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

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