While Hollywood continues to inflate the horrors of piracy, it ignores fans who are hungry for something heartier than the over-marketed buffet of cinematic clichés at the SuperMegaCineplex. Indie film festivals should thank the industry, however, because such narrow-minded mainstreaming has increased the indies' market size.
Around the world, film festivals are serving up alternative courses for the discriminating film buff. "Discriminating" doesn't necessarily mean "exclusive," as festivals are often viewed. These events offer a range of cinematic fare as wide and diverse as the audience's cultures and mindsets.
And judging from the explosion in festivals, it seems the population of adventurous filmgoers is larger than Hollywood is willing to admit. From April 15-29, no fewer than 13 different film festivals will commence across the country. Nine will be held in California alone, including UCSD's San Diego International Film Festival (SDIFF), running April 23-25.
Now in its 20th year, the SDIFF usually runs over a week and a half, but this year's event had to be cut short because founding festival director Ruth Baily passed away earlier this year.
Marty Wollesen, director of the University Events Office, explains that Baily's passing, coupled with staff changes, made now "a time to reflect on how to proceed, because we knew we wanted to proceed.
"This year is going to be a three-day frolic and we will return to a 10-day festival next year," she says.
The focus of the three-day frolic will be films "that suggest what it means to be human, and what it means to be a community in place," Wollesen says. Top entries include About Baghdad, by exiled Iraqi writer, poet and filmmaker Sinan Antoon; Academy Award nominee Liz Garbus' Girlhood, a flawed but worthy look at two teenage girls trying to escape the juvenile justice system; and The Return, a film by Andrey Zvyaginstev, a father-and-sons drama so excellent that many claim it marks the dawn of new era for Russian cinema (and whose main star, 15-year-old Vladimir Garin, tragically drowned after filming was done, in a manner that replicates The Return's opening scene).
It's interesting, however, that no San Diego filmmakers are included in the festival, especially since, as Wollesen says, local residents and UC students are the primary audience.
"That's primarily a result of what happened in January, with the passing of Ruth and staff changes," Wollesen explains. "There was a very quick turnaround solicitation. We did not have the strength of the past years, but we still felt it was important to put together the festival and maintain that presence."
Yet you can also blame some of the filmmakers themselves. John Menier, an arts and humanities producer for UCSD-TV, missed the deadline for SDIFF. Instead of participating locally, he's heading across the country to Florida's Palm Beach Film Festival to show his film, The Soul of Saturday Night.
Based on five songs from an early album by San Diego artist Tom Waits titled The Heart of Saturday Night, the 21-minute short is a "dance narrative" collaboration with John Malashock, artistic director of Malashock Dance in La Jolla. Menier says he shot the film in five different San Diego locations, depicting a tale of "love and loss."
San Diego born Matthew J. Powers will see his documentary, Never Been Done, screen at both the Newport Beach and WorldFest-Houston International Film Festivals this month.
Shot in various local locales, including the Warped Tour 2001 and the Carlsbad home of pro skater Tony Hawk, Powers' hour-long documentary follows the trials and tribulations of ex-Oceanside resident and athletic legend Jon Comer, a skateboarder who went pro with a prosthetic leg.
"It was a real cool project to do," says Powers. "Jon is an inspiration to all of us."
Los Angeles, naturally, is the most active in April, with annual versions of the Indian, Israeli, Italian, Polish and Luckman U.S. Latino Film and Video Festivals. In the Bay Area, there's the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Outside California, the Arizona International Film Festival in Tucson, the Gen Art Film Festival in New York City and Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival in Urbana-Champaign, Ill. will showcase filmmakers eager to show their films to audiences, buyers and critics.
"There are a lot of big film festivals, but each smaller festival serves the area where it is held," Ebert explains. "The reason my festival is in Urbana-Champaign and not Chicago is that these kinds of films are harder to find there."
For nearly every filmmaker included in these festivals, it will be the only time their pieces will get public viewing. A fortunate few will see some cable or video distribution, and only the skilled and very lucky will ever see a theatrical release.
The filmmakers still benefit, but more as an opportunity to network and learn from other directors and industry veterans, who often speak at the events. The cities that host festivals might benefit the most, as the festivals help generate revenue and inspire a sense of artistic community.
Ebert says "film festivals still provide the same function" as when they began. "[They are] a meeting place for those who buy, sell, write about and love films." ©