In the Dark

February 17–20, 2005

“My dad’s got a projection system!”
“My dad’s got a couple of comfortable venues!”
“My dad’s got a Web page!”
“Let’s put on a show!”

Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland sentiments notwithstanding, film festivals are deceptively easy to stage. They have become part of the popular vocabulary; they are a hot commercial prospect. It seems that these portmanteau events – part exposition, part marketplace, and part critical nexus – are now rising into esteem, at least in America, as revenue-generating operations, opportunities for civic boosterism, and ways to enhance the local social lustre.

There is no dearth of material to be screened, either. The consumerisation of the filmmaking process means that anyone with a digital filming system and a copy of Final Cut Pro editing software can make a movie (several filmmakers at Boulder’s festival stated that without these low-budget tools they couldn’t have attempted to create something).

This head-on collision of increases in less-than-critical demand and non-professional output is not always congenial. The chances of starting a film festival out on the right foot are financially good but aesthetically perilous. Can Mickey, Judy and the gang put on a show that’s as stimulating artistically as it is financially? And, if anyone can do it then what’s the point of doing it at all?

These questions become more pointed when the event in question is in your own hometown, and you have the opportunity to watch it evolve from a fairly close-hand perspective.

The first annual Boulder International Film Festival was an act of gumption pure and simple – the dreamchild of local documentary filmmakers and siblings Robin and Kathy Beeck, who saw the picturesque environs of Boulder, Colorado as the perfect place for yet another film fest.

This modestly-sized provincial university town, nestled (as such towns always seem to be) against the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, has long had pretensions to international status, ever since Allen Ginsberg roamed its espresso-scented streets night 30 years ago. Tapping the energies of an underutilised, below-the-radar swarm of film talent and appreciators, the Beecks swung into action. Political and business elements chipped in readily, in the hopes of stimulating the city’s moribund economy.

Interestingly, there were no late-night sidebars, retrospectives, tributes, special awards, remastered Finnish silents, or other such intellectual catnip. The organisers used a single criterion for a film’s inclusion in the festival – the ill-defined concept of “great storytelling”. They mediated the inherent fuzziness of this approach by leaning on the critical skills of a 20 member panel. The Beecks assembled a cross-section of well-informed and enthusiastic regional directors, programmers, critics, associates and cinephiles, who helped winnow 650 entries down to manageable 55, the programming of which spread over four days in February of this year.

The results were refreshingly eclectic. Films of all lengths, styles, and genres rubbed elbows, loosely organised into groups by topic or style. The opening night gala was devoted to a single film – an upcoming audience-friendly, major-market release from Danny Boyle, Millions (2004). The spirit of the premiere was disturbed by Fox Searchlight goons who, zealously preventing unsavory copyists from bootlegging the movie, stripped all and sundry of their cameras and cell phones, which sat in a pathetic pile on a table in the theatre lobby like children waiting to be picked up from day care.

Millions is a sentimental fable, written by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Hilary and Jackie, Code 46), and is a far cry from Boyle’s fare to date. It deals with a widower (the excellent James Nesbitt) and his two young sons, whose move to a neighbourhood of newly constructed Council houses is whimsically interrupted by the arrival of a bag of pound notes flung from a passing train – ill-gotten booty that wakes the youngest son from a reverie in which he chats with St Claire (yes, folks, the pious boy can see the saints).

Inevitably, the two boys have different ideas about what to do with the money before the British conversion to euros renders their haul irrelevant. Boyle utilises his full range of cinematic devices – freewheeling cuts, impressionistic fade-ins, stop-motion and the like – but seems caught between bringing to life a coming-of-age story and an Ealing-era comedy of manners (befuddled dad, eccentric secondary characters, screwball romance). The two don’t blend well, and despite some pleasantly funny moments, it was a bit of a damp squib.

The first year’s programming was mostly made up of two kinds of film – wacky comedies and earnest documentaries. Nothing wrong with that – the decidedly populist approach to the festival’s selections made the lineup a rather accurate reflection of the local zeitgeist. The festival’s entrants were, with rare exceptions, chasing the market instead of leading or ignoring it. Nothing wrong with that – except that it can lead to predictability.

Of the documentaries, it must be said that most were head and shoulders above the level of angry advocacy that’s been common ever since Michael Moore taught us that loosely documented outrage pays. Leah Wolchok’s short Living to Work (2004) was a quiet revelation. Focusing on the American obsession with piling up more and more work hours, its beautifully oblique cinematography, punctuated by voiceover quotes, was sleek and understated. It exercised poetic license with restraint, communicating its points without proselytising.

The Soup Peddler

Another gem was The Soup Peddler (Lisa Kaselak, 2003), a deceptively straightforward film about David Ansel, a young man from Austin, Texas who makes a living delivering quarts of a delicious soup of the week for nearby clients (he negotiates these deliveries across Austin’s gentle hills on a bicycle). For a crowd of health-obsessed, vocally left-wing, eco-friendly Boulderites, simply seeing one man integrate so many of these principles without fuss or self-celebration was a refreshing lesson.

David Redmon’s Mardi Gras: Made in China (2004) was a more traditional documentary, and had a stronger impact. Redmon had the simple idea of finding the origin of the Mardi Gras beads and trinkets revelers fight and expose themselves over during New Orleans’ annual bacchanalia.

He followed his nose to Fuzhou, China, where 500 sweatshop workers grind out millions of beads a year in a sexually segregated, prison-like factory. The head man, Roger Wong, led the camera team everywhere, genially spouting early Industrial Revolution management philosophy. The workers need rules, restrictions and quotas, or else they will stray and slack.

Redmon wisely interviewed a number of workers, who offered different reactions – some just happy to have even a menial job, some who have struck unsuccessfully for better pay and conditions and returned to their posts with resignation.

At film’s end, Redmon gave producers and consumers a chance to check each other out. He took his footage to New Orleans during Mardi Gras and projects it for the party-mad crowd, with typical results: some shrug it off, others fall into drunken lugubriousness. He also shows the worker huddled around a playback device, watching incredulously as cavorting women collect their handiwork by flashing their breasts. It was a nice way to wrap things up without succumbing to an overtly sanctimonious conclusion.

Then there was the fascinating and disturbing documentary Searching for Angela Shelton (2004). The eponymous heroine takes a contrived two-pronged premise – she will speak to and film every woman in America who shares her name, and will focus on their, and her, history of sexual abuse – and makes it work through an overriding sense of evenhandedness and a remarkable ability to listen.

Searching for Angela Shelton

Shelton’s work suffers from a strain of narcissism. Having started out as a model and an actress, she knows how well she photographs and takes full advantage of it, leading to some forcedly poignant footage. The therapeutic journey is a hackneyed conceit, and the screen is frequently awash with tears, but she makes it work by knowing when to step off the gas and let her interviewees take over. A more diverse set of people could not be imagined, but a surprising percentage of them have been victimised, and the act of comparing notes leads to remarkable open dialogues on the subject

Her windup and conclusion is a heartbreakingly unsatisfying confrontation with her father and a scathing indictment of his denials of committing incest, despite the on-screen confirmations of Shelton’s step-brother and –sister. Is this now-doughy, soft-spoken older man a criminal? Crazy? Innocent? Despite the questions we’re left with, the blowtorch intensity of the feelings communicated are properly cathartic.

For all that, the best documentary to my mind was In the Dark (2004), a 40-minute work by Sergei Dvortsevoy that follows the narrow life of his blind great-uncle, who lives very simply in one cramped room in the company of a surly but beloved cat. The old man patiently weaves knit shopping bags, then gives them away (or tries to) on the street. His brusque dismissal by passersby lends a tinge of Beckettian pathos to this very plainly told tale. There is no exposition whatsoever here, and the old man floats in an atmosphere of unanswered questions – how did he comes to where he is? The relentless camera work plays over his impassive features, giving the film unexpected depth to the patient viewer.

The live-action short subjects were overwhelmingly comic, some exhibiting a TV-sketch-like mentality, others dealing in industry in-jokes and parody. There was Jason Reitman’s Consent (2004), concerning the legal negotiations of two young people who want to go to bed together; Ned Farr’s How to Ace an Intervention (2004); and Travis Peterson’s wry, fatalistic Indio, USA (2004).

Several local talents were represented before and behind the camera (nepotism alert: at least three members of the BIFF selection committee enjoyed screenings, and a couple of awards, at the festival), as in the slice-of-life short about an unlikely seduction, Tiffany at Breakfast (2004); and Killing Kevin (2004), a fantasy by Jeanne Kopeck about exterminating Kevin Costner.

In the same vein is Rob Metlzer’s shaggy-dog fairy story, I am Stamos (2004), about a Hollywood character actor who dreams of, and obtains, the good looks of American TV heartthrob John Stamos; and an all-too-easy send-up of virulent homophobia, Gay by Dawn (2004) by Jonathan London.

Pretty Dead Girl

The outstanding entries in the live short subgenre were both musical in format. Richard Roll’s Down Dog (2004), a frenetic send-up of California’s fake, predatory gurus, received its theatrical premiere here and took home the Best Short Film award as well. The real treat, however, was Pretty Dead Girl (2004), which has been making the festival rounds since last year’s Sundance.

A dark homage to musical comedy, it compressed a feature’s worth of density and sweep into 22 expert minutes. Shawn Ku’s highly polished work concerns a young, handsome medical intern who can only feel intimate with recent arrivals at the morgue. A revolting premise handled with an almost demure, ’30-era delicacy, it succeeded because of an articulate sung-through script and understated performances. Of course, a young nurse loves the mysteriously standoffish intern, and this Romeo and Juliet story plays out its predictable symmetries with verve.

Animation was a mixed bag. The most innovative was Hisko Hulsing’s Seventeen (2004), a Dutch entry about the sexual fantasies of a young roofer, the surreal aspects of which were muted by its somber palette. Patrick Mallek’s Road Raged Rodent (2005), which took the Best Animated Film award, was as gimmicky as an old Heckle and Jeckle cartoon; and there was Damian Griffin’s well-executed computer animation, Blink (2003), which shows a worm saving his apple-dwelling family from a bullet fired by high-speed stop-motion pioneer photographer Harold Edgerton. (In the Q&A afterwards, someone asked Griffin if he made the film for use as a carte d’entrée to the film industry, he replied, “Yes, and it’s worked terribly … as a springboard, it’s got no spring.”)

Lift (2004), created by Hughes Dalton and Jeff Garton, was not only inspired by the films of Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, it also employed a regular of those creations, the redoubtable Dominique Pinon. Were it not so painstakingly constructed and lovingly produced, this coy tale of two wordless waifs – Pinon plays an elevator operator named, gulp, Otis – and a shy secretary, who are glowered over by their heartless corporate environment, would have shaped up as merely the sincerest form of flattery.

The runaway hit of the festival was The Real Old Testament (2004), a feature by brothers Curtis and Paul Hannum that took the simple premise of giving the Bible a reality TV treatment and ran with it. The low-res digital filming perfectly captured the shaky, lazy style of the popular faux documentaries, and the incessant pulse-taking of the characters similarly skewered the prodding, vicarious nature of the genre.

At the same time, looking at the sacred texts through this lens threw their incongruities into high relief, whisking away the mantle of King James prose and giving us Cain as an insufferably passive-aggressive personality, Abraham as a sycophant and Jacobs one of the lost Stooges.

The festival ended with The Liberace of Baghdad (2004), a remarkable work that was discovered by the Beecks when they attended the Sheffield International Documentary Festival. Filmed and narrated by Sean McAllister, it relates his connection to, and growing involvement with, Samir Peter, a classically trained, nationally known pianist who McAllister finds reduced to playing in the cocktail lounge of his hotel. The two strike up a friendship, a the cagey, suave Peter leads McAllister through the streets of the city, drinking, arguing, complaining, debating with his family, all the while dreaming of escape to America.

McAllister’s fortuitous discovery of this extraordinary personality isn’t hindered by the subject’s self-consciousness – Peter is expansive, terminally charming, a bit of a rogue. To see his bouncy vitality deflated by the stresses of occupation, his love/hate of the Americans, and his very real fear that McAllister’s constant presence will put him on some insurgent’s death list, is to see a portrait of potential stifled.

The Liberace of Baghdad

That McAllister and Peter were present in person was an added bonus. Before pairing up for a boozy onstage Q&A, Peter gave the audience a treat. Clad in a tux, sitting at a grand piano on the stage of the packed Boulder Theater, Peter played and joked for 30 minutes, reveling in the moment. As McAllister wrote later “I stood looking from the sidelines … I felt proud and happy for Samir that my film had brought him a little closer to his dream.”

Moments such as that redeemed much of the cautious programming and the occasional technical glitches that haunted the festival. The physical presence of so many of the filmmakers (26 in all) and the open, relaxed nature and small scale of the festival’s first outing made it a hands-on experience for all involved, with no hint of separation between the creators and the viewers, who freely exchanged information, drinks and phone numbers until the wee hours of the morning.

The successes of geographically obscure, small-town festivals such as Telluride and Sundance led to complete reconfigurations of the local economies involved, skyrocketing property values, and the exodus of “old-timers” and low-income households. Too quickly, the prerogatives of power and the heavy weight of deal-making begin to overshadow the simple communal pleasure of watching and discussing new work together.

Perhaps the Boulder International Film Festival will grow up into the status of major player someday. I hope it doesn’t happen too fast.