Mammoth Film Fest Does It ‘Strad Style’



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.”




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.”


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.




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.



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

Art Gone Wild with Book Club: Going Native at Durden and Ray

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Stephen Wright’s post-modern novel Going Native is a wild ride of literary fiction fused with pop culture.  When an art exhibition is based around the book, and includes performance pieces and cocktails made with absinthe, then art lovers can expect a wild ride when it comes to the exhibition, too.

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Durden and Ray’s delightful and provocative “Book Club: Going Native” is indeed wild – wildly inventive and conceptually clever. Curator Steven Wolkoff assembled a cadre of visual artists, a mixologist, hair stylists, dancers, and a choreographer to create an opening that fused art with performance plus an excerpted book reading.

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While I’d only read a few chapters of the novel when the opening rolled around, it did not dim my pleasure in the experiential evening, which included the work of: Ania Catherine – choreographer, Ben Jackel – visual artist, Constance Mallinson – visual artist, Dani Dodge – visual artist, Dave Bondi – toy designer, David Leapman – visual artist, Kate Kelton – actress/artist, Gavin Bunner – visual artist, Jayna Zweiman – architect and co-founder of the Pussyhat Project, Jenny Hager – visual artist, Jon Flack – visual artist, Kio Griffith – visual artist, Liza Ryan – visual artist, Michael Webster – composer, Robin Jackson – best bartender/mixologist in LA (per LA Weekly), Steven Wolkoff – visual artist, Tom Dunn – visual artist, Traci Sakosits – Creative Director of Vidal Sassoon, North America, and Matthew Kazarian – Vidal Sassoon.

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Dancers with their hair knotted to each other spun in a circle. Mixologist Robin Jackson poured sapphire, saline solution, absinthe, and oleosaccharum into cups and candy-colored water pistols for guests to shoot into their and other’s throats. The guns themselves were crafted by toy designer David Bondi, whose design, packaged and labeled as “Durden n’ Ray” also hung from a display rack on a wall.

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Artist Dani Dodge offered up a compelling, layered painting “Previously Unthinkable Patterns.”

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The painting, a mixed-media fusion of paint, duct tape, party favors, a piece of a wedding dress and the ashes of papers that contained burned fears dripped off the canvas literally with a 72″ tulle train puddling on the ground. The ghostly shape of the car that figures large in the novel emerges from the layers like a ship through thick fog, the canvas begs to be touched, but one doesn’t touch; still the almost physiological impression of being touched by the artwork persists.

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Above, artists Dani Dodge and Kio Griffith.

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Kio Griffith’s “Whichever Wolf You Feed,” a mixed media piece of wood, sheet metal, paint, sandpaper, and a ventilation duct, oozes mystery; the mood abetted by a dancer positioned against the corner wall next to the piece.

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David Leapman’s “Salt hungry butterflies,” gold ink on black paper, has an elegaic feel that evokes calligraphy and Japanese woodblock prints. The artist contributed three similar works in all to the exhibition. Jenny Hager’s abstract “Bedlamite,” acrylic and marker on canvas, is bold and heated; Tom Dunn’s detailed, fascinating “Mesopotamia Drawing Series” functions as a kind of adjunct to the book’s chapters which are themselves a series of connected yet separate stories.

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Curator Wolkoff  created a series of “wedding rings” crafted of acrylic paint without support, they are as warped as the book’s belief system. The spacey stop-motion video of Traci Sakosits and Matthew Kazarian, “Basic Space,” compels repeated viewing, as does Dodge’s second piece in the show, the haunting “Evidence,” a video shown wall mounted on a mini-iPad.

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All eyes were turned to Jayna Zweiman’s “It considered other facts, other views,” a dark green kaleidoscope-like sculpture which guests peered through and took IG-worthy semi-selfies through.

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Constructed with mirror, plywood, and oil-based paint, the work was fabricated by Paul Guillemette and suspended from the gallery’s ceiling. The architect and co-founder of the Pussyhat Project has created a wonderful, changing fractured image that reflects both the quality of the book and a reader’s perception of it. It’s a fun house mirror take on art, life, and novel. The work’s green exterior represents the color of the stolen car driven by the novel’s protagonist.

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While seeing the exhibition without the dancers, drink, and electronic soundtrack hum is a different experience than the opening night, it is a worthy one. The art stands alone, and one could know nothing of the book and have heard nothing of the opening’s vastly entertaining art circus and still enjoy it.

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Above, a pop art distillation of the book, “Helter Skelter” by Gavin Bunner, goache and ink on paper.

Like many of Durden and Ray’s shows, this one is edgy and thought-provoking; the gallery and the art collective are building a reputation as a must-see in the crowded field of LA art.

  • Genie Davis; Photos: Genie Davis


Mountains of Movies: The Mammoth Lakes Film Festival Returns


Just in time to help film fans celebrate Memorial Day, the third annual Mammoth Lakes Film Festival runs May 24-28th. The fest screens narrative and documentary features and shorts.  MLFF was named one of the “Top 50 Festivals Worth Your Entry Fee” by Movie Maker Magazine in 2016. Having attended last year, we look forward to another full schedule of eclectic entries which we’ll be covering daily during the festival run.

Festival founder Shira Dubrovner notes that the third year brings expanded programming to the festival, doubling the number of filmmakers attending the festival and bringing more spotlight events and featured artists to the festival.

“This year our opening night screening is Up In Smoke with Tommy Chong in person; later in the festival we will honor John Sayles with the Sierra Spirit Award, presented to him by Vincent Spano; and for our Saturday Morning Indie Cartoons event, the Bum Family will fly in from Calgary, Canada to give a presentation to kids on how to make paper cut-out animation,” Dubrovner notes.
Above, festival founder Dubrovner, center, at the closing awards ceremonies in 2016.
While the festival continues to expand, the intimate nature of the festival will not change, Dubrovner attests. “We will always keep our commitment to filmmakers by making Mammoth Lakes a filmmakers-first festival. That has been our vision and commitment since day one. We continue to help each filmmaker with the expense of attending the festival by offering travel stipends and housing. We create a fun, intimate and accessible experience for everyone that attends—filmmakers, audiences, industry professionals, press and our local volunteers.”
The festival is very different from others throughout California, and different too than well-known behemoths like Sundance and Telluride. We found attending the event last year to be a special experience, one in which we could spend time with filmmakers, and uncover international as well as local films that were extremely fresh in terms of subject and style. From smart comedies to awe inspiring documentaries, the festival doesn’t hold back when it comes to presenting intimate stories.
“We take our time to create a program with a specific vision; we champion personal, innovative storytelling. We showcase filmmakers who are unafraid to dig deep into themselves and bring their work to life with sensitivity, playfulness and a depth of vision,” Dubrovner attests.
Of course the beauty of the fest’s Sierra setting is also first class.
“We give a platform to these artists in a nurturing and awe-inspiring setting in the Eastern Sierra. Our primary commitment is to the talented, maverick artists that we bring together every year in May.”
And to creating a stellar line-up of films that will have audience’s talking for the rest of 2017.
– Genie Davis; Photos: Courtesy of MLFF and Jack Burke

Cansu Bulgu: Spiritual Sand Drawing

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If you’ve never experienced what artist and spiritual guide Cansu Bulgu does, you must. It is a bucket-list experience, her intuitive and personally aligned work both meditative and ethereal.

Bulgu creates large scale intuitive sculptural drawings in the sand that represent all the elements. And her act of creation is something she shares with clients as “live Intuitive Sand Drawing Sessions.” She also creates personalized, one-of-a-kind installations and spiritual contemporary fine art series on dye-infused ink metal panels.

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We were fortunate enough to experience a sand drawing session, a process she began in 2010 in Kauai, when the artist “touched the sand and the first drawing came. It was one of those sparkles of life” that she felt compelled to follow.

Highly successful in her IT field, Bulgu knew her life and calling had irrevocably changed. “I felt the pull of love toward a new creation that wanted to come through. It was choice-less, really,” she relates.

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Today she works to create a “space of stillness”  – that’s how the drawing happens – without any pre-visualization or pre-conceptualization. “Rather than working on it, we come together, and we are being drawn in the moment” she says of her process with clients.

Working near the ocean, intuitively selecting the location and time, Bulgu started our session with a beautiful cleansing sound from a crystal bowl before, trance-like, moving through a sand drawing that is all spontaneous energy, expressing the essence of the client in a stunning art work infused with spiritual meaning.

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Although she felt the call to this work in 2010, it wasn’t until 2015 that she started bringing it out into the world.  A gallery show in Laguna Beach was the start.

“I just love showing up as life gives me invitations. It’s so mysterious and familiar… personal and universal at the same time,” she relates. “My work is very alive. You can hang my pieces from different angles and see different perspectives.”

Her sessions have a powerful energy.

“When we drop our personality in any moment, when death of ego occurs, it becomes a container for light. You are the embodiment of light, in that space of stillness.”

Bulgu recalls after her first gallery event that one individual had “The person asked what I did exactly. I said there are two circle from which you can live life. In the first circle you can describe everything with words, yet lose some of the meaning. In the other circle, you  just have a clear and deep sense of knowing, yet, you cannot use words to describe or talk about it. This work is best experienced from the latter circle. It’s so simple yet profound. A gentle shift in perception offers effortless transformation. Light, light, light.”

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Bulgu will be a part of the Dana Point Festival of The Arts on Sunday, May 21, 2017; and June 24th at the Torrance Art Festival. Visit her and you can – and should – also experience her work in its pure and profound state individually – it’s as healing as it is beautiful.

See more of the artist’s work via her website at

DiversionsLA is thrilled to announce that she will be offering FIVE personal sand drawing experiences as a fundraiser to benefit young musician and mother Nicole Saari, who is suffering from acute Lyme disease. May is Lyme Awareness month – what better way to raise personal awareness as well than to experience the one-of-a-kind spiritual creation Bulgu offers. Message the artist at for more information; the minimum donation is a really incredible $150 per session, additional donated amounts are of course welcome Payments can be made via PayPal ( or Saari’s GoFundMe page. Be sure to indicate that payment is for Cansu Bulgu sand drawing – all proceeds benefit Nicole Saari.

  • Genie Davis; Photos: Genie Davis