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[whitespace] Halfdan Hussey
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Going Digital: Halfdan Hussey, executive director of Cinequest, believes that the future of filmmaking and the festival lies in advances in digital technology.

Cine Test

Young indie directors at Cinequest turn their cameras around to film the art of filmmaking

By Richard von Busack

THIS YEAR'S CINEQUEST, the San Jose Film Festival, brings us an easy best-of, titlewise: Shit: The Movie. The perfect title belongs to New York local-access TV personality Julie Gaw's 30-minute entry in the Docu-Nation series of short documentaries (Feb. 25 and 28). Gaw's movie about the process of elimination has unbeatable marquee value, but let's hope it's not too accurate--you don't want an audience asking, "Didn't I see Shit: The Movie already, under several alternate titles at the multiplex last week?"

This year's festival, the 11th edition of Cinequest, runs Feb. 22-March 4, and hosts a number of recognizable movie names: Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, Tin Cup), Spike Lee, documentary film pioneer Richard Leacock and Billy Bob Thornton, director of Sling Blade and All the Pretty Horses.

The opening-night gala, however, goes local, spotlighting Your Guardian, a magical-realist tale of a rootless girl settling in the town of Princeton, near Half Moon Bay. Redwood City writer/director Kari Nevil's images exemplify the dropout's dream of a slow easy life, of guitar picking, sketching and kite flying under the lowering skies of the San Mateo coast.

Cinequest is also looking into the near future with Cinequest DXD (March 2-4), or "digital by digital," a showcase of the latest breakthroughs in filmless film. New cyberprojectors by Sony will be demonstrated at the Camera Cinemas, showing off the technology that George Lucas and others believe is the future of movie exhibition.

Says Halfdan Hussie, Cinequest's executive director, "Cinequest DXD is what we're focusing on; it's the next big thing for Cinequest, and the aspect that drives the festival to the next level." Cinequest DXD kicks off with an opening party Feb. 23 at the Usual, sponsored by Applied Materials and featuring soul singer Macy Gray.

During this festival within a festival, reps from Industrial Light and Magic, Panasonic and Apple will display the latest trends in filmless film. "It's not just about going to school for four days," Hussie says. "and there are other digital-tech conferences out there. But at these other conferences, the emphasis is on tech. At Cinequest, we have the cultural environment that makes for a blend of technicians and independent filmmakers."

Cinequest DXD offers a crash course in the different visual grades of digital photography and projection. March 3's seminar, "The Digital Hierarchy," is moderated by Laurence J. Thorpe of Sony and presented by Quantum Corporation's Bentley Nelson. They will explain the gradations between low res and high definition: the palm-sized miniDV, the much more complex digital projection systems that Lucas, Pixar and other production companies are using, and lastly, 24P, the high-grade digital-to-film transfer that's as close as digital gets to the shadows, lushness and visual nuances of 35mm theatrical movie film.


Cineful Delight: Our critics get a head start on this year's screenings.


Bypassing Mr. Bucks

TO THE BACKYARD independent filmmaker, digital projection and home theaters mean hope for bypassing not just producers but distributors as well. Though new cheaper techniques are available to the budding filmmaker at a progressively lower price, too often the storytelling isn't as well tuned as the machinery. Unconsciously, perhaps, Cinequest represents another trend: young filmmakers making movies about making movies.

Consider some of the following entries at this year's festival: Dinner and a Movie, Lisa Kors' film about an aspiring documentary filmmaker trying to operate off of the money her parents were going to use to send her to college.

Citizen James is about a moviemaker named James (played by Doug E. Doug from TV's Cosby) and his efforts to create a picture about civil rights activist Angela Davis. (Davis herself will make an appearance at Cinequest, moderating a panel titled "Have Things Changed?: Black Portrayal in the Media.") The fictional James tries to enlist a figure who is the best known of all Bed-Stuy filmmakers, a man called here "Bleep Lee."

The Friggin' Mafia Movie, by the valley's own indefatigable Shawn Flanagan (Boneshakers), follows the career adventures of a San Jose filmmaker named Vance Gordon, played by Flanagan. Gordon makes a hapless stab at an organized-crime movie, with appropriated locations, deferred payment and the grudging help of actor Richard Lynch, familiar as a villain in '80s-'90s movies.

Shoe Shine Boys similarly tracks two budding filmmakers' brush with crime as a pair of young fools kidnap an Olympic torch runner and make a video about the experience.

The short documentary Popcorn! concerns Aaron Fischer, who is the Bay Area-based director of a movie called Popcorn! Fischer is trying to wangle his way into the Guinness Book of World Records by creating the world's largest container of popcorn.

And Gang Tapes by Adam Ropp tells the fictional story of a South Central Los Angeles kid deciding to record his rise as a public enemy.

Barak Sarrafan, represented in last year's Cinequest with Sting of Chance (about an Iranian-American student who longs to be a film director), will lead the SJSU Television/Radio/Theater/Arts program in an instant film about Cinequest 11 to be shot, edited and presented during the course of the festival.

The instant film Sarrafan and his students are making is, you guessed it, a story of a filmmaker trying to hawk his art film at Cinequest. It's titled The Mess in the Scene (a pun on the French term "mise-èn-scène," meaning the atmosphere a director gives to a film. "You think 'mise-èn-scène' means two girls and a guy," snaps an exasperated technician in The Friggin' Mafia Movie.)

It now seems apparent that those of us who saw The Blair Witch Project as a triumph of low-budget horror filmmaking missed the point. The real effect of the film's success was to turn the aspiring film director into the hero of a thousand stories.

Mike Rabehl, the assistant director of programming at Cinequest, says that his office receives a lot of films on the subject of moviemakers making movies.

"It's a pretty common theme. I think about 30-40 of the features out of the 400 we received were about filmmakers making films," Rabehl says. "You won't see a lot of the ones we ended up turning away. Some of them are about directors falling in love with their stars, like Living in Oblivion." Rabehl means Tom DeCillo's 1995 film starring Steve Buscemi as a harried art-film director tormented by cantankerous stars.

"Others," Rabehl continues, "are about the film shot gone awry; actors falling in love with the filmmakers, or the director working around a film without a film, without a lead subject. I guess people write what they know."

Self Scene

FOR FLANAGAN, who in many ways, is the San Jose film industry, making a film about the moviemaking process was an artistic challenge. "I made a movie called Boneshakers," Flanagan explains, "which was more standard. The Friggin' Mafia Movie, though, was a real maverick film. It wasn't formula. The thing with me is that I'd always wanted to make a movie about making a movie. It can be really frustrating to be involved, to go the distance.

"Everyone has the idea that they want to be in the movie, and think: I have time, I want to invest... but when it comes time, they're busy, or the money they were going to invest went into a Ferrari instead. I thought, let's show people what happens when you make a movie."

In 1999, Flanagan made a good parody of The Blair Witch Project titled The Bald Witch Project; and he agrees that one thing that The Blair Witch Project did was to make low-budget film something people take seriously. For him, Cinequest represents not only a chance for local acclaim but strengthens the position to sell his film straight to video.

"When they see a film is an official selection of a filmfest, they're more inclined to select it themselves," Flanagan says. True, films about filmmaking sell. In the past, classics like Sullivan's Travels, 8-1/2 and The Stunt Man analyzed the diabolical nature of the filmmaker's craft. Filmmaking's the subject of both David Mamet's not-so-hot State and Main and Chris Smith's American Movie--the latter, a story of a director trying to make a horror film in Wisconsin on no money, while working full-time and supporting his child. Not every filmmaker has been in the trenches as Flanagan has; not every autobiographical director has faced much angst or life experience.

Making films about making films has some disadvantages straightaway. The subject of the filmmaker's torment requires an insider audience, which is often hard to find outside a film festival--it's like finding sports fans dedicated enough to watch football training films.

Though The Freakin' Mafia Movie carries the tag line "And you thought filmmaking was glamorous," it's well documented that filmmaking is hard, irregular work in which one must trust other people to a frightening extreme. And the way love blinds a director has been a hazard since Thomas Edison was hand-cranking his camera. How do you tell a close friend they're overacting and to knock it off?

The young independent directors may be able to dispense with Hollywood, but they need support wherever they are--a knowledgeable gang to help throw ideas around, to bring their own talents to the mix. One of the more notable specials at Cinequest 11 is an appearance by Ron Shelton (March 4), who is returning to the festival to accept a Maverick Spirit Award.

It will be worth hearing what he has to say about the collaborative process, since he's bringing his wife, actress Lolita Davidovich, his editor Paul Seydor, his director of photography Mark Vargo and his composer Alex Wurman with him.

The Next Dimension

ANOTHER INSPIRATION for moviemakers pulling together as a gang is a local talent named Trowa Barton, who is organizing a collective film project out of a cafe in downtown San Jose. When I meet him, Barton is sitting at a small wooden table, holding a borrowed notebook computer on which he's stored samples from his nearly completed film Ophidian: To the Next Dimension.

"Here's the short-attention-span trailer," says Barton, a frizzy-haired party in a ski cap. The images fly by in a burst of pixilated color: the cold, indifferent face of a dark-eyed, black-lipped girl in a bleached-blonde wig, flashes of light, ghosts, a tracking shot of a terrified man racing through a dank, white-walled nightmare cavern.

It's the "pedestrian tunnel underneath The Alameda opposite the Towne Theater," Barton explains. "We used a battery-powered lantern and a wheelchair to get this shot."

Ophidian means "pertaining to snakes," Barton tells me. His film is about a little girl's recurring dreams of an artist--the imaginary artists' paintings in the little girl's mind expanding the story. Both Japanese anime and David Lynch inspire Barton's irrational, dreamlike narrative.

"David Lynch's Lost Highway changed the direction of my work," Barton says. Barton has made 40 short films shot on tape and edited on VHS. Ophidian is his first digital film.

"I'm not interested in digital for itself alone," Barton says, "but for its ease of manipulation, for being able to change the images after they were shot." It took Barton a year and a half to get the film to the right visual quality.

Barton is excited about the Adobe program After Effects, a digital-video cousin of Photoshop that allows the filmmaker to soften or sharpen the digital image to the look of various film stocks--say, the blur and grain of 16mm. "You can make digital look good; it just takes extra work," he says.

Barton, who took the first name Trowa from an anime character he likes, is bypassing Cinequest. He's planning a one-night filmfest of his own titled Bad Fad--"a bad fad for Hollywood"--of film and live performance by the Film Arts Group, a free collective of some 40 members that meets monthly at Papacito's cafe on South Third Street.

There, members draw names out of a hat to get assignments to direct two pages of script in a one-minute long snippet. Showing further evidence of his preference for anonymity, Barton has signed a few of his films "Some Guy."

Drawing names out of the hat was also the method used about a month ago at the International Film Financing Conference, in San Francisco. There, for the better part of $200, you could win a randomly selected chance to pitch your idea to film industry execs. Barton's deal sounded like a better one.

And while the two-page script Barton showed me was, indeed, a section of a movie about making a movie (a guy trying to cast a waitress as an actor), his other upcoming project is more mysterious. It's a tale of a murder, a solitary bicyclist and the natural drama of the coast at Bonny Doon.

The weekend after I met Barton, I saw Ebert and Roeper on their Sundance Film Festival broadcast, all bundled up in their new snow clothes. The two were deriding the idea that a true filmmaker can ever sell out.

"Nobody," said Roeper, his handsome kisser glowing from his faith in the marketplace, "picks up a guitar hoping that no one will listen. It's the same thing with a camera. No one picks up a camera without hope that the movie will be seen."

But who picks up the guitar or the camera because they can't wait for someone to tell them what to do? As filmmaking becomes an art form as easily accessible as guitar playing, the new filmmaker must strike a balance between complete ego gratification and commercial manufacturing one step removed from the plastics industry. With any luck, this year's Cinequest will show films of that balance and viewers will avoid the kind of film that sadly, unfortunately and undeniably raises up that peeee-yeeew kind of sensation in the soul--that kind of film that, despite hard work, sweat and tears, sits up and begs for the title Shit: The Movie.

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From the February 15-21, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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