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What's happening, right now 

A Durham festival stays close to its roots, while organizers of an Asheville fest think big

"Everything changes when you learn about money," someone says in Hannah Weyer's graceful and empathetic documentary, Escuela (School). The speaker is a member of the Luis family, a clan of migrant workers with whom Weyer spent the better part of a year traveling between California and Texas. There's not much money to be made picking grapes and cotton, but for the Luis family, it's a considerable improvement over the non-existent opportunities in Mexico.

Weyer won prizes at South by Southwest and DoubleTake (now Full Frame) for this 2001 film, and has been honored for other work at the Sundance, Locarno, Melbourne and Tokyo fests. These are just a few highlights of a still young career that is being celebrated this weekend at the eighth annual Documentary Film and Video Happening, to be held at venues on Duke's East Campus and nearby at the Center for Documentary Studies on Pettigrew St. in Durham. The festival will run from Nov. 14-16.

Escuela centers on the struggle of the youngest Luis girl, Liliana, to adjust to life in the ninth grade, as her family shuttles back and forth between Texas and California. Liliana is pretty and petite, a boy-crazy girl who lavishes attention on her makeup, hair and clothes. In other words, she's a perfectly ordinary teenager, but one who has to regain her social and academic footing at a new school in the middle of every semester.

What's heartening about Weyer's film is that there is, in fact, a social services network that tries to ease the difficulties of Liliana's perpetual dislocation. It's not much, to be sure, but the educators and social service workers come off as caring and concerned, even as they're hopelessly overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of these modern-day Okies.

Weyer shot this film alone--there's hardly any room in the Luis household for her, let alone a full crew--thus establishing an extraordinarily intimate relationship with the family. Her contacts with the Luis family also yielded her most recent film, La Boda, which documents the wedding of another Luis daughter, Elizabeth Luis de Guerrero. Guerrero, who lives, works and studies in Austin, Texas, will be present this weekend alongside Weyer, to discuss the two films about her family.

Elsewhere on the program, Cynthia Hill and Charles Thompson will present excerpts from The Guest Worker, a smart and subtle film about H2-A contract laborers from Mexico. The duo showed a short rough cut earlier this fall to a large, knowledgeable and highly opinionated crowd at CDS, and this time around, they're promising a batch of new footage. Also on tap is Raleigh filmmaker Simone Keith's Heavier Than Air, a film that revives the reputation of Alberto Santos-Dumont, a pioneering Brazilian aviator who made his own claim to be the first to create a flying machine. Keith, a native of Brazil, avoids the pitfalls of adjudicating the dispute in favor of exploring the dimensions of a colorful, trailblazing personality.

There will also be a large and diverse array of 18 short films, shown over three separate programs. The topics range from vermicomposting as a solution to the hog waste problem, to the multiple meanings of a hotdog statue, to a look at music file sharing produced by a group of teenage filmmakers from Cary, to a study of a snake without an appetite, to another look at the Israel-Palestine situation.

The Happening is a non-competitive festival that's intended as a weekend of teaching and learning, and as a showcase for new work by young filmmakers. The program will include half a dozen seminars on aspects of the documentary production process. Weyer herself will lead two editing workshops, while local veterans Jim Haverkamp, Nancy Kalow, John Biewen and Randy Benson will focus on topics ranging from finding one's documentary voice to the grueling work of locating an audience for one's newly finished film.

For more information and a complete schedule, visit http://cds.aas.duke.edu/film/2003happening/index.html. A pass for all events is $20 and tickets to individual screenings are $5.

Last weekend, I drove up to my hometown to catch the first annual Asheville Film Festival. I don't have family in Asheville anymore, so my visits over the last eight years or so have been few. Hence, I'm as bowled over as any first-time visitor by the vibrancy and cultural vitality of the town I was desperate to escape as a teenager.

This first festival was a small affair, with 50 films in four days (next year's will also be a four-day event). But I must have heard the phrase "Sundance of the East" 20 times if I heard it once, from politicians, boosters, sponsors and locals. And, why not? The people of Asheville are skilled at the tourism business, and there are dozens and dozens of eateries and bars within a 10-minute walk of all screening venues. It's a surpassingly lovely town with much of its 1920s charm intact, and it's no stretch to imagine New York and LA industry types relishing the prospect of a few days in Asheville every fall.

However, it's a long way to Sundance and, while the all-volunteer festival staff is to be commended for getting the festival off the ground, there are numerous hurdles to overcome before the stars begin to alight. For instance, I'm in a poor position to report on the quality of the films simply because my media pass was useless in getting me into sold-out screenings--which meant virtually everything. The sold-out shows are an undeniable testament to how fervently Asheville embraced this festival, but in the future, the organizers will need to find a way to accommodate the industry and media types they so clearly want to attend. (One program I did manage to get into included the film Armor of God, by Durham's Jim Haverkamp and Winston-Salem's Brett Ingram. Their film took home the prize for best documentary short.)

Most important for the success of the festival, however, is the quality of the films. As one filmmaker told me during the packed awards ceremony in the 22,000 square foot soundstage of Blue Ridge Motion Pictures, "It's a Catch-22. The acquisitions people will come here only if they know the films will be good, and the films will be good only if the acquisitions people are here."

It's a knotty dilemma for sure, and one that stymies 100s of other would-be Sundances. But Asheville, with its crack tourism officials and beautiful attractions, has the raw potential for a must-attend event. However, it's going to take a lot more money and corporate relationships and it's also going to take an investment in a full-time, industry-savvy executive director who can lure the prestige directors and stars.

But it will also take luck. Sundance was put on the map by the success of two initially obscure films that were discovered there: Soderbergh's sex, lies and videotape... and Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. But, if luck is the residue of design, there's no reason why Asheville can't be prepared when the Next Big Thing does indeed arrive.

Three weeks ago, I reported in this space that Chapel Hill filmmaker Amy Morrison Williams was taking her film The Morrison Project to the Hamptons International Film Festival in East Hampton, NY, where her film was among the candidates for a new filmmaker prize. Williams was nervous and somewhat pessimistic at the time, but to her (and our) delight, she won the Golden Starfish Award for Best Documentary Film/Video. More than just a trophy, the prize carries some serious value: $10,000 in cash and in-kind services.

Williams reports that the calls from acquisition reps from major distributors have been coming in, but so has the free advice. "Everyone's telling me what I need to do to my film," she said in a recent telephone conversation. It seems to us that the result speaks for itself, and we wish her good luck and godspeed as her film moves along the festival circuit. EndBlock

  • A Durham festival stays close to its roots, while organizers of an Asheville fest think big


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