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Skinny cats and underdogs 

Hi Mom!, a celebration of DIY filmmaking, wants to be big and stay small

Now that the Full Frame colossus has lumbered away to sleep off its biggest feast-ival yet, the Triangle's biggest little film party will get underway at various locations in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. In its seventh annual incarnation, the Hi Mom! Film Festival is devoted to promoting aesthetically adventurous low-budget films, and judging from an early peek at this year's program, the films keep getting better.

But if Full Frame positions itself as a major player in the documentary world, the Hi Mom! gang's annual celebration of freewheeling cinematic anarchy is aiming for a trickier niche: "The big little fest," in the words of Matt Hedt, one of the festival's organizers.

"We're sort of in a weird spot," says Hedt in an e-mail. "We want to be the cool little local indie film fest that stays true to its roots, but we also want enough hype to sell out the shows and perpetuate the event."

Starting this Thursday night at the Carrboro ArtsCenter and continuing through outdoor and midnight screenings Friday night, and an all-day blowout on Saturday at Cat's Cradle, the Hi Mom! festival will screen 55 films, collected from over 550 entries from around the world.

Begun in 1997 by a group of UNC film students, the festival has outgrown its undergraduate roots only in the sense that its present organizers have moved into adulthood and full-time jobs. They're a busy bunch and their can-do spirit is even more impressive knowing the organizers are a small, loosely-organized collective headed up by Tom Laney, a media technician at UNC's School of Public Health, and Hedt, who does a wide range of tech work on local video and film productions. Along with publicist Ian Krabacher, filmmaker Khang Mai, UNC student Courtney Graham and others, these cinephiles keep the festival going as a seat-of-the-pants, defiantly anti-commercial enterprise.

Partly from conviction and partly from necessity, Hi Mom! is and always has been a nose-thumbing event that tries to steer clear of the corporate and celebrity hype that most festivals cultivate. This punk-rock outlook probably won't change--for now, they're eschewing moves to formalize their organization as a non-profit arts organization. Even as the aggressively unpretentious fest creeps up on its 10th anniversary, Hedt allows that "I'd like it if it were a little smaller."

The festival's longstanding motto is "No fat cats," meaning they aren't going to be bothered by trust-fund filmmakers who produce expensive imitations of last week's multiplex effluvia. Hedt, speaking in his Carrboro living room that's positively overflowing with tapes and other festival-related materials (including the famous "bribes" they solicit from entrants), says many submissions are slickly produced film school theses.

Although Michael Bay wannabes will be in short supply at Hi Mom!, Hedt notes that one "fat-cat" film, an English short called Iota, was permitted into the festival. The motto may have to change slightly, as Hedt wryly acknowledges. "Now it's more like 'not too fatty unless it really does something for us.'" And Iota, a confidently produced tale of a seaside family's loss and recovery shot in 35 mm Cinemascope, is a film the organizers felt deserved an exemption.

A preview of the festival programming reveals an astonishing array of styles, preoccupations and attitudes. According to Laney, one of the festival's most exciting discoveries is the existence of a French collective called Metronomic Productions. The festival received a whole slew of entries from this group, located in the Paris suburb of Pantin, and four Metronomic films were selected for the festival. One of them,

Wilde Kartoffel (Wild Potato) is a goofy bit of stop-motion animation that features funkily echoing dialogue across the left and right audio channels as two potatoes duel to the death. Very cool, and evidently shot with pocket change. Another Metronomic contribution is the relatively elaborate

Mr. Moth, a creepy tale of vengeance against a young man who once tortured insects. Faultlessly photographed in primary colors at the outset and high-contrast black and white later, Mr. Moth is a haunting melange of B-movie kitsch and genuine paranoia. In a word, Lynchian.

The French aren't the only foreigners in the fest; in fact, the international flavor is extremely pronounced, perhaps owing to the festival's emphasis on brief running times which would tend to work against American strengths in narrative. "This year, a high percentage of what we got was foreign," Laney says. "I don't want to generalize too much, but it was interesting to see how certain countries produce distinct styles." By way of example, Laney observes that German filmmakers tend to excel at technical aspects such as black and white cinematography.

Amusingly, the French gang's Wild Potato isn't the only top-notch tuber tale in the fest. Christina Spangler's Unearthed is a marvelous--if cheerfully illogical--claymation epic of a potato that procures an (actual) eye, one that allows it to see clearly its own lowly place in the universe. Elsewhere in the claymation field, Philadelphia artist Imanthe Jackson, like Spangler, has two films in the fest. One,

Liver, is a short and sweet story of organ swapping between two characters with abdominal cavities conveniently outfitted with lids for greater ease in organ removal.

Paradoxically, the short film form gives artists greater freedom to experiment than does the long form. One of the festival's lovelier and more successful experiments is Rose Pedlow's

Tulips at Dawn , which uses a progression of animation techniques to dramatize a nostalgic, informative ode to old textbook illustrations by Nobel laureate chemist Roald Hoffman. The spirit of A/V Geek Skip Elsheimer hovers over

Words of Advice for Young People, Mario Escobar's audacious appropriation of an educational short with a profane William S. Burroughs poem set to scratchy beats. And for sheer exhilaration, one of the festival's wilder efforts is a music video called Witness Relocation Program from New York video artist Joe Quinn. Hedt sees this film, shot to a song by a Brooklyn punk outfit called Exelar on lo-fi video with lots of amateur blue screen work, as occupying the opposite end of the production spectrum from the professional sheen of Iota. "I love this one," Hedt said in written notes he provided with the screeners. "Bunnies, kitties and thrashcore music--and short!" And LOUD.

A couple of stars from festivals past will be present with new films. Australian artist Christopher Jones, whose Heisenberg Principle won the first place jury prize two years ago, has a new short, a bleakly humorous paean to the existential horror of everyday existence called Excursion . Local heroes Jim Haverkamp and Brett Ingram, whose Armor of God won the grand prize at the same 2002 fest, will check in for Thursday's opening night with Monster Road, their prize-winning documentary about underground animator Bruce Bickford. As an added attraction, Hi Mom! has programmed an excerpt from a 1988 Bickford piece entitled Prometheus' Garden . (This film will not be shown on the same bill as Monster Road; rather, it's scheduled for Friday's Midnight Madness screening block at the ArtsCenter.)

Monster Road will be the first half of the opening night double bill, which will also include Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story. From Portland filmmakers Jeff London and Kate Fix, Unknown Passage tells the story of an Oregon underground garage punk band that's been bashing it out before small but fervent audiences around the world for five decades.

In addition to Haverkamp and Ingram, several other local or until-recently-local filmmakers are represented. UNC-Chapel Hill film lecturer Jason Middleton's Post-Industrial Symphony , currently in the middle of a spring tour around the Triangle, will play on Friday night's outdoor screening on the Rosemary Street parking deck. On the same program, David Bauemler, late of Raleigh and now of Buffalo, has a striking, curious and ruminative film called I Can Not Understand You. Saturday night, The Drive North , by Chapel Hill native and up-and-comer Tess Ernst, will screen at the Cradle's evening program.

As usual, Hi Mom! isn't stinting on the rock and roll. After Thursday's screenings, an after-party will take place at The Cave on Franklin Street, with artist Gordon Zacharias' band Fan Modine . Admission is free for ticket holders, $5 otherwise. Over at the Cradle Saturday night, the early 1980s punksters The Bad Checks will hold forth after the awards ceremony. EndBlock

Hi Mom! runs Thursday, April 22 through Saturday, April 24. Programs are available at festival sponsors' locations and more information is on the Web at

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