Join the Dance: Dances with Films 20 at the TCL Chinese

DWF Team at Opening

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What are you doing tomorrow through Sunday? Joining us, we hope, for the second half of Dances with Films 20, the terrific independent film festival that serves up one interesting film after another. The fest’s trailer proclaims “My life is a movie…” and you’ll surely feel that it is if you spend a few days at the TCL Chinese.

We have never seen a film in three years of coverage that has not intrigued us. Sure, some have blown us away, some have not. But they are all, yes, every one, worth watching. Such a full slate of films and such a carefully curated selection is rare on the festival circuit. The festival, whose tag line this year is “Unstoppable” has 75 world premieres, 36 west coast premieres, and opening and closing night films by DWF alumni filmmakers.

American Folk
American Folk

The festival opened a week ago, Thursday with an opening night double bill of American Folk and Missing in Europe.

American Folk was a pitch perfect film which director David Heinz called an “honor” to have open the festival. Starring Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth as two strangers and folk musicians stranded in California in the aftermath of 9/11 and cancelled flights, this road trip across America was moving in a way that many films about the tragedy of that day are not. The film took things to an intimate level, making the intimacy universal in part through the power of music.

American Folk
American Folk

“I think the experiences many of us had, even if not in New York City at the time, were equally profound,” Heinz related. “I felt this story had not been told on the screen before.”

American Folk
American Folk

The film’s depicted journey and the filmmakers’ actual trek took 3500 miles. “It was a movie largely about the kindness of strangers, and we experienced that too. ” Rubarth had never acted before when the 13-person crew began their trek which initially ran for 20 days with additional shorter pick-up trips totally 13 additional days.

A profound and beautiful film,  the poetry both visually and in the script made a perfect way to open the fest.

Missing in Europe
Missing in Europe

Next up was Missing in Europe, an entirely different film altogether. Written, directed, and primarily starring women, this was a  distaff spin on Liam Neeson’s father figure in Taken. Writer Jenny Paul and director Tamar Halpern put together a nail-biting thriller about a missing daughter, a fierce cybersecurity expert/mom, corrupt cops, and sex traffickers.

Missing in Europe
Missing in Europe

Director Halpern, a five-times-DWF alum, shot in just 12 days in Serbia. “We’ve seen many films about human traffic, but in ours, a man doesn’t save the girls, a woman does, a smart woman with brains and passion.”

The page-turner script was alot of fun for Halpern. “This is a big departure for me, it was a true collaboration. I didn’t write it but really enjoyed the project, and our Serbian crew.”

Cassidy Red
Cassidy Red

On Friday, Cassidy Red, from director Matt Knudsen, was a fresh take on a classic western,  depicting vengeance sought in a town at the edge of the Arizona Territory. Beautifully shot and packed with visceral heat, this is a great take on a genre that is too often left in the dust.

Cassidy Red
Cassidy Red

The supernatural thriller, Inheritance, was also strong; the setting in small town Cayucos, Calif. was fresh, and the script intense.

Inheritance
Inheritance

Saturday and Sunday brought us shorts and more shorts – and every one of them stellar. Seriously –  tough to find a single flaw in any of the fine films in Shorts Block 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6. Regret: not being able to take in Shorts Block 3. DWF co-founder Leslee Scallon programs shorts along with her team,  and has done an exciting job of mixing comedy, pathos, drama, and thrillers alike.

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Competition Shorts Group 1
Competition Shorts Group 1

Starting at the top of our weekend shorts marathon, in Shorts Block 1, Still Here was a personal take about relationships – why we are in them, and why we return to those perhaps best left behind. Orange Dreams is a nostalgic look back at the burgeoning emotions of a middle schooler in the 80s. Faceless Man, based on the filmmaker’s father’s short story, literally depicted a man who wakes up to find his face has been replaced with a mirror. The make-up alone was a three-hour process on a four-day shoot – often in 115 degree heat.  All the Marbles was made to celebrate the director’s own family and a recently passed brother and grandfather; the charming, rhyming fable about a boy who defeats a greedy thug at his own game – marbles – was delightful. Warm Springs was, by contrast, devastating. Inspired by the director’s childhood, shot in a small town in Northern California,  the story of what happens when an unwonted little brother tags along with an older crowd, was riveting, and was one of my favorites of the festival. Boy in the Dark also centered on childhood, a fictionalized account of the director’s own, including bullying, depression, art, and all.

In Shorts Block 2, The Knackerman was a black and white standout, writer/director Tom Shrapnel’s portrait of an aging knacker, who faces his own mortality while seeing to the disposal of dying horses.  Jouska, a beautifully surreal take on an old man’s guilt for horrific misdeeds,  was fierce and nightmarish. Flower was a tense, delicate portrayal of a young sex worker and three very different clients.

Competition Shorts Group 4
Competition Shorts Group 4

Shorts Block 4 gleamed with film gems, including a poignant take on mental illness in Miriam is Going to Mars; Burying Amber, an elegaic piece inspired by the director’s conversation with a friend who was burying a pet; and Soul Candy,  set in a book store and inspired by a conversation with the director’s two daughters about searching for a job and which was epically shot in only 12 hours. Also screening: Subtext, a meet-not-so-cute comedy hilariously centering on an errant text message created by the skilled team at Community Productions; and Three Skeleton Key, based on a classic short story, a harrowing tales of rats attacking a lighthouse.  Director Andrew Hamer noted it was a story about contained paranoia that he always wanted to see on a big screen. He used 20 to 30 live rats in filming  – “They live on Fruit Loops and peanut butter,” he related.

Exposure
Exposure – director and d.p.

Shorts Block 5 was another terrific two hour set of films. Here, Exposure, produced through Florida State University, was one terrific edge-of-the-seat experience from  director/writer, Mary Jeanes, about climber friends trapped on a ledge. “I’m a climber. I had to cling to the side of the cliff to get the shots I wanted,” Jeanes noted.  Awol was originally a class project whose only rule was no dialog. The story of a soldier in wartime struggling to survive was tough and involving. Crossing Fences, which depicted an historic attempt to escape what was then East Germany, presented a challenge for director/writer Annika Pampel, who was essentially shooting her own grandparents story. “Period shooting caused a lot of difficulties, not to mention filming actors in an actual sinking boat,” she attested.

Competition Shorts Group 5
Competition Shorts Group 5

Confection was the outgrowth of a script competition seeking a story about misfits; the lighthearted story was filmed in a small town with colorful streets, the perfect setting for the whimsical coming of age story set in part at a candy factory. This is That Night, shot in a sumptuous black and white was the movie that writer/star Jonathan Marballi wanted to make when he was sixteen, he says. “I pulled in all of my date stories.” Shot in a single day by director Matt Braunsdorf, Marbelli and co-lead Kris Wiener had a natural comic rapport honed from working together at Upright Citizens Brigade comedy theater.

Competition Shorts Group 6
Competition Shorts Group 6

Shorts Block 6 included the crowd pleasing supernatural comedy/drama of Alfred J Hemlock, where protagonists had best not “wish they were dead” when having a bad day with Alfred around. Fiendishly clever. With Rohewa, an acronym that skinheads use for racial war, extremism is at the heart of this story inspired by a true tale of a former teen skinhead who changed when he went to arts college. La Sirena was equally haunting – the tale of the monster inside, of women in a fishing village and a cruel fisherman, the raw seaside setting an intrinsic part of the film’s delicate balance between horror and feminism. Daniel Gomez’ First Night was based on a true story. This comic tale of a woman on the run – in the film from a hit man, in reality from a cab driver she couldn’t pay – was deft and smart. Limbus, a dream-like exploration of the thoughts of a man in a coma, was a visual tour de force.

Competition Shorts Group 6
Competition Shorts Group 6 – Alfred J. Hemlock himself in hat, center

Next up: a take on feature films viewed after our binge watching of brilliant shorts.

  • Genie Davis; Photos: Jack Burke

 

Go West: Utopian Vision for One City One Pride LGBTQ Arts Festival

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The city of West Hollywood’s One City, One Pride LGBTQ Arts Festival offers a wide range of programs and a utopian vision for 2017. Running through June 30th, the fest’s theme of “Go West,” references movement toward a utopian promised land, dreams of gay liberation, and the freedom to live openly in West Coast communities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and West Hollywood. Featuring interactive, performance, visual arts, and education events, this year’s programming explores LGBTQ history, culture, and art.

Dubbed a “Day of History,” on Saturday June 3rd, One City One Pride offers multiple events that will take place throughout the city.

At 11 a.m., Radar Productions presents Drag Queen Storytime in the West Hollywood Library Community Meeting Room. The free event includes children’s stories and crafts. Radar brought the same acclaimed program to the San Francisco Public Library. The meeting room is located at 625 N. San Vicente Blvd., 90069.

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Also starting at 11 a.m., the Stuart Timmons LGTBQ History Tour combines an urban hike with an entirely original performance art piece. Written by author and historian Stuart Timmons and directed by Jason Jenn, the tour leads participants to a variety of locations.

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They’ll encounter over a dozen costumed characters, bringing the history of West Hollywood to vibrant life.  The experience includes a brief shuttle ride that drops passengers on Sunset Blvd.  Each tour lasts between 90 and 120 minutes, with departures scheduled every fifteen minutes between 11 and 1 p.m. Live music will be performed while participants wait to board. This is the third year for the charming tour, presented in a final staging to celebrate the legacy of the recently deceased Timmons. Timmons is the author of The Trouble with Harry Hay and GAY L.A., among other works.

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ADA accessible throughout,  colorful parasols will be provided during the tour, offering shade from the sun and enhancing the lively interactive atmosphere. This unique event starts at the West Hollywood City Council Chambers at 625 N. San Vicente Blvd., 90069.

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From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., trans artist Yozmit, the first artist to receive a Trans Initiative Grant from the City of West Hollywood, presents the interactive performance installation “Totem Building.” Yozmit will create transformative visual wearable art pieces to be used as a ritual object or totem. The audience will be invited to create prayers and intentions which she will collect for part of a future performance.

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The artist will stitch a ribbon or bead onto her Pyramid Dress, as a symbol of exchange for those intentions and prayers. This interactive, transformative performance will be held on Santa Monica Boulevard near San Vicente Boulevard.

At 5 p.m., there will be a screening of Reel in the Closet, a feature-length documentary. The film connects viewers with queer people from the past, utilizing rare home movie footage that dates back as far as the 1930s. Filmmaker Stu Maddux also discovered recorded news stories and community productions, and regularly updates the documentary, encouraging audience members to share movies of their own pasts. Maddux notes that he embarked upon the project when he was searching “for a way to really understand the people who came before me, not just read about them.”  The film will be screened at the West Hollywood City Council Chambers, located at 625 N. San Vicente Blvd. 90069

Also at the City Council Chambers, throughout the day the film LA: A Queer History will be shown in a continuous loop; ONE Archives LGBTQ History Exhibits will be displayed in West Hollywood Park.

Later in June, One City, One Pride highlights include:

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“Out There,” a group art exhibition at the Los Angeles Art Association’s Gallery 825 opening June 9th from 6 to 9 p.m. The exhibition will run through June 18th, with the gallery open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Monday. The gallery is located at 825 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, 90069.

Also on the 9th, from 6 to 10 p.m., the Annual Dyke March begins with a protest sign making workshop conducted by Sparkleblob’s Julianna Parr, followed by a march down Santa Monica Blvd. at 8 p.m. Confirmed speakers include Patrisse Cullors of #blacklivesmatter, and Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.  the The workshop takes place and march begins at Sal Guariello Veterans’ Memorial, 8447 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, 90069.

From 7 to 9 p.m. on the 9th, Yozmit’s Migration of the Monarchs and WALK will take place. Based on the idea that everything in life transforms, the trans artist will perform WALK as live ambient art along Santa Monica Blvd. between Robertson Blvd. and San Vicente Blvd.

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June 11th from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., LA Pride hosts a human rights march in lieu of a parade. The march starts at Hollywood and Highland in Los Angeles, and concludes near West Hollywood Park. 

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And June 29th, at 7:30 p.m., there will be a world premiere film screening of Jeanne Cordova: Butches, Lies, and Feminism, a new documentary on the life and accomplishments of late activist and author Jeanne Cordova. Film director Gregoria Davila and Cordova’s partner Lynn Harris Ballen participate in a post-screening discussion. The screening takes place at West Hollywood City Council Chambers, 625 N. San Vicente Blvd., 90069.

For a full calendar of One City One Pride events through June 30th, visit    www.weho.org/pride

One City One Pride is organized by the City of West Hollywood through WeHo Arts, the City’s Arts & Cultural Affairs Commission and Arts Division, with input from the City’s Lesbian & Gay Advisory Board, Transgender Advisory Board, and other community partners. 

 

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  • Genie Davis; Photos: Weho.org

Mammoth Lakes Film Festival Award Winners

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With the screenings complete, Sunday evening brought the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival Award ceremony and after party.  With so many worthy contenders, choosing winners was difficult for jury members, but choose they did.

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Shorts:

Documentary winner: 52 Trolley depicts colorful riders on a trolley bus in the Ukraine, an insightful look at the region and its people, directed by David Auerbach.

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Narrative winner: Flowereyes – director Chris Brady created a touching piece about a man haunted by love who sells white noise machines door to door.

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Animated winner: Laura Harrison’s Little Red Giant, the Monster That I Was is the hilarious story of an unhinged artist who loses it an an academic’s barbecue.

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Feature length winners:

Documentary Audience Award: The lustrous Strad Style,  director Stefan Avalos involving and emotionally satisfying portrait of isolated Ohio violin maker Daniel Houck.

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Documentary Jury Award: a second deserved nod for Strad Style. Director Avalos said “It keeps getting better.”

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The film’s subject, violin maker Daniel Houck added “It’s been nice to share my life with so many people, when I’ve been in seclusion for so many years. It means a lot to share my life with everyone.”

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Other documentary awards:

Bravery Award: Forever B, with director Skye Borgman tackling the difficult subject of a pedophile’s attack on a family.

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Narrative Audience Award: Withdrawn, the smart and funny story of a slacker/grifter drifting after his college graduation.

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On the right, above, is presenter Vincent Spano.

Narrative Foreign Language Jury award: Cold Breath from Iranian director Abbas Raziji, the story of a transsexual single parent forced to keep her secret.

Narrative Jury Award: Space Detective the inventively filmed creation of director Antonio Llapur and writer/producer/lead actor Matt Sjafiroeddin, was according to Sjafiroeddin,  “A decade in the making. What a great weekend. Thank you guys so much. I hope to be back. And I hope you all come back too.”

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Along with the filmmakers awards, well-deserved thanks were given to festival director Shira Dubrovner, who did a masterful job of creating and running the MLFF’s third year, and programmer Paul Sbrizzi, who combed through over 1100 entries this year, four times as many as last year.

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As festival gold sponsors Paul & Kathleen Rudder remarked, the festival makes a real difference to the town of Mammoth Lakes. “It’s the difference between Mammoth Lakes being a bus stop to the ski slopes and a center for the arts,” Paul Rudder said.

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  • Genie Davis; Photos: Jack Burke

 

Day 5: Grand Finale at Mammoth Lakes Film Festival

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Lots of laughs today as the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival drew to a close.

The short Horseshoe Theory hilariously proves that politics makes strange bedfellows indeed.  A weapons deal between a white supremacist and a member of the Islamic State becomes, well, a romantic comedy. Director and writer Johnathan Daniel Brown perfectly cast Jackson Rathbone and Amir Malaklou as the pair in a film that was “inspired” in part by The Notebook and You Got Mail.  The 3 day shoot included a scene with a $50 jerry-rigged rain machine. Brown attests that he’s currently working on a feature adaptation of the project. “We want to place it in a bigger world – and we’re pitching it as Brokeback Mountain with more killing. We’re also working on another short – we like to make gross stories about silly vulgar things that terrify people.” And make them laugh.

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The international premiere of narrative feature The Great Unwashed was also brilliantly hilarious. Set in London and Wales with an absolutely spot-on cast of British comedy and sketch performers and writers, the story of a millennial (Jon Pointing) on the run from killer hairdressers is zany and inventive. Joining his hippie older brother (and co-writer Nick Horseman) and his wife in the Welsh woods – plus random loony neighbors –  the film mixes comic mobsters with the affect of a murderous A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Director and co-writer Louis Fonseca, a former stand-up comic himself,  culled his stellar cast perfectly. Shot in two weeks “in less than a square mile of the forest” he notes that the “hippie story line came first, and then we came up on what is the opposite of that – hairdressers. We felt like we were at holiday camp, we had such fun and we didn’t sleep much.” The film includes attack geese and the presence of the Welch “Spirit of the Forest.”  Fonseca says his father was the official “goose wrangler – geese are nasty creatures ready to attack visitors. We did our goose shot in one take.” Fonseca and Horseman are currently writing another film set in Wales -about a war between ice cream vendors.

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Withdrawn, the story of a slacker/small time grifter/aimless college graduate stars Aaron Keogh – “I’ve been training for this role for 25 years or so,” he jokes – as Aaron, with writer/director Adrian Murray as his put-upon roommate.  From trying to solve his Rubik’s cube to trying to hack into another’s credit card account, Aaron is a character for our time: lost, adrift, addicted to video games and Internet news.  Played out in many long takes, Murray says his cinematic approach was in part imagined due to “watching the menu background on Lost DVDs, where characters move in and out of frame. I was watching the show while sick, and I wondered if I could do that as a film. ” Most of the dialog was improv, with a cast of friends who knew who was going to bring what to the game. Of the protagonist’s news viewing habits, Murray remarks “I wanted to put his struggle in perspective. In another part of the world he’d be building a bomb. I was also commenting on the cycle of news and the information and knowledge degradation and loss.” The short Pet Monkey preceded the film, a wild and quirky piece about a man who wants to buy his girlfriend a pet monkey while secretly harboring a shed full of stuffed and plastic monkeys. Actor Sky Elobar spoke about the single day shoot in Rochester, N.Y., in which he was promised one of the art director’s purchased monkeys as a souvenir but groused that he “never got one.” Elobar was found by director Eric Maira off his titular role in late night cult favorite Greasy Strangler.

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Last but not least, the festival presented the amusing and touching documentary Dina,  which focuses on a woman with autism and other mental health issues. She survived a vicious  knife attack by an ex-boyfriend to marry kindly but more severely autistic Scott. Winner of the Grand Jury award at this year’s Sundance fest, the story offers an intimate portrait of a relationship as thoroughly relatable as it is special.

MLFF’s delightful fest trailer, featuring stop motion animation, was discussed preceding the film by co-director/creator Emily Hoffman. She’d attended the festival last year and was thrilled to be invited to make the trailer. “We had such an amazing time last year when we went to the hot springs at midnight, we knew we had to make the trailer about the springs outside town. We made stop motion puppets and placed them in goo made from borax, glue, and paint.” Hoffman’s roommate Dan Dietrich created the music which involves manipulated notes made from a recording of his own voice.  “It’s an awesome, ephemeral thing,” Hoffman says. “We wanted to make it nice because you have to listen to the trailer so many times,” she says. Hoffman crafted the trailer with partner Ariel Noltimier Strauss.

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We only wish we could listen to it longer – but these were the last screenings of MLFF 2017.

  • Genie Davis; Photos: Jack Burke