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Climb Every Mountain: Unless, of course, it's time to save yourself from yourself, as director Curt Dowdy discovers in 'High Ambitions.'

Gather Round the Great Idea

Whether people are hanging out in a commune, murdering ex-cons, worshipping James Joyce or simply watching movies together, it's all about a search for identity and community, in the fourth Santa Cruz Film Fest. And don't forget the afterparties!

By Mike Connor, Peter Koht, Benji Langley and Sarah Phelan

The fourth Santa Cruz Film Festival is upon us, a nine-day extravaganza (May 5-13) that features 102 films and represents 19 countries. To help readers find their way through this smorgasbord of international cine, we previewed films, tracked down directors and even grilled the musicians who plan to turn on their love lights at the fest's many after parties. The resulting odyssey--which took us through programming categories such as Freaks Like Us, Viva La Laugh, Middle East Calling and Artists at Large--proves this fest contains something for everyone, including our city's youth. This year's fest is dedicated to Evan Kuhn, a former Aptos High Student whose film about skateboarding was shown at the first Santa Cruz Film Fest when Kuhn was 18 years old. Sadly, Kuhn died in February from injuries received in an automobile accident. In his memory, his family has set up a fund to honor the winner of the under-18-produced category. We salute you, Evan, and all the filmmakers who honor Santa Cruz with their creations.

May 5

The Real Dirt on Farmer John
May 5, 8pm, Del Mar Theatre, 1124 Pacific Ave.

A Midwestern farmer who likes to wear feather boas and eat soil. Footage shot over six decades of his life. A failing economy. Naked hippies. Viscous rumors of a satanic cult. Arson. One of the largest community-supported agricultural programs in the nation.

These are just some of the ingredients that make The Real Dirt on Farmer John, a fabulously bittersweet documentary about the fall and rise of Illinois-based Farmer John Peterson, who inherits the farm, only to lose everything, before reinventing himself as an organic farmer in the rural heartland. It's a film that's reaping accolades and awards nationwide, something director Taggart Siegel hopes "will get the film out into the world."

Siegel started working on the film in 1996, sifting through dusty boxes that were sitting in a barn and that contained hours of footage that Farmer John's mother shot with an 8 mm camera, beginning when Peterson was 1 year old.

"I ended up using seven minutes' worth of that footage, which covers the '40s, '50s and first half of the '60s, bucolic years that capture a time when family farms were still "multifaceted, with chickens scratching in the yard, and cows mooing in the fields," says Siegert, who also used footage Peterson started shooting in the late '60s, when hippies came to his farm--an event that incited rumors that the farm was "a crazy, Satan-worshipping place," Siegel recalls."It was a situation that symbolizes the rough road facing family farms during the '70s and '80s, when high rates saw their traditional way of life rapidly collapse."

For his part, Farmer John gives a shoutout to the folks at the Mariquita Farm Community-supported agriculture program in Watsonville, and Nancy Vail of UCSC's Agro Ecology Farm, which has been a leading proponent of CSA programs.

"Crops on chemicals are like people on drugs, and by the time I went organic, I was tired of being around people who were high and stoned," says Farmer John, reached by phone in L.A., where he and Siegel had just received an award at L.A.'s Inspiration Film Festival.

"I was blown away that Angelenos were so crazy about the film. I think it helped satisfy their longing, conscious or otherwise, for the land, for the connection with rural communities. And the tale of redemption has a universal appeal," says FJ, who fears the film could create a resurgence of violence when it gets back to his community, where the cult rumors are still firmly entrenched in people's minds. Meanwhile, he's torn himself away from his farm in Spring, where he usually puts in 80-90 hours a week, to do the film fest circuit, including attending a Q&A session after thei film's screening at SCFF's opening night.

"We were careful not to create a dream job that presented farming as an idyllic life. It's very hard, so hard, to make it work." (SP)

Freaks Like Me
May 5, 8pm, Del Mar Theatre, 1124 Pacific Ave.

Freaks Like Me director David Holbrooke--as already evidenced by his previous SCFF entries Live From Shiva's Dance Floor and Time for a New God--is drawn to material that's ambivalent, that embraces doubt and a sense of not knowing.

"I get excited about some material, then try to make a film about it; it's filmmaking done backwards. Hopefully along the way, I'll learn something," says Holbrooke. "All three films I've had in the Santa Cruz Film Festival have changed my life, not as a filmmaker, but as a person, because now I think and look at things a different way." While it's hard to sum up the lessons from his multifaceted Freaks, but Holbrooke points to a German yogi who says it's important to remember "ahaimsa," the practice of not saying anything bad about anyone, "not even words."

"We all have a need for love, for acceptance, for independence; it's easy to be alienated in this world," says Holbrooke, who'll be there for the Q&A session immediately following this film. (SP)

Opening night afterparty (May 5) with Jazz A Quartet, 9pm-midnight, Museum of Art and History, 705 Front St.; $15 (free to pass holders, and only open to opening night film ticket holders).

May 6

High Ambitions
May 6, 7pm, Del Mar Theatre, 1124 Pacific Ave.

In case you're wondering, high altitude mountaineering doesn't involve bounding about like a goat, from peak to craggy peak, while a bunch of sherpas schlep your stuff. OK, so the sherpas are real, but beyond that, as Curt Dowdy's 57-minute documentary High Ambitions reveals, extreme mountaineering is a cold, painful and potentially deadly process, in which climbers move like flies in treacle, slowed down by high altitudes that make a task as simple as tying a boot take an hour. In this extreme environment not being honest about the weather or your own physical weaknesses can cost lives. So why would anyone put themselves through this hell, which involves hunkering down in tents like a herd of yaks--a herd that has to wear oxygen masks even while it sleeps.

The answer, perhaps, lies with A-type personalities, who've already been successful in life and want the challenge of being slowed down and humbled by Nature. That's one conclusion you can draw from the experience of High Ambitions director Curt Dowdy. For two decades, Dowdy was a Los Gatos-based Hewlett-Packard executive, whose jet-setting lifestyle never gave him the time to pursue his twin passions: high altitude mountaineering and filmmaking.

That changed in 2001, when Dowdy leapt of the corporate hamster wheel and embraced both passions simultaneously, as he filmed the efforts of the mountaineering team of which he was a member, as it tried to climb Cho Oyo, a 27,000-foot peak in the Mt. Everest region.

The month-long trip (during which Sept. 11 went down stateside) mostly involved downtime, as team members tried to acclimatize to the Himalayan climate.

"In Buddhism, people talk about 'empty mind.' It's a Tibetan concept, and it's easy to understand it when you are there. High altitude mountaineering is a form of meditation," maintains Dowdy, whose team included Into Thin Air's John Taske, whose decision to turn back on Mt. Everest in 1996 saved Taske's life.

And as High Ambitions illustrates, the point of the expedition isn't "getting to the top," but trying to learn to be humble and gracious in face of Nature, who is the one ultimately calling the shots on this kind of life journey.

"It was a life-transforming experience," says Dowdy of the experience, in which he was one of two team members to last the longest before being thwarted by, er, a contact lens.

"When you realize you need to turn back, you need to do so with dignity," says Dowdy, noting that the Himalayas are so high that they're in the jet stream, which buffets the summit in the afternoon with hurricane force winds, thereby causing ferocious storms even on nice days.

"I don't think we should be afraid of failure. The universe has a way of speaking to us, saying, 'Go here, do that,' but the universe is not saying, 'You need to achieve this goal.' It's simply saying, 'You need to have that experience.'" (SP)

Opening party with director Curt Dowdy for High Ambitions, 5-6:30pm, Club Caution, 516 Front St.; 831.425.2582.

Graves End
May 6, 9pm, Del Mar Theatre, 1124 Pacific Ave. Also May 7, 11pm, Riverfront Theater, 155 S. River St.

Killing time with your friends and neighbors can be fun, but killing ex-cons with them might be even better. That's how things look in the twisted corner of the world that is Graves End. Starring none other than B-movie icon Eric Roberts and filmed right here in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Graves End tells the story of a small town where the dregs of society are warmly invited--and summarily eviscerated.

It's oddly reminiscent of The Truth About Beef Jerky, another film shot in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which debuted at the S.C. Film Festival three years ago. In that film, hunters lured hippies--many of whom were played by real S.C. hippies--into the woods with the promise of a Phish reunion tour, then killed them and made from their flesh the best jerky this side of Ted Nugent's ranch.

In Graves End, the citizens of a small mountain town (many of whom are local extras), led by the wealthy pillar of the community Tarkington Alexander Graves (Roberts), mete out a sort of vigilante justice to murderers and rapists who manage to slip through legal cracks and make it back out into the world. Writer/director James Marlow says Graves End was written in direct response to the headlines on the papers a couple years back about neighborhoods protesting ex-cons moving in next door.

"The little town of Graves End," says Marlow, "would be the only town that says, 'Hey man, why don't you come over here?'"

Once an ex-con takes the bait, we watch as an angry mob slices and dices the bad guy into mincemeat. A segue moving us from a graphic scene of evisceration to a shot of raw sausage on the grill at a friendly backyard barbecue is the first blatant clue that the director's tongue is planted firmly in cheek. Most of the ha-ha funny moments in the film are scenes of cartoonishly extreme violence--an early death by pen in the forehead makes a later I-just-flew-out-of-a-second-story-window-but-I-can-still-whoop-your-ass comeback even more hilarious.

Violence isn't the only source of humor here--the plot itself, with all its agonizingly ridiculous (yet often well-disguised) twists and turns, is the biggest joke of all. Suspicious of all the disappearances, FBI Agent Paul Rickman (played by Steven Williams--Johnny Depp's captain in 21 Jump Street) wanders into Graves End to investigate. Pretty soon we find out that Rickman and Graves have some history together--when Graves' son was kidnapped, Rickman worked the case, but the kid wound up gutted and skinned and the bad guys got off on a technicality--hence Graves' beef with ex-cons. But the plot gets thicker than headcheese real quick. It's the kind of plot that wanders so far outside the realm of reality that you pretty much just have to give up, play along and cheer for more gore. (MC)

Afterparty with Lumin (May 6) 9:30pm-1am, Vets Hall, 846 Front St.; $20 (free to pass holders); see following review.

Rock the Afterparty

Darth wouldn't be Darth without the "Empire Theme" and Elijah wouldn't be as snuggly unless his big blue eyes were accompanied by the "shire theme" from Lord of the Rings. Music has an uncanny ability to draw out emotions when combined with cinematic images. Take Curt Dowdy's High Ambitions, in which the music of Irina Mikhailova was an essential element in the storytelling process. Faced with a mound of 30 hours of footage, Dowdy was stumped at his Mac when he heard a haunting voice coming from his speakers via the good people at epiphanyradio.org.

"As I listened, the opening scenes of the movie started unfolding in my mind," he recalls.

Finding the artist's name on the tune, he did what any sensible person would do in this digital age--he Googled her.

After the electronic rendezvous, Dowdy secured the rights to three of Irina' s tunes. In a very concrete way, her voice began to embody the entire spirit of the expedition. "Irina is like a siren," Dowdy explains, "She's like the voice of the goddess of the sacred stone turquoise, ... [for which] the mountain we climbed, Cho Oyo, is named. Her voice is calling you to the summit."

There is also some heavy symbolism written into the track sequencing in the film as well. "About the time that we start the final three-day push up the mountain, the music is still there, but Irina's voice is gone. There is no siren and nothing calling us to the top. No siren equals no success."

Luckily for patrons of the film festival, the elusive siren will visit Santa Cruz on May 6. Performing with the world fusion group Lumin, Irina will layer intricate vocal melodies with Middle Eastern string instruments, drum loops and heavy organic percussion.

Her musical co-conspirator in Lumin, Jeff Stott, is thrilled to be part of a film and loves the process of matching visual images to music. "Music is very evocative of cinematic elements for me. The mood and the ambience of music is able to conjure up the images that I would normally have in my dreams." (PK)

May 7

May 7, 5:30pm, Riverfront Theater, 155 S. River St.

How does an indigenous culture fight land rights, uranium mining, nuclear testing and the disposal of nuclear waste?

Brazilian director Carlos DeMenzes took eight years, count 'em, to make this documentary about a Native American struggle for spiritual and cultural autonomy on disputed lands in the U.S. Southwest, a dispute that seems to illustrate afresh the disturbing reality that, all too often, "White Man speaks with forked tongue." (BL)

Where Have All the Flower Children Gone?: Revisit hippie utopia in 'Commune.'

May 7, 7:40pm, Riverfront Theater, 155 S. River St.

The shining example of togetherness in this year's film festival comes from director Jonathan Berman, whose utterly fascinating documentary Commune tells the story of the Black Bear Ranch up in Siskiyou County. Conceived around the mantra, "free land for free people," the ranch occupied 50 acres of land surrounded by 1 million acres of national forest. It was founded with seed money that the founding members solicited from celebrities like Frank Zappa and the Doors, who owed their livelihood to the thriving counterculture of the 1960s. Through extensive interviews and historical footage, we get to see the hippies try to eke out their very own utopia; they figure out how to survive on their own, experiment with free love, raise kids and then reflect on it all years later. There's even a weird tangent about the child-worshipping cult called the Shiva Lilas, who take a little girl from the Ranch to India and leave her there. Fortunately, the girl made it back, and Berman tracked her down in San Francisco for a compelling and emotional interview. He also caught up with local herbalist Michael Tierra, who lived at the Ranch for years. (MC)

Pre-party with CinemaSports (May 7), 9am, The Attic, 952 Pacific Ave., with CinemaSports screenings the same day at 7pm. Sign up at CinemaSports. Afterparty with Locals Music Cine, The Mermen + Blood Bath & Beyond (May 7), 9:30pm-1am,Vets Hall, 846 Front St.; $20 (free to pass holders).

May 8

May 8, 5pm, Riverfront Theater, 155 S. River St.

Director Andrew Moore met Star's star, Marcia Kimpton, four years ago, at which point he started shooting stuff, then decided to make a film about Kimpton's quest for fame.

"Love inspired me, it was creative collaboration," says Moore, who interviews Kimpton's family, friends and spiritual gurus in a quest to find out why someone would go to such crazy lengths--wading through a bog in a wedding dress, appearing on the set of a porn film, singing in Iceland--to achieve the, to his mind. strange goal of becoming famous.

'I think it's silly that so much in our culture is based on fame, that famous people are like royalty. It's ridiculous, funny and odd that we emphasize it," says Moore, acknowledging that he himself is on some quest for fame, or else why direct a movie--and then promote it like crazy?

So, did the star of Star become a star? Moore grins. "No, but the irony is she could yet, because of this film." (BL)

Afterparty with DJ Ousmane from Senegal in the House (May 8), 9:45pm-midnight, The Attic, 852 Pacific Ave.; $15/advance, $20/door (free to ticket holders).

May 9

Imagining Ulysses
May 9, 9pm, Riverfront Theater, 155 S. River St.

Despite its unpopular reception when it was first published in 1922, James Joyce's Ulysses has become a phenomenon of modern literature, inspiring volumes of scholarship over the years, and even more confusion. Anyone who's made a crack at reading the thing knows how quickly things go from "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan" to "Ineluctable modality of the visible."

But difficult passages don't always an impossible read make, especially with so much help waiting in the wings. There are James Joyce symposia to attend, James Joyce quarterly journals to read, James Joyce book clubs to join. And now there's an accessible movie that puts it all in perspective.

Imagining Ulysses, like the book Ulysses, is divided into 18 parts, each one corresponding to an episode in Homer's Odyssey. Each segment of the movie starts with a brief description of the chapter, using some of the major themes to segue into explorations Joyce's life, work and even some Irish history.

Lest the whole film sound unbearably dry and academic, we should mention that, like the novel, the film is also sexy and crass, and spotted here and there with allegedly humorous skits that break up the commentary, which comes mostly from Irish writers like Frank McCourt, Neil Jordan, Roddy Doyle and Edna O'Brien, with additional thoughts from Camille Paglia. One surprisingly moving segment tells the story of Chow Chen and his wife Wen Heruo's lifelong quest to translate the book into Mandarin, a feat which they accomplished in less time than it takes many to simply read Joyce's celebrated masterpiece. (MC)

Afterparty (May 9) at the Blue Lagoon, 923 Pacific Ave. (pass holders free).

May 10

Searching for Angela Shelton
May 10, 5pm, Riverfront Theater, 155 S. River St.

It's an original concept: track down all the Angela Sheltons in the United States to survey women in the 21st century. This quest leads documentary director Angela Shelton to a sobering discovery--24 of the 40 Angela Sheltons she manages to find have been raped, beaten or molested. Dedicated to survivors all over the world, this film's quirky, fresh-faced, devastating honesty is unnervingly gripping. (BL)

May 10, 7pm, Riverfront Theater, 155 S. River St.

At what point does a collection become institutional? When Ben Harper drops by? When you own one of the only two copies of a Bob Marley LP? Your limited edition box set of Bob's life's work has the serial number 00002? (Mom got No. 1.) How about when your record collection is bought en masse to form the backbone of the Jamaican Museum of Caribbean Music?

This film is about the life and collection of NPR DJ and Beat magazine founder Roger Steffens (no relation to the Umbrella Man, I hope--for his sake), whose legendary collection or reggae recordings has served as the primary repository for the collection of historical reggae recordings. The most interesting point about this film is that it clearly outlines how reggae is an explicitly political and religious music whose social concerns have always been its main selling point with its audiences. Steffens' main contention is that reggae is the single most powerful form of popular music ever put to tape and that his collection is more of a social diary than the expression of one man's penchant for syllogomania (obsessive collecting).(PK)

Afterparty (May 10) at the Blue Lagoon, 920 Pacific Ave. (pass holders free).

May 11

The Expendables: XXX Rated
May 11, 7pm, Vets Hall, 846 Front St.

This movie is dedicated to the imp that lies within each of us that desires nothing more than to drink too much Jäger and take out an exit sign. Though pitched as a year in the life of local band and their music, it's truly about bad behavior, bad hygiene and good times.

Initially intended to be a short film about the local Santa Cruz music scene, the project grew into a year-and-a-half-long odyssey documenting the Expendables' latest tour and record. This is no Some Kind of Monster. Everyone gets along, fun is had by all and there are numerous scenes involving pee bottles, lesbian exhibitionism and songs about STDs.

It's definitely not a film for the faint of heart. Like their music, everything is in good fun and testicles get mentioned a lot. But don't fall asleep while watching it, or else they will draw stuff on your and then put hand lotion in your ear. Director Abi McKee is thrilled to have the project finished but is glad for the experience. "Even after all the agony," he says, "I still like the music and I still like the guys." It's a good chance that against your better judgment, you will too.(P.K)

Afterparty (May 11), Red Room, 1003 Cedar St., call for more info, 831.426.9511.

Popaganda: The Art and Crimes of Ron English
May 11, 7:45pm, Riverfront Theater, 155 S. River St.

Subtitled "The Art and Crimes of Ron English," this documentary about culture jammer and billboard liberator Ron English will please the anarchists among us--and shows that it's never too late for some sacred-cow busting fun. Don't be surprised if you leave the theater with your head bursting with subversive ad-busting schemes. (Don't try this at home.) (BL)

The Santa Cruz Film Festival continues through May 13. See details in next week's Metro Santa Cruz; www.santacruzfilmfestival.com.

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From the May 4-11, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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