This is only RiverRun's second year in its present incarnation, according to the festival's executive director Dale Pollock. "I had wanted to have a film festival here since coming to the school, because it had been my growing feeling that our students didn't know the ropes of film festivals," says Pollock, who serves by day as dean of NCSA's film school. "We thought, what a great way to expose the students to a festival environment by bringing one here."
The festival was founded in 1998 by Gennaro D'Onofrio (father of Vincent) in Brevard, a small community near Asheville. Last year, Pollock brought the event to Winston-Salem. "Our attendance last year was 11,000--way beyond our expectations," Pollock says. The previous highest [in Brevard] was 1500. It was a big leap forward."
This year's program is an eclectic mix of domestic and foreign, short and long, obscure and Hollywood. Two upcoming Hollywood films will get their state premieres here: The Laws of Attraction with Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore, and The Notebook, with Ryan Gosling, based on a novel by Raleigh author Nicholas Sparks. Celebrity star power will be provided by the precense of Sissy Spacek and her husband Jack Fisk. The luminosity of Spacek needs no explanation, but her husband is notable as the longtime production designer for Terrence Malick, working on all of this living legend's films (The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven and Badlands, where he met and courted Spacek).
But away from the audience draws, there are about 110 films being screened in four days at various sites around the NCSA campus. Pollock draws particular attention to Dandelion, a gorgeously photographed effort from director Mark Milgard. "I saw it at Sundance and it was shot by one of our graduates, Tim Orr, who also shot [fellow NCSA alum] David Gordon Green's George Washington and All the Real Girls as well as [Peter Sollett's] Raising Victor Vargas. This film is stunning."
Other Pollock faves include Briars in Cotton Patch, a film about a famous commune in Americus, Georgia. The director, Faith Fuller, is the daughter of Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller. Pollock also singles out Indian filmmaker Mani Ratnam's A Peck on the Cheek. "Last year an Indian film won the dramatic prize and we're excited to get an even stronger Indian film this year," he says. Another non-Western film, the Palestinian drama The Olive Harvest, from director Hanna Elias, is the pet project of festival publicist Barbara Kingsbury--who until recently was the publicist for Cary's Madstone Theater.
The focus on international films is intentional, according to Pollock. "We're still in the process of defining ourselves," he says. "We have a strong allegiance to the indies and now we're trying to live up to the "international" part of our name. It's something we don't see other North Carolina festivals like Cucalorus and Full Frame doing. This year, 25 per cent of our programming is international."
Closer to home, several films have Triangle connections, including Two Soldiers, Aaron Schneider's adaptation of a William Faulkner tale which won this year's live action short film Oscar. The film's star, a blond lad named Jonathan Furr, is a Fuquay-Varina middle school student. And in this, the season of Monster Road, those who miss the Hi Mom! screening of Jim Haverkamp and Brett Ingram's Bruce Bickford doc can hit the highway and catch it at RiverRun. (This will be a hometown screening for Ingram, who left Durham last summer to take a teaching position at Wake Forest.)
While the conflicting timing of RiverRun and Hi Mom! is unfortunate, and hopefully will be avoided next year, Pollock thinks the burgeoning festival scene in North Carolina is a healthy sign. "We've got four really strong festivals in the state now--RiverRun, Full Frame, Cucalorus and Asheville--and we also have two wonderful smaller festivals in Hi Mom! and UNC-Greensboro's Carolina Film and Video Festival," Pollock says.
"I think it's great. None of us feel like we're in competition with each other. We're all trying to make North Carolina a great movie state."
The RiverRun International Film Festival runs April 22-25 in Winston-Salem, NC. See www.riverrunfilm.com for tickets and more information.