2015’s Sidewalk Film Festival marks 17 years of one of the most revered film festivals in the Southeast. That’s 17 years of celebrating independent cinema, of putting Birmingham on the maps of filmmakers near and far, and of connecting filmmakers to each other and to their audiences. This year’s festival takes place August 28-30 across a number of venues in Birmingham’s historic theatre district, attracting filmmakers and movie goers from across the world.
Two boys with a dream conquer the impossible.
Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made is the story of two boys and their dream.
When Chris Strompolos saw Raiders of the Lost Ark—yes, the Indiana Jones film—he loved it so much that the only thing he could think to do was remake it. It was 1982 and Strompolos was 11 at the time; he joined up with Eric Zala, also 11, and the kids set out on a journey to remake the movie, scene by scene.
It took seven years to complete the task, filming every summer and growing up before the camera. As children, they completed every shot except the explosive airplane scene; then, as teenagers, they got in a tiff (over a girl, of course) and went their separate ways. Thirty years later, they came back together to finally realize their dream and build a replica of the 75-foot “Flying Wing” plane from Lost Ark.
That was the original remake, which director Jeremy Coon stumbled upon when Zala and Strompolos held a viewing of their movie (called Raiders: The Adaptation) in Park City, Utah. Coon was immediately intrigued by what he saw; he asked Strompolos if they could grab dinner and discuss making a documentary. “At that time, I was feeling jaded about filmmaking in general and lost a lot of the joy of making movies that I once had when I started. Their film really inspired me with the idea that nothing is too hard or impossible to do,” Coon says. “About 15 to 20 minutes into their film, I turned to my friend and said that this needed to be a documentary.”
Once Strompolos and Zala agreed to the documentary, Coon signed on director Tim Skousen and they set to work documenting the making of the best fan film ever. “Whether you love Raiders of the Lost Ark or not, this film is really about a lot more than just kids making movies. It’s about growing up and dealing with the different aspects of life,” Skousen says. “Chris and Eric’s film was the original Boyhood, with the boys changing ages from 12 up to 17 as they filmed during some of the most pivotal years we experience as human beings. Nearly all the kids who made this film were dealing with domestic issues at home from divorce to abandonment to abuse, not to mention normal teenage issues like first girlfriends, high school, and failing friendships. Their film became a sort of refuge into which the kids could throw themselves. So almost anyone can watch this documentary and see a little of themselves in the struggles of these kids.”
For Strompolos and Zala, finishing what they had set out to do so long ago was an experience like no other. They feel like Coon and Skousen handled their childhood dream with the utmost care, as well. “Another thing I experienced is that people, when they are focused, feel good, and feel positive, are capable of mind-bending, life-altering, extraordinary things. I’ve never seen people push themselves as hard as I did when our teams were working on the plane scene. That’s a tear jerker for me to think about,” Strompolos says. “Working with the doc crew? It was confirming and inspiring to see Jeremy and Tim work so tirelessly—they are two people that have the utmost integrity across the board—as filmmakers, as people, on a personal and a professional level. They have been incredible to work with and getting to know them as friends, as colleagues, as human beings. I am thankful for that. I feel like we have been in excellent care every step of the way. I’d do it all again with them in a heartbeat.”
Raiders! is a close-up look at the human experience, especially that sweet, difficult time of coming of age, Strompolos says. “I think the doc is universal, honest, bittersweet, nostalgic, daring, and I feel will hit a nerve for many people,” he says.
Skousen echoes that sentiment: “We hope it gives people a glimpse into the nostalgia of the 80s, along with the lesson of the importance of finishing what you start. Because these kids never gave up, they have impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world who are inspired by their story and their passion. We hope viewers leave inspired to go out there and do the impossible.”
Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made is the opening night feature film for the 2015 Sidewalk Film Festival, premiering Friday, Aug. 28, at 8 p.m.
The story of a white supremacist and a town that fights back.
Have you ever read something that stopped you in your tracks? Something that made your blood run cold—something that made you question humanity?
Back in 2013, Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker, who own No Weather Productions (noweather.com), a documentary and commercial production company located in Brooklyn, New York, read an article in the New York Times. The article (“New Neighbor’s Agenda: White Power Takeover” by John Eligon) told the story of a man, Paul Craig Cobb, who had moved to the tiny (population of about 20 tiny) town of Leith in rural North Dakota.
Though he looked like a normal man, he had an unusual—and distressing—mission in Leith: Buy it up, take it over, and turn it into a home base for white supremacists. At the time of the article, Cobb had bought several plots of land in Leith that he turned over to other white supremacists (who didn’t live in Leith at the time). “… [in an interview] he also said that he hoped his plans in Leith would ‘excite’ white people and ‘give them confidence because we’re being deracinated in our own country. We’ve been very, very tolerant about these major sociological changes,’” Eligon writes in the article. “On one board, he detailed his vision for the community—an enclave where residents fly ‘racialist’ banners, where they are able to import enough ‘responsible hard core’ white nationalists to take control of the town government, where ‘leftist journalists or antis’ who ‘come and try to make trouble’ will face arrest.”
The article both intrigued and alarmed Nichols and Walker. They recognized it immediately as something worthy of documenting, despite the outcome. Thus, their feature-length film Welcome to Leith, exploring Cobb, Leith, and the other residents of the town, was born. “It felt like something out of a Western was taking place in this incredibly isolated place—someone was trying to take over a town, and the town was fighting back,” Nichols says. “The cinematic possibilities seemed endless. And then there were the so-called heavy themes of first amendment rights, civil liberties, gun laws, racism, vigilantism, etc. The story was imbued with some incredibly fertile and fascinating ideas, but most of all, it was just such an incredible series of unfolding events and we wanted to go there, embed, and film it.”
The two headed to Leith that fall and filmed; they cut a trailer, which went viral on Vimeo. “We learned how powerful having a small crew (in our case, two people) is, despite its inherent challenges. People are really able to relax and semi-forget that you’re filming if you don’t have extraneous crew members moving around behind the scenes,” Nichols says of filming. After that, they teamed up with The Cinemart and Sundial Pictures as producing partners, which helped secure the project as a feature-length film. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, they were able to hire Joshua Woltermann as editor, and they sent a cut of the film to Lois Vossen of PBS’s Independent Lens, who loved it—Independent Lens acquired the North American TV rights shortly thereafter and completed funding for the film. The film will premiere at the esteemed Sundance Film Festival in the winter of 2015. Nichols says they’re hoping to lock down a theatrical release of Leith as well.
Leith will appear at Sidewalk on Saturday, Aug. 29 (though the schedule is subject to change.) Nichols says he’s excited about Sidewalk because he’s heard great things—and because Welcome to Leith actually has ties to Alabama. Part of the film was shot at Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery. “We figured it’d be a good fit,” he explains. He says he hopes the film gives its audience a lot to think about, especially in regards to race. “It’s a wildly unusually story,” he says, “and unfortunately, it’s timelier than ever.”
Up next for Nichols and Walker are a couple of film shorts, and Nichols says they are always on the lookout for the next feature film idea. “It’s a fascinating way of making a living—endlessly challenging and full of new people and experiences,” he says of his career as a filmmaker. “Films are, to me, one of the most powerful mediums in which to tell stories.”
In 2013, Eligon wrote, “It is difficult to tell whether Mr. Cobb wants or expects his vision for Leith to succeed.” Welcome to Leith set out with a mission to explore just that—and to find out if Cobb succeeded or not.
The 411 on the 2015 Sidewalk Lineup
The hottest films you can’t miss this year
Though it’s a sequel to 2004’s Hide and Creep, For A Few Zombies More stands on its own. The local film tells the story of a girl with no name who braves post-apocalyptic horrors to rescue a man who might hold the key to mankind’s salvation. “If you like horror, science fiction, zombies, post-apocalyptic wastelands, rock music, gunfights, knife fights, horses, or LaserDiscs, this movie has something for you,” says director/writer Chance Shirley. “As with all of the movies I’ve worked on, I hope people have as much fun watching it as I had making it.” In addition to Shirley, Chuck Hartsell wrote and directed Zombies, and a host of other talented people came together to make it happen.
APARTMENT TROUBLES is based on the real-life experience of writers/actors/directors Jennifer Prediger (Uncle Kent, Red Flag) and Jess Weixler (Teeth, The Good Wife). “Jess and I were illegally subletting a dilapidated, bohemian E. Village apartment in New York City. The stove almost exploded, we got an eviction notice, the bathroom was held together with duct tape. This very alive place inspired us,” Prediger explains. The film explores a multitude of themes in this setting with a healthy dose of comedic relief. Actors Megan Mullally (Will & Grace), Will Forte (Last Man on Earth, Saturday Night Live), and Jeffrey Tambor (Transparent, Arrested Development) join to share the story of Olivia and Nicole, who take off to Los Angeles in search of fame and fortune after getting evicted from their NYC apartment. “The movie is about trying to make it, friendship, love, and loss—all the big stuff in life,” Prediger says.
The Tribe is one of a kind, even at a premiere film festival. The feature-length film, telling the story of a deaf teenager struggling to fit it at a boarding school, unfolds through the nonverbal acting and sign language from a cast of deaf, nonprofessional actors—with no need for subtitles or voiceover—resulting in a unique, never-before-experienced cinematic event that engages the audience on a new sensory level. It was written and directed by Miroslav Slaboshpitsky and stars Grigoriy Fesenko and Yana Novikova. “I’ve been thinking about making a movie like this for 20 years. This is an homage to silent film, in which actors communicated primarily through pantomime,” Slaboshpitsky says. “While contemporary silent movies continue to be made, all works I’ve seen directly follow the silent movie stylization. My goal was to instead make a more realistic, natural silent film, which could be easily understood without words.”
Extending far beyond the confines of Google and Facebook, there is a vast, unseen area of the Internet called the Deep Web. This mysterious cyberspace serves as an outlet for anonymous communication and was home to Silk Road, the online black market notorious for drug trafficking. The intricacies of this alternate Internet caught the attention of the general public with the October 2013 arrest of Ross William Ulbricht, the convicted 30-year-old entrepreneur accused of being “Dread Pirate Roberts,” the online pseudonym of the Silk Road creator and operator. Deep Web, written, directed, and produced by Alex Winter, seeks to unravel this tangled web of secrecy, accusations, and criminal activity, and explores how the outcome of Ulbricht’s trial will set a critical precedent for the future of technological freedom around the world. “We are living in extraordinary times; the transition from the Industrial Age to the Technological. This shift has huge consequences and implications, which have nothing to do with technology per se, and everything to do with who we are as individuals and as a global society,” Winter says. “The stories I tell are not about making moral judgments; certainly these are radical services that are aware that they operate beyond the law. I am interested in shining a light on the complex ethical and moral implications of new technologies that are changing the world.”
Sidewalk parties you don’t want to miss.
B-Metro’s Magic City Mix
> Friday, August 28 | 5–7:30 p.m.
> Third Avenue North
> Featuring music from Mandi Rae, Future Elevators, and the Steel City Jug Slammers
> Free and open to the public.
Sidewalk’s Opening Night and the Party of Doom!
> Friday, August 28 | Immediately following the Opening Night Film (approximately 10 p.m.)
> Indiana Jones-themed block party on Third Avenue North just outside of the Alabama Theatre with entertainment, themed photo booths, and delicious food from our friends at Savoie Catering. Cash bar available.
> Admission is open to all Opening Night Pass Holders, Weekend Pass Holders, and VIP Pass Holders
> This event is sponsored by Regions Bank, Back 40 Beer Co., Savoie Catering, and Alabama Power.
Sidewalk’s Pig Iron Party
> Saturday, August 29 | 9 p.m.–1 a.m.
> Sloss Furnace Welcome Center
> It’s a pink pig throwdown in the shadows of Birmingham’s Historic Sloss Furnace. We’ll have BBQ (pig) and mini golf (irons, get it?), Back 40 Beer Co. brews, a DJ, and, in true Sidewalk fashion, some incredible surprises.
> Admission is open to all VIP Pass Holders. Party tickets are available in advance for $30 at sidewalkfest.com
> This event is sponsored by Back 40 Beer. Co. and Alabama Power Co.