It's the morning after Inauguration Day in Park City, Utah, and attendance at the Anarchy Online Competition screening at Slamdance is sparse. Perhaps due to Obama parties the night before (or non-Obama parties—no excuse is needed for a party during festival time), the audience consists mostly of the filmmakers and their friends.
Despite the low turnout, Todd Tinkham, prolific Durham filmmaker and cinephile, is clearly in his element. A stocky, gregarious man with an intense yet playful expression, his film, Alexa, is screening with seven others, and he's relishing his first trip to Park City. Many are here to network and schmooze, but the praise he gives his fellow artists is genuine. "I love this one," he whispers at the start of a particularly professional-looking production, about two little girls who beat a man to death with a shovel.
The mondo movie bacchanalia down the street, Sundance, celebrates its 25th year; meanwhile, Slamdance, the highest-profile of the various concurrent, piggybacking festivals, is turning 15. Its reputation is that of an edgier, more youthful, lower-budget version of its more famous counterpart, and at this screening, virtually every other filmmaker in the room fits a particular stereotype: 20-something, living in L.A., working in entertainment and/ or cultivating industry contacts.
In his late 40s, Tinkham is old enough to be their father, and his journey to the festival has been anything but typical. After 20 years working with at-risk youth, he finally decided to pursue his dreams and start making movies. "I was living in Carrboro," he says, "and there was a guy I met at the Center for Documentary Studies who had a friend visiting from South Africa, who was a cinematographer for the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. And he was here and he couldn't work, and I was trying to make a documentary for a certificate for CDS."
Tinkham arranged to meet the cinematographer in Ireland so he could help him with his documentary. "He and I went out and he was showing me how to shoot. One night we were eating at a pub, and he said, 'I really want to make a fiction film, I've done a lot of documentary and a lot of TV stuff.' And I said I'd been leaning toward that myself, and he said, 'Just write something short and let's do it!
"So we pulled together a little crew, all voluntary, and shot it in a weekend. It was so much fun, I felt more alive than I had felt in years. I felt like a kid again. I decided that that's what I wanted to do, and I had known it when I was young, that I was going to get back into it. As a kid I'd wanted to write and direct films, and then life kind of pushes you in other directions ... and before you know it, it's 'Whose life is this?'"
Since 2004, he's been making up for lost time, writing, directing and editing at a furious clip, churning out about a half dozen films a year. "He says he's going to take a break," laughs his frequent co-producer Lisa Cates, who acted in Alexa with her sister, Mary, both of whom Tinkham has brought with him to Park City. "And then, like a week later: 'I'm going to make a short in an hour, come on and help us'!"
His Slamdance entry, Alexa, was shot in a day in and around the swimming pool of his house. Featuring lush underwater camerawork and surprisingly effective improvised props, it's about a brooding pre-teen girl, lost in a private reverie to which the adults in her life remain oblivious. Its themes of childhood and innocence lost come up repeatedly in Tinkham's films.
"Almost all of my films have kids," he says. "There's usually a coming up against the adult world that forces the kids to change forever." His experience as a youth counselor and as a father (he has a 21-year-old daughter), as well as memories of a difficult childhood, forms the emotional core of much of his work. "I think kids have a rich life that goes on under the surface," he explains. "There's a different world that kids inhabit that we're unaware of, even our own kids. We know them, to an extent, but we don't; we don't know what's going on with them."
Tinkham is a driving force in the Triangle's indie film scene, recruiting cast and crew from a loose-knit local ensemble. (Full disclosure: I was an extra in the background of one of his films, shot at a funeral home in downtown Durham.) Nic Beery, a frequent collaborator, says, "Todd's a big part of motivating and inspiring all of us to move forward and kind of live our dreams, not just his dream; we try to do the best we can on his films, but he kind of inspires us to go out and do it ourselves too. He believes in everything he's doing and his enthusiasm rubs off on others."
Tinkham feels encouraged by his many acceptances into festivals, of which Slamdance is merely the latest. And he remains in relentless pursuit of his muse. Barely a month into the new year, he's already finished two shorts in 2009. "Time's ticking, I'm halfway through my life," he says. "Most of the kids here are 25 and they're going to live forever. I'm more like, what are we waiting for? I've spent a lot of time doing other things, but now I'm doing what I want to do and I'm not quitting."