast and small crew to create the realistic, intimate feel of the film.  “I cast the main character, the ten year old, through street casting. I found her outside a 7-11.” The film employed a great deal of improv; rainy weather kept the cast and crew close.  Boys offers an American coming of age tale. Director Eyal Resh presents a sensitive depiction of the friendship between two adolescent boys and their sexuality. Producer Stephanie O’Neil says their film’s crew also did a lot of work “to get them comfortable with each other. it was a lot about building a relationship with each other, a friendship. Our film was very scripted, but we let our actors riff on it, and we filmed everything they did.”

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The Challenge was a somewhat surprisingly verbiage free documentary filled with strikingly beautiful visuals and a lush score. A dreamy invocation of life in Quatar, the world’s richest nation, viewers see images of a Lamborghini, a gold motorcycle, falconry competition, and SUV races across red sand dunes.  Accompanying the feature length film was the short Hairat. Director Jessica Beshir used a mysterious poem to evoke the mood surrounding her depiction of a man who trains wild hyenas outside the walled city of Harar in Ethiopia.  “It was going to be part of a longer documentary,” Beshir attests, “but it became something eles entirely. I shot on two different nights, the farmer has a real relationship with the hyenas, they have a trust to enter the space he commands.”

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Strad Style is a brilliant piece of filmmaking by director Stefan Avalos, intimately portraying the life of violin maker Daniel Houck, who sets out to make a perfect copy of a famous violin for impressario Razvan Stoica, whom he met over the Internet. Houck, who lived on an isolated farm in Ohio,  had created other violins, but nothing like this. “I was making another documentary about violins,” director Avalos explains, “when I heard about this guy, that he was really crazy and obsessed, and I thought that might be a fun five minutes. But I met him, and even though I already had a lot of footage shot, I made the right decision to go in a completely different direction.” Houck adds,”He had no idea about me, he only saw a few YouTube videos, but I think it was not a coincidence that we formed a trust, that we made this film. It’s not a coincidence when things like this happen.” Since the film came out, there have been many changes in Houck’s life, which is no longer isolated on a remote property. “The house really was in the middle of nowhere, with bad electricity and no heat, it was like going on safari,” Avalos laughs. “It was just the crew of me, I shot it, lit it. It was fun, like going back to film school,  it wasn’t hard to make although there was a lot of stress, cold in winter, hot in the summer.” Avalos says the hardest part of making the story was that he’d shot 70 hours of film and his first cut was “3.5 hours, and it was good. It was painful to chop it.” Houck, who is also an artist and low-rider enthusiast as well as a master craftsman of famous replica violins, says the film, which won best doc at Slamdance earlier this year, was a “once in a lifetime experience. I’m not a filmmaker, it won’t happen again. I’m taking advantage of this. I love and appreciate the opportunity to be here – it gets me out of Ohio.”  Avalos will be showing the film in more festivals, and is currently looking at several distribution possibilities for a film that deserves to be widely seen. An accompanying short, Sleep with Me, is Summre Garber’s sweet portrait of a podcast creator who helps the sleepless find rest.

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Space Detective, the narrative feature we viewed today is zany and inventive, the story of an exiled Terran space detective replete with a femme fatale and space goons galore. Writer and star Matt Sjafiroeddin  says the film took “about a decade” to make with director Antionio Llapur. “We started as a short, and suddenly we thought we had a feature.” The sci fi film which employs live action imagery in surreal fantasy style and uses a palette of vibrant colors as well as black and white, is an homage to everything from Las Vegas – where the filmmakers are from – to Star Trek, yet wholly original.

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Still haven’t made it to Mammoth? It might be time to “head for the hills” and see what’s next at this always surprising, always interesting fest.

  • Genie Davis; Photos: Jack Burke

Tommy Chong Lights Up Mammoth Lakes Film Festival

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The Mammoth Lakes Film Festival opened its third year going Up in Smoke. 

Festival director Shira Dubrovner and programming director Paul Sbrizzi opened the festival with a screening of the first Cheech and Chong movie – seminal in its presentation of Chicano culture and cannabis culture – along with a lively q&a with Tommy Chong.

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The film itself is madcap, silly, perfectly timed fun. Chong’s interview laid it all on the line.

“I was going to write a film called Jack and the Weedstalk,” Chong laughs. “But when we started writing we wanted to show marijuana culture. We also realized we had a great immigration story. ”

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Chong, who spent 9 months in jail in 2003 for selling bongs, aptly describes the demonization of cannabis by politics, the racist nature of depicting cannabis users as crazed killers, and introducing what was then a “Mexican slang word” – marijuana – to the cultural lexicon.  With Up in Smoke, the comedy duo presented cannabis culture with inspired improv Robert Altman-style, and worked to change the negative perspective.

“We shot all over Pacific Coast Highway, all over LA. It was just fun making a movie and getting high – the catering was great, if something broke it’s ok, there’s no violence – we let the actors figure out much of their own dialog.”

The duo’s laconic style clashed with the film’s original director Floyd Mutrix, who was replaced by Lou Adler. Chong himself is uncredited as a co-director, re-shooting the film’s hilarious ending scenes after a disastrous rough cut screening for Paramount execs – in which  the film ended with the action portrayed as “just a dream.”

Chong viewed the film as “like one of our stage shows – but we would also shoot the rehearsal.”

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He notes “Sometimes the first thing you’d say would be the best…actors say dying on screen is easy and comedy is hard because you can’t rehearse spontaneity which is often where the comedy comes up.”

Working with Adler, Chong would add elements to the script, stories the other actors would tell.

“Cheech would tell me stuff he did as a kid like peeing in hamper by mistake and I would say let’s put it in – actress Zane Buzby who plays Jade East,  she told us about this routine her roommate would do, and we put in the fake sex scene in the van based on her story.”

As a director, Chong followed the advice of auteur Terrence Malik: “Its your vision – you direct it.”

Chong says Smoke is still his favorite Cheech and Chong movie
“because it really started the whole Chicano humor movement. Cheech was one of a kind and still is.”

The duo will soon be releasing a documentary created by Chong’s daughter, and continue to perform live on stage.

“We’ve been trying to do another movie since ’03 but some things – those are one of a kind – it only happens once when you’re young. I’d rather live on screen like this – you never get old. You’re always 20.”

He offers this advice for the young:
“Love what you’re doing – if you don’t love what you’re doing, quit doing it whether it’s film making or sweeping sidewalks. It’s all about love.”

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Love is certainly part of the reason for the continued success of MLFF – with intimate discussions like these and a wide range of films ahead this week.

  • Genie Davis; photos: Jack Burke

Skate God – New Super Hero Hojo Shin

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Self-described “Third Culture Kid” Hojo Shin is soon to be a Skate God. The globe-trotting actress, who grew up in South Korea, Italy, Thailand, Singapore, and Israel is poised to hit the American big screen. She started acting as early as second grade, as a way for Shin to cope with all the transitions in her life – and being the new kid in school.

“My background eventually taught me to quickly adapt and for me, the best tool to do that was acting. In every new school, I  always found myself involved in drama classes and productions because that was a way for me to find my identity in new circumstances. My first school play was Jack and the Beanstalk,” she laughs.

“Acting was a part of my childhood growth and played a big part in the journey of my identity – in fact, I am still now constantly learning. Acting teaches you about human beings and our world, and that to me sounded like a fun career.” In high school, Shin says she fell more deeply in love with acting and never looked back. Fluent in Korean, French, and English, that passion led her to the University of Michigan’s prestigious acting program, and the rest is history.

So far, one of her most memorable projects was starring in the short film Still, which played the Cinetopia International Film Festival. “It was a silent noir film with just four actors, who through their emotional portrayal of specific memories allow viewers to experience their own emotional memories,” she relates. The unscripted production was intense and exploratory, with Shin working one-on-one with her director Layne Simescu, creating memory monologues.  

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Skate God, currently in pre-production, depicts a skateboarder who discovers he has super powers – and must fight those who want to use his power for evil. “My character fits somewhere between those two extremes, I guess you’ll have to wait to see just where,” Shin says. The story is set in a dystopian future, and riffs on Greek gods, shamans, and political power struggles all at once. The actress is excited to work with director Alexander Garcia, who is something of a skate god himself, and was inducted into the Freestyle Skateboarding Hall of Fame. The film will be distributed by Lionsgate.

Shin continues her super power performances with a role on the upcoming Hulu Originals series from Marvel, Runaways.  “That project is about kids who discover they have super powers, and their parents extort those powers for evil. But the kids attempt to do just the opposite.”

How does Shin feel about creating two super-power performances? “Excited,” she says simply, asserting that both projects “are a lot of fun” both for herself as a performer and for the audience.

Her breakthrough film, the drama All at Once, made the rounds at the recent, well-regarded Traverse City Film Festival in Michigan. The character of Ella was a challenging one, requiring a different kind of superpower for the actress to encompass the dark role. “She has two different identities – one when she’s in front of others, and one when she ‘s alone. She’s a very complicated, layered character. ”

Preparation for the role was intense, she reports. “I had to go to these deep dark places both in the preparation and setting. I was drawn to Ella because she shows us the consequences of living under constant pressure, which a lot of teenagers deal with. Having an incredible team of crew and mentors really helped me throughout the process.”

The project was mentored by Academy Award winning writer Peter Hedges, who helped the cast “create and understand the texture of these characters and their world. It was challenging but in the best way possible.” However there was one negative “It was winter, and snowstorms didn’t sit well with anyone when we were shooting outdoors,” she smiles.

Shin has also recently completed a short, Don’t Be A Hero with Pete Lee, featuring Missi Pyle, and is working on a pilot produced by Keshet with director Maggie Kiley, who helmed Scream Queens and Guidance. “It’s based on the book Dead Girls Detective Agency, about Upper East side high school girls involved with Purgatory, a murder mystery, and of course their relationships with each other.” Last but not least, Shin is also performing in a play scripted by National Youth writers, currently on track for production in Los Angeles.

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As an Asian actress, Shin is delighted to see Hollywood opening up in terms of diversity. “For me, I’ve been lucky to have been considered for a lot of roles that used to be open only for Caucasian actors.” She believes real change is coming in regard to the “old school Hollywood mindset” on diverse casting. Perhaps, Shin can put her newly discovered “super powers”  – as well as her acting chops – to bear on just that.

  • Genie Davis; Photos courtesy of Hojo Shin