Sidewalk Film Festival


life-in-waves-2A Life in Waves

Director Brett Whitcomb and writer/editor Bradford Thomason—filmmakers born and raised in Houston who now call Birmingham home—have tackled some beautifully quirky subject matter in previous documentaries that have drawn attention and audiences on the film-festival circuit. The Rock-afire Explosion is warmly described by a reviewer on Amazon, where it’s now available on video, as “very well-done documentary on the (now defunct) Showbiz Pizza Place animatronic house band,” while “County Fair, Texas” documents a year in the life of four kids from Texas raising animals to show at a local county fair. Glow: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling provides an inside look at the rise and fall of the first all-female wrestling show.

It’s films like these that epitomize the spirit of Sidewalk. They invite you in to meet people, places and entire subcultures you didn’t know you cared about, but before you leave the theatre, you will.

In their latest film, A Life in Waves, which debuted in March at SXSW, Whitcomb and Thomason introduce audiences to electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani. Like other subjects they have explored through film, Ciani is not well known, but many will recognize her work from surprising sources—much of it done for commercials, like the famous “pop n’ pour” sound effect she created for Coca-Cola or “audio logos” for Atari.

As musicians themselves—Whitcomb has experience with synthesizers, and Thomason is a drummer—the two first discovered Ciani through her music. Later they became interested in how she parlayed her talents into commercial work, finding a larger audience without sacrificing her artistic ideals. “Commercial work was a way to bring her art to the masses without compromises,” Thomason explains.

Adds Whitcomb, “It brought commercial value to a level that no one was really doing then. And her commercial work is just one part of her career, because she’s made so many albums, and she’s an accomplished pianist. And the crazy thing is no one has ever heard of her.”

For Thomason and Whitcomb, Ciani’s obscurity created the kind of film making challenge that has traditionally attracted them. They also think it’s the right film for the times—an exploration of early synth music just as retro musical formats and sounds are all the rage. Ciani was one of the few women at the time to do pioneering work in this fledgling musical arena. She had an intense relationship with her instruments, especially her buchla (and if you don’t know what that is, it’s okay). She is also a five-time Grammy nominated recording artist.

Yet, says Whitcomb, “We didn’t want to make a film about synthesizers, though her life was so much about synthesizers. I think what people will come away with and talk about most is how sweet and amazing Suzanne is—her personality, and the way she talks and handles and carries herself. She doesn’t come across as pretentious at all. Electronic music is often very moody, and that’s not even to talk about the fact that it’s usually done by men…for her it’s more romantic, and the sweetness feeds into the music.”

Finally, as they continued to fall in love with their subject and bringing her story to film audiences, they had a stroke of luck when Mark “Money Mark” Ramos Nishita, best known for his collaborations with the Beastie Boys, came on board as an executive director. “That pushed it to another level,” Whitcomb says.

This is Thomason and Whitcomb’s fourth appearance at Sidewalk, which happens to be the festival that introduced Thomason to his wife, Ali Clark, who has worked in various capacities on several indie films herself. They met during the screening of GLOW here in 2012 and married in 2014, with Thomason—and later Whitcomb—relocating to Birmingham. Clark also worked with them on A Life in Waves, including creating its title sequence.

But just because they live here, and their films have been well received (GLOW won the Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary”), the filmmakers say they never take Sidewalk—or any festival audience, anywhere—for granted. “Our films are our heart and soul,” Whitcomb says, “and I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing than creating our own art and showing it to people, so it’s always nerve wracking to sit with an audience not knowing what they’re going to think. And I actually don’t want to lose that feeling. It would be like losing part of the magic of film making for us. So every project is almost like a first film for us, and we hope the audience is as into it as much has we are into it.”

mbi_press3Most Beautiful Island

A film inspired by the true experiences of writer, director and star Ana Asensio, Most Beautiful Island hits some of the most exposed nerves in America today—and around the world, even or especially in the biggest cities (in this case, New York), where glamour is tinged with danger, for no one more than the undocumented immigrant willing to take any chance necessary to make a new life. While the rest of us debate immigration, or pity the refugees, or ruminate on the real meanings of borders and equal opportunity, the women at the heart of Most Beautiful Island don’t have time to ponder. This is a film about survival.

The heroine is Luciana (played by Asensio), who lives in a roach-infested apartment and proves as scrappy as she is beautiful. She has to be—trying to pay her rent with jobs she can get without documentation, tired but determined. If any of that sounds boilerplate, though, think again. Most Beautiful Island is produced by Larry Fessenden, whom the late Roger Ebert once called an “indie horror icon,” and there’s plenty of horror here to hold your attention during the lean 80 minutes of action, all of which takes place during a single day. (Fessenden also makes an appearance as a toughest-of-the-tough bouncer at a private party that plays like a climactic horror flick inside the larger movie.)

Shot on Super 16MM, Most Beautiful Island often hints leaves much to the imagination, including the circumstances that lead Luciana to flee her home country in the first place. Other elements are eventually revealed on screen but can’t be here, for risk of ruining the suspense—such as what happens in the private rooms of an exclusive gathering—Variety darkly calls it “dangerous party for rich and ruthless New Yorkers”—where Luciana is hired to work in a role she won’t know until the point of no return.

Other actors include Natasha Romanova (who plays Olga, Luciana’s best friend in the city who gets her the gig), David Little, Nicholas Tucci, and several more.

Other selling points aside, maybe the most important elements to consider before choosing your films for the festival this year are that Most Beautiful Island won Grand Jury Award for Narrative Feature at SXSW, and it will be released by Orion Pictures and Samuel Goldwyn Films this fall, meaning this is a movie with buzz and legs, and Sidewalk might be one of the last chance to catch a sneak peak before the masses. You wouldn’t want to let that happen.

42-grams-142 Grams

Documentary, Biography, Drama

Directed by Jack C. Newel, 42 Grams (formerly Courses) has created a moving portrait chronicling the unlikely journey of chef Jake Bickelhaupt, who goes from illegal restaurateur—operating a restaurant out of his home—to above-board culinary celebrity. (The movie takes its name from the famed restaurant Bickelhaup and wife Alexa Welsh owned in Chicago, which is now closed. The uptown restaurant was so popular diners pre-purchased tickets to multi-course meals for $200 and up).

Newell is known for former films like Open Tables, which features mini-portraits of couples and groups in restaurants as they reveal intimate stories of their lives and relationship, and the narrative film Close Quarters.

unnamedQuest

Documentary

In Quest, the director Jonathan Olshefski explores a decade in the life of a neglected, bullet-ridden pocket of north Philadelphia. He focuses on one family in particular, the Raineys: Christopher (or “Quest,” his hip-hop nickname), wife Christine’a and their children. The poverty they and their neighbors face is brutal, and brutal things happen. Christine’a’s son is diagnosed with a brain tumor, while their daughter loses an eye after being hit by a stray bullet, and Olshefski captures all of it. But the Raineys are not without hope, opening their home as a music studio to serve the community and help people escape the conflict around them. Variety calls Quest a “true testament to love, healing and hope of a family during a time of turmoil.”

7Lucky

Drama

Shot in just 18 days, Lucky is widely summarized as “the spiritual journey of 90-year-old-atheist”—which might not awaken as much interest if not for the fact that the title role of  Lucky  is played by cinematic icon Harry Dean Stanton, an actor so beloved by his fans he’s actually inspired a festival of his own (Harry Dean Stanton Fest, held annually in his home state of Kentucky.) And if Stanton himself is not enough of a draw, toss in appearances by David Lynch, Rod Livingston, and Ed Begley, Jr., who help fill out the cast of characters in this isolated desert town, and viewers have themselves what Rotten Tomatoes calls “…a meditation on mortality, loneliness, spirituality, and human connection.” Directed by John Carroll Lynch.

my-friend-dahmer-1My Friend Dahmer

Drama

If the name Dahmer doesn’t ring a bell, you won’t immediately understand why  My Friend Dahmer  is must-see viewing. But if you’re old enough to remember the 1991 arrest of Jeffrey Dahmer and subsequent discovery of one of the most gruesome crime scenes ever, even by serial-killer standards, the idea of an inside, dramatized look at Dahmer as a teenager—based on the recollections of Derf Backderf, who went to high school with him and later wrote a graphic novel about it—is morbidly irresistible. My Friend Dahmer  was written and directed by Marc Meyers and stars Ross Lynch of “Teen Beach Movie” fame.

still005_theroadmovieThe Road Movie

Documentary

Directed by Dmitrii Kalashnikov and described improbably as at once “fun, scary, humorous” and full of “existential dread,” The Road Movie is really and truly shot using footage from dashboard cameras installed on Russian automobiles. Ranging from road rage to casual commentary from drivers and passengers and the occasional natural disaster, the film shows how much a person can learn from a dash-cam—and just how creative storytelling can be if you think outside the box. “The film really depicts the essence of Russian life and the Russian attitude to life,” Kalashkinov told The Hollywood Reporter.

sidewalk-screener-rachelConfessions of a Sidewalk Screener:Rachel Ahrnsen

B-Metro: Do you watch everything, or are the films divided into categories to make it more manageable for the screeners?

Ahrnsen: They divide it into three main categories: short films, narrative films and documentary films. You can request which ones you want to do, but depends on what the availability it is, so I just watch what they tell me to watch. The past two years I’ve done documentaries, and I really enjoy screening those.

B-Metro: What kind of time commitment are we talking about?

Ahrnsen: Documentaries are full-length films, so they’re around an hour-and-a-half or two hours. I think I watched 37 documentaries this year. You have four or five months to watch them all, but it does take a lot of time. Every spare moment I had, would pull up a documentary and start watching.

B-Metro: Is there any pre-screening process, or do you literally watch every submission, even the ones that have no chance of making it?

Ahrnsen: We are the pre-screening process! We are the first line of defense against movies that no would should have to watch. We see everything. I’ve seen some pretty bizarre and terrible movies through this process. It’s always a fun thing. People do pay to put their movie in the running, so I personally feel like I should give it my best shot to watch the entire movie, because maybe it starts off awful but redeems itself later…so I watch the whole movie even though it’s extremely painful sometimes.

“But I will say that the submissions are just getting better and better every year as Sidewalk gains prestige. Among this year’s submissions, there were only a couple of documentary entries where I felt like, ‘Oh no, this is awful!’” Most were amazing, and they’re going to have a really hard time making the final cuts.”

B-Metro: How does the review process work?

Ahrnsen: We use a platform called Film Freeway. It’s what most of the film festivals use. All these folks upload their films to it, and the screeners have been granted access to see them. So once you get in there, you just choose your movie and watch it, and I like to take notes about what I liked and what I didn’t like while watching it. Then we have a form to go through and fill out the questions about each movie, giving it a one to 10 rating in different categories, like, is this appropriate for kids? Does it feel like a Sidewalk film?

“My favorite section is the part that’s basically, ‘Anything else you’d like to add?’ I always like to break that down into, was the camera work professional or was it more home-video quality? Is this a subject that people who go to Sidewalk would be interested in? Was a moving film? Did it make me cry? Did it make me scream, or was it super boring? I’m a very honest person, so I enjoy giving my unfiltered opinion.

B-Metro: What are some death knells for you—and conversely, what makes something a great film for Sidewalk?

Ahrnsen: “There are a couple of death knells for me. One is if it’s just really confusing, if an audience member would not be able to figure out what the heck is going on in this film.

You want the quality of the film making to be fairly high, but there are some really good amateur documentaries out there would I would say, man, the subject matter is so interesting that I’m going to push for it anyway. But there are others where you think, ‘Oh wow, someone made a Power Point into a movie. That’s not quite what we’re looking for.’ And then if movies have bad sound quality issues, that’s a big issue. It could be a perfectly fine documentary, but if it’s screeching and crackling, the audience isn’t going to be able to enjoy it.

“The biggest test is, can this keep my attention? If I’m checking Facebook while I’m watching it, this probably is not the most engaging documentary. But I know it’s a really good documentary when I can’t tear my eyes away and I don’t want to get up to go to the bathroom because I don’t want to stop it. And then there are some really strange documentaries you’ll see, and then you have to gauge, is it strange in a good way or is it strange in a bad way? Will people want to see this, or will the theatre be empty?

B-Metro: What makes a great Sidewalk film?

Ahrnsen: I think Sidewalk films have really well-done camera work, they’re interesting, oftentimes a little bit offbeat, a little quirky, creative…they’re something the audience hasn’t seen before. With documentaries especially, we try and stay away from those kind of very dry, educational, classroom-type films and go for things that are more engaging and action packed and risky and fun.

B-Metro: Do you have a favorite documentary from last year?

Ahrnsen: I do. Most people aren’t making documentaries about subjects that everyone already knows about—they’re making documentaries about obscure cultures and subjects—and last year my favorite was one called “Chicken People,” which was all about chicken aficionados. These are people who breed these fancy breeds of chickens and take them to chicken shows and dedicated their entire lives to raising chickens…it is just absolutely fascinating and a wonderful, heartwarming, quirky and bizarre documentary. But it was really well attended. It’s a good example of how you learn about these bizarre subjects and subcultures that you never knew even existed before you watched it.

B-Metro: How do you feel about the prospects for this year’s lineup, once the final cuts are announced?

Ahrnsen: I am the most excited I have ever been. I think I’m going to get my heart broken, because there are so many amazing documentaries, and I know that they can’t fit them all in unless they make Sidewalk Film Festival 15 days long. But they have such high caliber films to choose from this year.

What I love to do is once they actually release the list of the films they’ve chosen, I immediately tell everyone I know what my recommendations are, because I’m just so excited for people to be able to see these films. We’re so lucky to have a festival like Sidewalk here in Birmingham where people can see these films that are shown at Sundance and other major film festivals, and it’s right in their hometown.

notes-on-blindnessReality Shows

What does it really feel like to spend 23 hours a day in a solitary confinement cell? Or to lose your eyesight? Or what if you could watch a film—and along the way become part of the story?

For the first time, this year’s Sidewalk film festival is offering these experiences as part of “Sidewalk XR” (short for “extended realities”), almost a festival within the festival that adds a new, cutting-edge, virtual-reality technology into the mix.

There are three Sidewalk XR experiences—FragmentsNotes on Blindness and 6×9— scheduled at staggered time slots throughout the day on Saturday the 26th and Sunday the 27th, all held in the basement of the Lyric theatre. (Registration for Sidewalk XR is available as a ticketing add-on for all VIP and weekend passes.)

6x9Organizers made a special effort to choose three experiences that are as different as possible in the new world of virtual or interactive experiences. 6×9, viewed through a Samsung Gear headset, immerses you, if only for 10 minutes, in a tiny cell that many consider inhumane or worse for the sense of isolation and sensory deprivation it creates—then dares you to imagine a prisoner’s life in that cell 23 hours a day, for weeks, months or even years.

Notes on Blindness, also experienced wearing a Samsung Gear headset, is based on the experiences of a theologian who lost his eyesight at the age of 45. Sidewalk presenters describe it as an “interactive VR experienced based on the sensory and psychological experience of blindness. Each scene addresses a memory, a moment and a specific location, using binaural audio and real-time 3D animations to create a fully immersive experience in a world beyond site.”

fragmentsFragments differs from the other offerings in that it is as much an artful video game as it is a film. In this experience, a crime thriller, the viewer wears the Microsoft HoloLens AR and enters the crime scene to search for clues and interact with the characters while the technology uses spatial mapping to blend game elements with your actual surroundings. At 40 minutes, Fragments has the longest runtime of the three Sidewalk “experiences.”

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