Practicing for That 10th Anniversary: DC Independent Film Festival Embraces Multitudes
diting,” said Carol Bidault de l’Isle. “Right now the biggest problem in indie filmmaking is editing. Think about it. Ten thousand people are making films today. The low-cost technology we have now means I can do it all alone. But in hiring a crew, you have to convince people. In convincing others, you’re already editing. Say you hear from your cinematographer why you can’t shoot this one scene at night after all—that’s editing. Now, every film has a spark, but some may never light up. We’re getting films that are three hours long and they are all self-edited. We’re getting a tendency in some cinema that’s so self-reflective, it’s no longer interesting. There’s that correlation between editing and marketing. We do DCIFF to support independent filmmakers in being able to do both, and so Washington can see films that wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
Bidault is founder and director of the DC Independent Film Festival, an entirely-volunteer effort by those she calls “normally reasonable, left-brained people” to support independent filmmaking. Two days before this year’s edition opened, she said this would be DCIFF’s “honeymoon period” with its new location and new partner. Deirdre Evans-Pritchard, point person for that new partnership, said it would be “the test year.” Either way, both women really wanted this courtship between film fest and urban campus to work.
The US capital city’s independent film festival—DCIFF—completed its ninth run on March 11, having grown from a three-day offering of thirty entries in scattered venues to this year’s eleven-day, one-stop encampment at the University of the District of Columbia, a quick half-block walk from the Metro’s red-line Van Ness-UDC stop on Connecticut Ave. in northwest Washington. DCIFF 2007 offered 139 films and in-depth how-to workshops both weekends, housed a music festival, and sailed into opening weekend pulling off a Friday morning Congressional hearing on how independent filmmaking is caught in a pincer of disadvantage between Hollywood’s commercial behemoth and the array of defensive trade measures that foreign filmmakers have taken in response.
Bidault, prodigiously experienced in the business side of making, distributing and promoting film in the US, Europe and Latin America, founded Media Fusion in 2000 and currently presides over a capital campaign for the proposed DC Center of the Moving Image. She moved to DC almost twelve years ago, at a moment when “art house” films were losing their classic screens. The Biograph had closed. The Key was still open but on its way out. The Rosebud was leaving DC. She says, “Like Yosemite Sam, I didn’t know I was volunteering.”
Evans-Pritchard came to UDC a year and a half ago from the University of Southern California, where she taught film and visual anthropology after stints in Europe and the Middle East. Dr. Bobby Austin, who heads up UDC’s new office devoted to community relations and whose own daughter is an indie filmmaker, recruited Evans-Pritchard as a media relations specialist to move UDC into the community—and the community into UDC—via film. A historically black college established via land grant, UDC now has 5,600 students from over a hundred countries—you walk beneath a curtain of their flags through the main campus entrance onto its central plaza—yet most of its local students still live on the eastern side of town. In UDC’s early days, an evening curfew meant police reminded many of those students to go home after classes.
Evans-Pritchard acknowledges, “There are still traces of that feeling. Many of our students don’t use the other things available on this side of town, and many of our neighbors don’t really know we’re here.”
In a move to overcome that, this September UDC launches its own five-day film fest, DC Meets Delhi. Evan-Pritchard notes that some 10,000 Indians live in UDC’s neighborhood. The projected DC Meets. . . festivals would build on UDC’s on-going feature film offerings, its law school documentary series Film Justice, and regular film-related interviews on UDC’s cable TV channel that Evans-Pritchard hosts. While networking to generate DC Meets Delhi, she met Bidault, who told her, “My festival needs a home.”
“DCIFF is rough around the edges, but it has a significant following, it’s responsive to Washington film life and it’s survived for nine years now.” Evans-Pritchard goes on, “So it’s simply appropriate for us. It’s a perfect match. You know, UDC had a black film festival twenty years ago. Tony Gittens ran it, who directs DC’s big international film festival now. ”
In fact, after Los Angeles and New York City, DC is the third largest production site for film in the US. Both Bidault and Evans-Pritchard mention another thing that Women in Film and Video/DC’s Melissa Houghton also points out—unlike those in most US cities, DC movie audiences are growing.
Two days before DCIFF opened, Bidault and a couple volunteers were hauling boxes into UDC’s Building 46 East at ten in the morning, setting up shop in the spacious two-story lobby with its wrap-around mezzanine. The theater of several hundred seats would be the main screen room, and a smaller theater space tucked in a corner would hold the how-to seminars that ran both weekends. UDC staff Stu Gardner and his wife Precious, plus a young Brazilian killing time volunteering until an internship came through, were waiting for them, and pretty much stayed there in Building 46 East for the duration.
Bidault was willing to sit down then and there to talk with Stylus, a readiness for conversation that she displayed repeatedly throughout the festival. She led some of the post-screening Q and A’s with filmmakers herself, especially drawing out younger filmmakers and actors with questions when no more came from the audience.
At Thursday night’s opening ceremony, when DCIFF gave filmmaker John Daly a lifetime achievement award, Bidault sat right down with him on stage for another conversation about the importance of indie filmmaking. In 1967, Daly founded Hemdale Productions with British actor David Hemmings. Daly’s worked with directors like James Cameron (for Terminator), Oliver Stone (for Salvador and Platoon), Bertolucci (for The Last Emperor), Michael Apted, Altman, John Schlesinger, Ken Loach (for Hidden Agenda), Gillian Armstrong (for High Tide), Tim Hunter and James Foley. DCIFF premiered Daly’s film with Martin Landau, The Aryan Couple, two years ago. In the lobby afterward, Daly told Stylus that he’s heading for New Mexico to work on his new film The Box Cutter, and that he plans a film on the so-called “rape of Nanking,” about the 1937 Japanese attack on that Chinese city. In the theater, when a young man from the audience asked Daly for advice on placing his screenplay, Daly said he’d like to see it and handed his card down off the stage. Twenty figures popped up and streamed forward and Daly had cards for them all. Daly reiterated that such festivals are “the lifeblood of independent filmmaking—and you must stay independent too.”
Perhaps no other film festival is positioned as DCIFF is to articulate the needs of independent film at a federal level. Bidault stayed in role as facilitator of necessary conversations all morning Friday at an advocacy hearing about the broad questions of why US film productions are going abroad and how to stimulate indie filmmaking in the US. Held in the stately third floor caucus room of Congress’ Cannon Office Building, the morning’s testimony, questions, and discussion ranged deep into the kind of “left-brain” territory that Carole Bidault knows can make some artists’—and their fans’—eyes glaze over.
Movie buffs who may delight in understanding camera shots and other techie details about making films don’t often have the same insider affection and curiosity for tax incentives and quota regulations. Gods and Generals director Ron Maxwell told the assembly that his son told him to “lighten up. This is the movies, not brain surgery.” But for Maxwell that’s precisely the point. Declaring that cinema is “brain surgery for millions of people at the same time,” Maxwell asked about Hollywood’s corporate marketing targets, “Is it any surprise we are disappointed, outraged, offended most of the time? Any surprise that they exploit the young and the vulnerable, because the rest of us don’t go to those films anymore?”
At one end of the spectrum of solutions, Maxwell favors promoting free market incentives for indie filmmakers. Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven prefers increased government funding, in particular from the National Endowment for the Arts and state arts councils, both of which fund film less and less. Craven knows whereof he speaks. Two of those rare NEA film grants have gone to Craven’s 16-year-old Kingdom County Productions, and the week after DCIFF he was back in the pages of the Burlington Free Press, his arts column discussing funding levels at Vermont’s Art Council.
Then there are myriad related matters. How the Screen Actors Guild and other film unions factor in and pay scale waivers depend on things like crew diversity and requirements regarding film budgets that vary widely by locale. Belying our fantasies about celebrity wealth, SAG’s Jane Love pointed out that over 80 percent of SAG’s 120,000 members make under $12,000 a year. Compensation for docs aired on PBS can be problematic if you got healthy funding to start with, pushing your budget above another line. Copyright issues are Byzantine. And typically trade treaties “orphan” US indie filmmakers—to use Jay Craven’s word—because they are set up to protect foreign film from US studios' efforts to dictate production and commerce. Craven reported on Canadian and French filmmakers’ sentiments that the US actively encourages their governments to cut national film support by claiming it gives those foreign films “an edge.” And the many levels of domestic red tape often just make it easier and cheaper to go elsewhere.
John Daly is going to New Mexico to make The Box Cutter because that state provides an indie-friendly environment. He said, “I’d always rather make a movie in the States. You have the best crews. You’re taken care of. I know I will get my daily rushes. The UK offers tax incentives, but the almost two-to-one pound to dollar ratio swallows that up. And pretty soon Eastern Europe will get wise and realize they can charge more.”
Despite the lengthy list of invited elected and agency officials who didn’t make it—including Senators Diane Feinstein, Patrick Leahy, and Gordon Smith, and Reps. Charles Rangel, Dianne Watson and others—three US Trade Representatives did come, attentively taking notes, asking questions (with a particular interest in copyright issues), and mingling informally following the testimony and discussion.
Afterward, US Trade Rep Carol Balassa nodded, “It takes quite a lot of effort to get this kind of scope and detail on these issues. To their credit, DCIFF pulled it off.”
Pulling it off included getting indie filmmakers and film industry types like the Screen Actors Guild’s Jane Love, the Motion Picture Association of America’s Vans Stephenson, and local union IATSE 487’s Rosemary Levy and David O’Farrell in the same room with those US trade reps and figures like Melissa Houghton, Women in Film and Video’s DC executive director, and Jon Gann, who’s run the DC Shorts Film Festival and just formed a new umbrella group for DC’s indie community. Houghton says that local film community can hold its own as leader in lobbying efforts this and artistically too. “I’d put our town’s filmmaking against any town anywhere,” she says. “We have the talent, the stories and the scripts.”
DCIFF also could play host to regional “indigenous” filmmakers like Jay Craven, whose Disappearances screened on Sunday night. Craven talked about self-distributing his films throughout his home state of Vermont. He’s done that ever since his first feature, Red Rivers Flow North. If you live in a state where just eighteen towns have theaters, this takes some ingenuity, but last summer over 24,000 people saw Disappearances, which opens theatrically in New York City at Quad Cinema next month, in Vermont’s town halls, high schools and churches. Craven’s statement drew heavily on his essay, “Eight Miles Outside Manhattan,” available in Filmmaker Magazine’s Winter 2007 issue and worth finding to get the details.
If some of the unfamiliar legalese and budget minutiae seem daunting at first to the right-brained among us, Bidault says, “The issues themselves aren’t complicated.” Speaking by phone several days after DCIFF ended, she said, “These are small entrepreneurs that craft the culture and we’re talking about getting government, non-governmental organizations and the film industry to focus on what they need. Otherwise, if we don’t help independent filmmakers, it’s just going to be sequels and re-makes. And they are making the films people want to see. Look at the Oscars.”
Bidault said DCIFF ’s next day on Capital Hill is underway. “They’ve already invited us back and we’ve got a year to work on this now. And the feedback from the first hearing is very telling. Some of the industry people said they have never really seen independent filmmaking issues in this way before. They said they thought of indies as the studios’ specialty lines, like Focus and Fine Line.”
As for the films themselves, DCIFF’s eleven-day program featured a raft of special nights, topics and genre clusters—politics and human rights films, scary movies, comedy, Native American, African American, Mediterranean, European, Asian, Jewish, African, women’s films highlighted on International Women’s Day, and a solid bank of student films the first Sunday. There were shorts, features, docs, animation and experimental films. Bidault says they had over 2,000 entries this year, and that a fifth of the final line-up comes from DC-area filmmakers. In making this year’s DCIFF an event that forged a new identity with the UDC partnership, it helped that all the screenings occurred serially under one roof rather than in scattered venues and concurrent programs. And chances are you can find media coverage of DCIFF’s star-studded closing night, with the screening of Manu Boyer’s I Trust You to Kill Me and the appearance of both its star, Kiefer Sutherland (of TV’s 24) and his band, Rocco DeLuca and the Burden. DCIFF’s press chief, Jane Green, whose firm Jane Green and Associates does film publicity and whose eagle eye rode herd on the details of DCIFF’s daily life, said afterward, “It was just what a closing night should be!”
But opening weekend already had its fair share of notable entries and set a tone of relaxed camaraderie. Green, who also managed DCIFF’s press office and MySpace page, says that filmmakers continued throughout the eleven days to “come back, hang out and watch each other’s films, not just their own.” Some of this cinema has reached theaters already—Tony Lover’s My Brother has opened nationally now. Some you can catch at other festivals as filmmakers ride this year’s circuit. And many more entries were made by names you’ll surely see again. Here’s a taste of memorable screenings from opening weekend.
Friday night’s buzz and crowd-puller was Robert Greenwald’s recent feature doc Iraq for Sale, detailing ever-escalating revelations about costs and methods of running the war in Iraq, particularly those of private security firms. Agreement with Greenwald’s point of view might make some viewers patient with a film that’s still longer than it needs to be. Meanwhile, two shorter docs also screened and both are worth looking out for at your next nearby film fest. Gary Beeber’s 20-minute Messenger chronicles the colorful bicycle-riding “Kamikaze” and his 25 years on New York City’s streets. Kamikaze himself was there, along with an appreciative, high-spirited entourage of other bicycle messengers who sported their uniform shorts, boots and shoulder bags. Jeremy Kaller’s 33-minute portrait of San Francisco’s pioneering ecology community, The Recyclergy, focuses on how collecting re-usable materials has evolved. Often existing on the fringes, his persistent, thoughtful subjects and Kaller’s approach to their lives and mission quickly call to mind Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I.
Saturday evening offered programs of black filmmaking, Cine Latino and this year’s first installment of scary movies. DC filmmaker Matthew Brown’s 3-minute short Gangsta Mimes, portraying two mimes who meet by accident on a street, is the result of Brown’s serious study of classical films and painstaking performance of all the jobs himself. Brown intends a real film career and you’ll see his name again.
Anthony Lover’s 102-minute feature My Brother released theatrically in twenty cities the week after DCIFF. Ugly Betty’s Vanessa L. Williams plays a mother whose two sons, one with Down syndrome, must fend for one another after her early death. Lover’s New York-based Liberty Films, which has been making rap videos since the 80s, gave cinematographer John Sawyer and first-time editor Christian Baker their breaks with this first feature film—one asks about them at the post-film Q and A because their work is so good. Besides Williams’ unglamorous and surprising performance, My Brother also features Rodney Henry, fresh from The Lion King, as the brother Isaiah at ten.
Saturday’s Cine Latino segment was generally powerful, but the great Cuban director Humberto Solas’s new 106-minute feature, Barrio Cuba, stands out and deserves a wide audience. His earlier Honey for Oshun is available in some US rental shops. Barrio Cuba, the second in a trilogy about life in Havana’s slums, is dramatically commanding and visually glorious. The film’s score is a particular achievement, though Solas also uses some techniques—and has for years—like natural light, real time, and hand-held cameras, that are often associated instead with von Trier’s Dogma 95.
Sunday’s full-day program began with a lengthy program of student films. In particular Doo Byung Chae’s 14-minute fiction film, Secret Son, stands out. Developed at the University of Southern California as part of the filmmaker’s MFA, this film tells the story of a wealthy man who buys himself a young body but who experiences “social death” because of the reservations of those around him. There was also a contingent of young women filmmakers from the Savannah College of Art and Design, which takes a uniquely active role in supporting its students’ entries into film festivals. Watch for future work by Heather MacDonald (Rainy Day Muse), Danielle Smith (What Would You Do? ), and Alicia Orsini (Combustible Russ).
Sunday afternoon offered a “Living on the Edge” grab-bag program, with several notable short fiction films. DC filmmaker Rick Hammerly’s 12-minute Signage deftly examines the multiple stereotypes that occur when an older gay hearing man tries to date a non-hearing student. Octavio Warnock-Graham’s Silences is a stunning 20-minute documentary about his attempts to finally uncover and unravel his own mixed-race background from his white mother, stepfather and grandparents in Toledo and his black father in DC. In one scene his grandmother, furiously making biscuits and slamming them into the oven, shouts at him, “You’re not black!” The wonder is that these people all let this filmmaker keep shooting. Finally, Australian James Findley’s 11-minute sci-fi Vend imagines that a little man delivers your cans of soda.
Jay Craven’s 103-minute feature Disappearances screened late Sunday evening. Kris Kristofferson and the gifted child actor Charley McDermott play father and son in this tale of Prohibition-era rum-running over the Canadian border. But Disappearances opens theatrically at Manhattan’s Quad Cinema next month, and Stylus will review it in more detail at that time.
And what about hindsight? Bidault scans both sides of the ledger, commenting, “Overall it worked well. We weren’t prepared for everything. As ever, we’d like a bigger audience. I’ve gotten emails that people couldn’t find us so the signage and the webpage have to take care of that. But it’s enormous to know where we’re going to be next year and the space is great.”
This was Jane Green’s first time volunteering for UDC. She says simply, “I got to walk the talk. I really believe in independent film, and if we can communicate what volunteering for this festival is like and what it accomplishes, we’ll have an army.”
UDC’s Deidre Evans-Pritchard says people on-campus were excited the festival was there. UDC’s President William Pollard stayed for the entire closing ceremony, unusual for an administrator who is sometimes triple-booked at simultaneous events. Evans-Pritchard says, “Yeah, we pulled it off. Absolutely it was a success. It’s the biggest thing we’ve had in some time at UDC.”
Evans-Pritchard paused and cited one moment about closing night and the festival’s ever-conversational director. She says, “Overall the festival stuck to its spirit of putting the filmmakers first too. You know, Carol had the director and producer of I Trust You to Kill Me on stage along with Keifer Sutherland and she insisted that both of them got to talk about making the film too. Not overwhelmed with celebrity at all. That expressed it well.”
The DC Independent Film Festival