A stroll down Wilmington's Front Street after midnight Friday became a serendipitous window into understanding one of the most notorious incidents associated with the Wilmington film industry: the 2001 knifing of actor Steve Buscemi outside the Firebelly Lounge—which happened to be the destination of two Triangle filmmakers, myself and another companion.
The sidewalks of this riverside drag were heavy with malevolent intoxication: Outside an establishment called Sidebar, we saw someone on his back, unconscious, with a snarling man standing astride his figure as emergency responders stood by with a curious lack of urgency.
Even if the rowdy crowds on Front Street were more or less oblivious to its presence, a few blocks away the 13th annual CUCALORUS FILM FESTIVAL was under way, bigger and more ambitious than ever. Centered in the historic, downtown Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts from Wednesday, Nov. 7 through Saturday, Nov. 10, the festival featured 200 films, up from 129 last year—an increase of more than 50 percent. Furthermore, the festival—which began as a low-key effort by local cinephiles to bring some good movies to town—now boasts funding sufficient for beefing up the paid staff—which includes a development officer and a publicist.
During a visit that began Friday noon and ended early Saturday afternoon, with a three-hour nap midway through, the crowds looked the same as last year, ranging from a large turnout to the Friday night highlight—this year it was Control, a fine film about Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis that manages to both demystify and respect its doomed subject—to mediocre turnout for less sexy documentaries. And even the sexy ones: At least one proven crowd-pleaser failed to reach many Wilmingtonians. A New York filmmaker reported that a documentary about Ugandan refugee child musicians called War/Dance, which captured the Audience Award at Durham's Full Frame Documentary Film Festival last spring, was "very poorly attended." That film was shown at the festival's newest, most modern venue, the 350-seat Lumina Theater, located on the campus of UNC-Wilmington—an institution that is taking an increasing interest in the festival.
On the other hand, Durham filmmakers Charlie Thompson and Chris Potter generated a nearly full house in the 120-seat black-box venue upstairs at Thalian Hall for their documentary We Shall Not Be Moved, a 47-minute tribute to the resilience of the African-American residents of Tillery, N.C. in the face of economic and environmental racism. A busload of Tillery residents swelled the crowd, and the Joyful Sound Gospel Choir—which had provided the film's soundtrack—performed "Amazing Grace" and other spirituals afterward.
A Saturday morning screening of Oswald's Ghost, a comprehensive but familiar survey of the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath, took on an unexpected poignancy: A key talking head in the film was Norman Mailer, whose death had been announced hours earlier. (Mailer argues, persuasively, if somewhat reluctantly, that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.)
In terms of indigenous film production, Triangle filmmakers matched the Wilmington output at the festival, thanks in large measure to the documentary culture of the area. Jessye McDowell, who directs Carrboro's Flicker Film Festival, premiered Los Trivinos de Huasco, her 16mm black and white short, shimmeringly photographed study of a family of artists in northern Chile. Hillsborough filmmaker and Cucalorus regular Francesca Talenti was on hand with three experimental and animated shorts. On the feature side of the documentary ledger, Linda Booker, Michael Cusack O'Connell, Rex Miller and Indy critic Godfrey Cheshire were present with strong films that have been seen in the Triangle, at Full Frame and elsewhere.
Cucalorus may be less punky than it used to be, but that's to be expected in an institution that is well into its second decade (even if a number of its key organizers have yet to turn 40). The question, however, seems to be whether North Carolina can develop a full-blown film culture to support it—this state has yet to develop a flagship director or style, and its most successful native filmmakers still find it necessary to live in New York and Los Angeles. Still, with Cucalorus keeping the lights on, and the state government now actively supporting the industry, there are plenty of reasons for a boom, and few obstacles—that is, beyond a lack of coordination that led to a scheduling conflict between this festival and Asheville's (see below), and the industry troubles that drive the present writers' strike. —David Fellerath
The mountains of western North Carolina have served as the backdrop for several cinematic gems over the years and the people of Asheville, N.C. aren't about to let you forget it. At the opening ceremony of this year's fifth annual ASHEVILLE FILM FESTIVAL, executive director Lee Nesbitt proudly welcomed a packed auditorium to the evening's special screening with a list of motion pictures filmed in the region: Patch Adams, Dirty Dancing and 28 Days were just some of the films mentioned, but the list went on.
The passion for creating popular film and celebrating the local filmmaker served as the focal point of this year's fest. Fourteen of the films shown during the four-day event were created by local filmmakers and many more had local or Tar Heel connections through cast members. In the spirit of nurturing more local filmmakers, the festival offered training sessions and educational seminars on making movies, including classes in writing and directing, editing and the film business. And for the cinephiles attending the fest, a roundtable discussion by the festival's judges offered a palatable discussion on the state of the independent film in today's motion picture world.
But more importantly, it was the diverse catalogue of films offered at this year's festival that made the biggest impact. A particular point of interest was the inclusion of three horror films in this year's line-up. The campy horror flick Blood Car, by director and co-writer Alex Orr, was shocking in its premise—after gas prices rise to an all-time high, a young man develops a car that will run on human blood—and funny in its sociopolitical commentary on lust, power and economics. Also of note was Southern Gothic, Charlotte filmmaker Mark Young's seedy vampire noir, based on a small town's demise when a vampire transforms a pious Southern preacher into a bloodsucker searching for the second coming.
Away from the festival's horrors, there was an excellent Tess Harper retrospective honoring the actress for her cinematic work and showcasing three of her most dynamic films: Tender Mercies (1983), Crimes of the Heart (1986) and Loggerheads (2005, and filmed partly in Asheville). And there was the usual mixture of comedies and dramas, including Andre C. Erin's Simple Things, a locally shot family feature that featured Asheville native Bellamy Young (TV's Dirty Sexy Money).
Indeed, this year's fest left little to be desired, even offering sneak peeks at big-budget releases such as Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and Tamara Jenkins' The Savages. With a wide variety of independent local releases, documentaries, comedies, horror flicks and shorts, it seems that the Asheville film festival is making great strides towards forming a cohesive celebration of N.C. cinema. —Kathy Justice
This weekend, a smaller, more intimate film festival will take place much closer to home. The second annual CARRBORO FILM FESTIVAL will, in the course of a five hours, show 27, count 'em, 27 films by directors with local ties. All are shorts—the longest are in the 20-minute range. The day is broken up into three screening blocks, with the first beginning at 2 p.m.
The event takes place in the Carrboro Century Center. Admission is $5. For more information, visit carrborofilmfestival.com.