Sidewalk At 20


Chloe Cook, executive director of Sidewalk.

Our film festival all grown up

Written by  Rosalind Fournier

It’s hard to quantify the contributions the Sidewalk Film Festival—celebrating its 20th anniversary this year—has made to the artistic groove that’s turned downtown Birmingham into a beacon for the creative class, young professionals, and anyone who embraces the resurgence of a vibrant city center. But by bringing groundbreaking filmmaking, a new form of tourism, and recognition to the whole region, Sidewalk has clearly been a powerful catalyst.

Along the way, we’ve seen the dramatic resurrection of the Lyric Theatre, renovations to the Alabama Theatre, growth of the Red Mountain Theatre Company and a new, first-class theatre at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, all part of the new theatre district that houses most events during Sidewalk. Maybe those things would have developed anyway, but it seems more likely the festival has played an integral part in bringing newfound creative energy downtown.

And Sidewalk has grown exponentially. “When I started 10 years ago,” says Chloe Cook, executive director of Sidewalk, “we were still screening many films in rooms with flat floors, folding chairs and screens on stands. And there’s nothing wrong with that—but the ever-evolving nature of Sidewalk has led us to where we are today. We’ve grown along with our audience and raised own expectations, too.”

This year’s festival—set for August 20-26—will feature more than 250 films in 10 screening venues, attracting some 14,000 film lovers and curiosity seekers from across the region and around the world. It’s been named “One of the Top 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World” by MovieMaker; “One of the Top 10 Festivals for the Rest of Us” by TIME; and “One of the Top 10 Places for a Fabulous Film Festival” by USA Today. A 501c3 non-profit organization, Sidewalk makes an estimated $1.4 million economic impact on the City of Birmingham during festival week.

Here are a few of the highlights to look for when Sidewalk 2018 kicks off August 20.

Opening Night Feature:

White Tide: The Legend of Culebra

Director: Theo Love

Documentary

The opening-night film for this year’s Sidewalk Film Festival, the documentary White Tide: The Legend of Culebra meets all the criteria for the kind of eccentric indie that can make for a big festival hit. The premise is unlikely but true—a small business owner, wiped out and desperate after the financial crisis of 2008, goes in search of a $2 million stash of cocaine rumored to be buried on a Caribbean island. The “actors” include Rodney Hyden, the man who actually hatched the plan to uncover the drugs and solve all of his financial woes, and others who participated in the events re-enacting their own roles. It’s fast paced and funny; and White Tide (which has been called a “cocaine docu-drama”) is quickly becoming the little film that could, having already been received enthusiastically at the Tribeca Film Festival. After Sidewalk, it will go on to the Toronto International Film Festival.

Director Theo Love is known for his documentary film work and received critical acclaim for his first film, Little Hope Was Arson.

More Not-to-Miss Features

It’s hard to quantify the contributions the Sidewalk Film Festival—celebrating its 20th anniversary this year—has made to the artistic groove that’s turned downtown Birmingham into a beacon for the creative class, young professionals, and anyone who embraces the resurgence of a vibrant city center. But by bringing groundbreaking filmmaking, a new form of tourism, and recognition to the whole region, Sidewalk has clearly been a powerful catalyst.

Along the way, we’ve seen the dramatic resurrection of the Lyric Theatre, renovations to the Alabama Theatre, growth of the Red Mountain Theatre Company and a new, first-class theatre at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, all part of the new theatre district that houses most events during Sidewalk. Maybe those things would have developed anyway, but it seems more likely the festival has played an integral part in bringing newfound creative energy downtown.

And Sidewalk has grown exponentially. “When I started 10 years ago,” says Chloe Cook, executive director of Sidewalk, “we were still screening many films in rooms with flat floors, folding chairs and screens on stands. And there’s nothing wrong with that—but the ever-evolving nature of Sidewalk has led us to where we are today. We’ve grown along with our audience and raised own expectations, too.”

This year’s festival—set for August 20-26—will feature more than 250 films in 10 screening venues, attracting some 14,000 film lovers and curiosity seekers from across the region and around the world. It’s been named “One of the Top 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World” by MovieMaker; “One of the Top 10 Festivals for the Rest of Us” by TIME; and “One of the Top 10 Places for a Fabulous Film Festival” by USA Today. A 501c3 non-profit organization, Sidewalk makes an estimated $1.4 million economic impact on the City of Birmingham during festival week.

Here are a few of the highlights to look for when Sidewalk 2018 kicks off August 20.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Anonymous/AP/REX/Shutterstock (6595935a)
Radner Actress-comedian Gilda Radner, left, jokes with a person in a King Kong costume at a party she hosted for Mark Green, who is running for congress, on the observatory floor of the Empire State Building in New York City, Tuesday night
GILDA RADNER, NEW YORK, USA

Love, Gilda

Director: Lisa D’Apolito

Documentary

In Love, Gilda, the story of the late comedian Gilda Radner, director Lisa D’Apolito makes use of recently discovered audiotapes featuring Radner herself, along with interviews with friends and colleagues from Chevy Chase to Paul Shaffer and Martin Short to create an intimate look at Radner’s remarkable career. Home movies and personal diaries—read by Radner aficionados and modern-day comedians like Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph—add to a well-rounded, affectionate portrait.

Hale County:

This Morning, This Evening

Director: RaMell Ross

Documentary

In Hale County: This Morning, This Evening, Director RaMell Ross follows two young African-American men from Hale County, Alabama, a Black Belt community with a population hovering around just 15,700. Ross depicts the lives of her subjects, Daniel Collins and Quincy Bryant, over five years, creating an artful portrait of what’s been described as a story of the “beauty of life and consequences of race, while simultaneously existing as a testament to dreaming—despite the odds.”  Hale Countywon the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Creative Vision at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

Support the Girls

Director: Andrew Bujalski

Narrative

Support the Girls tells the fictional story of the manager of a Hooters-style restaurant who fights to protect her busty and beautiful employees as they struggle to manage all-too-real personal lives behind the scenes. Variety calls it director Andrew Bujalski’s “toast to working-class women who make the best of bad options.” Support the Girls premiered at SXSW 2018.

Damsel

Directors: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner

Narrative

IndieWire calls Damsel a “poetic take on Blazing Saddles with a feminist twist”…with an “stunningly odd opening that suggests Waiting for Godot reimagined by Sergio Leone.” That’s a lot of movie icon mash-ups for a deceptively simple old-West-style film starring Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska, as well as directors David and Nathan Zellner—making it a film that might be better seen than described. Look for what’s been described as lush cinematography by Adam Stone and a lot of smart, witty dialogue. Damsel appeared earlier this year at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

If I Leave Here Tomorrow:

A Film About

Lynyrd Skynyrd

Director: Stephen Kijak

Documentary

If I Leave Here Tomorrow, the authorized documentary of Lynyrd Skynyrd, features new perspective on one of the most famous Southern rock bands ever (think anthems like “Freebird,” “Simple Man,” “Sweet Home Alabama” and, of course, “If I Leave Here Tomorrow”). Much of the film centers on the life of frontman Ronnie Van Zant, along with new interviews with guitarist Gary Rossington and details on the 1977 plane crash that claimed the lives of three band members, a road manager, and two pilots.

If I Leave Here Tomorrow debuted at SXSW earlier this year.

FEATURE FILM WITH ALABAMA TIES

Wrestle

Director: Suzannah Herbert

Co-Director: Lauren Belfer

Documentary

J.O. Johnson High School in Huntsville was on Alabama’s failing schools list for years, but their wrestling team was a force to be reckoned with, and this study of its athletes provides a powerful window in the world of high-school sports as well as underprivileged teenagers dealing with challenges from teenage pregnancy to racial profiling. We talked with director Suzannah Herbert and co-director Lauren Belfer about the making of Wrestle.

B-Metro: How did the community respond to your wanting to make the film?

Herbert: They were extremely welcoming. They’re excited about people from outside coming in and seeing what they’re doing. I think we did bring an interesting perspective because it is a very masculine sport, and maybe a more feminine viewpoint helps in how we tell the story.

Belfer: I think if anything there was more confusion or resistance from the film community, just because it is an unexpected topic for female filmmakers to choose. But I think that our perspective is more sensitive, and we were able to look at the story behind the wrestling and really get into the kids’ lives rather than just focus on, do they win or do they not?

B-Metro:  What were the biggest challenges?

Herbert: One of the biggest challenges was in the editing room. We filmed for six months in Huntsville and had over 600 hours of footage and amazing material. So to tell the story that we wanted to tell, it was hard to weave it all together, and our editor Pablo Proenza really helped in that process.

Belfer: With a whole team full of amazing kids, we tried to catch little moments that reflected everyone’s personalities even if they weren’t our main four characters. It is such a team dynamic, and it became clear to us that everyone has a story to share.

MORE LOCAL FILMS TO CATCH

Union

Director: Whitney Hamilton

Narrative

A woman disguises herself as her dead brother to join the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Along the way, she is reunited with her brother’s widow, and the two form an intimate bond that helps save both lives. The movie features several local actors, including director Whitney Hamilton, who plays a starring role, and Virginia Newcomb, who grew up in Alabaster.

Little Music Manchild: The Malik Kofi Story

Director: Malena Cunningham Anderson

Documentary

If you have never heard of Malik Kofi—a brilliant 11-year-old from Birmingham who mastered the cello from a young age and already has surpassed musicians many years his senior—this is a film you need to see. If the music doesn’t blow you away, Kofi’s precociously articulate and thoughtful perspectives will leave you wanting to find out more about what makes him tick.


The Sidewalk Film Center and Cinema

When Moonlight—an independent film that went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture—first came to Birmingham, “it was on a screen in Birmingham for about a week,” remembers Chloe Cook, executive director for the Sidewalk Film Festival. “And then when the Academy Award nominations came out, then the film came back. But there is so much history of that happening in our community because there isn’t a year-round cinema dedicated to independent films.”

That’s the void that the Sidewalk Film Center and Cinema plans to fill in the near future, once they’ve completed their $4.9 fundraising goal. The new cinema will show not only smaller-budget and lesser-known  films but also art-house, foreign, and local films as well.

Birmingham film enthusiasts have been working towards this goal for years, says Edgar Marx, Jr., a local buff who has been involved in the push since the late 1990s. The project has come in fits and starts, but now that a venue has been secured in the basement of the Pizitz—and just over $3.6 raised already for the project—the stars are finally beginning to align.

“The development in the Pizitz will be two 100-seat cinemas, a concessions area, bar area, and also offices for Sidewalk, which is great for all the educational development and programming that Sidewalk does,” Marx says.

“We think of it as a very nice complement to the Alabama Theatre and to other entertainment venues downtown in the theatre district,” he continues. “We believe that creating a vibrant cultural landscape will be attractive to tomorrow’s workforce and that the Sidewalk Cinema in turn represents a meaningful investment in Birmingham.”

Cook adds that based on their research of similar independent cinemas in other cities, it’s important to meet their goal of keeping the space open seven days a week, 365 days a year, just like any other theatre. “We’re really trying to own that space as a real movie theatre that’s just showing different content—more curated-for-our-community content than people might see at the big-box theatre,” she says. “And that’s not a criticism of big-box theatres—everybody on our staff including me is regularly visiting the local AMC and enjoying ourselves there—it’s just a different sort of model.”

Adds Marx: “This is a way of delivering an art form that a lot of us want to give back to Birmingham. I think movies are exciting; they’re vibrant. As much as people are watching more movies on their iPads today, a lot of people still like the energy of a unique film-going experience.”

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