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Thora Birch on film

Thora Birch on film festivals and the indie spirit.


As any movie buff can attest, the major festivals still set the tone for industry-wide interest. The movies we "in the biz" end up buzzing about when the award season rolls around are the ones that won either the Audience Award or Jury Prize-or at least a standing ovation. Meanwhile, many in the film community can be heard complaining that these same festivals have lost their indie spirit. "Sundance is too formulaic in scope and it's commercialized," they say. "And Toronto has become star-obsessed."Arguably good points, if not overly generalized. Whenever I hear people talk about the lost spirit of major film festivals, I can't help but reflect on the reality: Indie for indie's sake doesn't always work. Sometimes it requires embracing a film that doesn't resonate with an audience larger than might fit in the VIP room of a New York club. How many times have I asked myself, "Whatever happened to the movie that won the Palme d'Or at Cannes-what was it called again?" (In 2006 it was Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley; a few years earlier it was Gus Van Sant's Elephant. Remember that one? No?) Some festivals were created simply to showcase movies that might not make money, but the current purpose of most major fests is to serve as a mechanism for studios to find saleable films. Little Miss Sunshine, an archetypal example of an indie smash, first made noise at Sundance last January. It went on to bank a killing at the box office.Indie or not, I'll agree there has been a return to form at festivals. There was a moment when the hot film festivals were less focused on showcasing fresh cinema than they were on acting as a glorified mini-mall of future would-be fashion and technology trends. More recently, it seems, film festivals have all become really serious, really quickly-most likely in response to the avalanche of bad news the past five years has bestowed upon us. Now, the major acclaim seems to be going to highly topical features with Newsday-worthy resonance: The Last King of Scotland, United 93, and Catch a Fire are festival successes that could never be described as "easy crowd pleasers." It's almost as though the heavy subject matter forced directors to screen at a few choice festivals beforehand to "gain audience awareness." Therein lies the paradox3 of the festival circuit.Thankfully, though, there are still a number of festivals young enough to be exuberant, where the film-going public-not just industry insiders, stars and critics-fills not only the seats but the screens as well. To attend these festivals, you just have to be willing to travel off the map-sometimes way off.Two of the most interesting indie movies I've seen this year were screened at the Jackson Hole Film Festival. This Wyoming festival doesn't stray from the set-in-a-beautiful-location-with-many-outdoorsy-diversions formula: the locale is truly peaceful, even for visitors who aren't stocked up on sunblock4 and weatherized hiking boots. That, and there's also a program of great films you're sure to have missed otherwise. On the roster this year was the refreshing, hard-to-find little gem Aurora Borealis-from James C.E. Burke-about mundane people living in a mundane town. Despite its sedate plot, the film is blissfully memorable and unapologetically heartwarming. Another standout was Red State, a choppy, downright awkward documentary from first-time director Michael Shea, about his struggle to reconcile how his own countrymen could ever have been persuaded to vote for the current administration. While the piece is a real conversation starter, I highly doubt it will ever land distribution of any sort, not even by Red-State-hating cable networks like HBO.But beyond the fests that only seem to indulge in the red-carpet rigamarole, there is a long list of festivals comparable to the one in Jackson Hole: Aspen, Telluride, Savannah, Rhode Island-and those are just in the U.S. The international choices are seductive as well, not to mention the many specialty fests (family films, horror, documentaries, digital, and shorts, to name a few). Outside of film-school classrooms and the internet, there is no real home for smaller genres. I was recently a judge at the Los Angeles Shorts Fest, and while their programs were intriguing, it was actually the audience that took the cake because it's at these smaller festivals where you can get a feel for what's on people's minds. Most of the work is by laptop filmmakers, who tackle the art as a replacement for hobbies, but with the obsessive passion of a collector. These writer/director/creators, who are almost always around, are very open and fun to talk to. They're also usually upfront about their process and so pleased to be exhibiting their work to anyone, anywhere, that they come off as endearingly excited, which is infectious. For those who rarely encounter genuine ebullience within the film community, the experience can be akin to getting a pep talk from a cheery Ghost of Future Film.
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