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Independent Film Festival of Boston - 2003

     Does the movie-saturated Hub require yet another festival? If we mean the Independent Film Festival of Boston, in its first incarnation May 1-4, 2003, the answer is a resounding "Yes!" With the tiniest amount of funding and an all-volunteer crew, the Independent Fest ( has plunged ahead with an admirably ambitious, pleasingly artistic program of recent US-made indies-features, shorts, documentaries-which hold in common that none to date have theatrical distribution.

     But out-of-state distributors should consider a pilgrimage. On the basis of a dozen-picture sampling, I can endorse the Boston Independent Film Festival as a significant showcase for under-appreciated, excellent film and video work from across America. For area movie-goers, this festival is an irresistible bargain, purposefully underpriced to attract patrons for its first going. Films are $5 a ticket. Festival passes are $50 for individuals, and student passes are a sinfully low $30.

     Unlike each September's Boston Film Festival, for which the non-distributed movies (famously dubious) feel like videos the phlegmatic staff found in a shoebox, the Boston Independent Film Festival has been curated with a keen aesthetic vision. Credit Jason Redmond, the fest's Executive Director, for putting in place Adam Roffman, the discerning Program Director. I met for barbecue lunch with Roffman-he's a production designer and property master on both large-budget and independent films – near his Somerville residence.

     Roffman said: "I've gone to the Boston Film Festival on occasions where there were no filmmakers present, no functions of any kind, and the movies would open anyway in theatres in the following weeks. For the Independent Film Festival, we want to show films that people might not get a chance to see anywhere else, which are both innovative and crowd-pleasing. We're also trying to create a festival atmosphere. We're going to have parties each weekend night, and panel discussions, and filmmakers will be in the theatres, around the theatres, and at the parties, where people can interact with them face to face. We're expecting 30 to 40 directors, producers, actors."

     Also different from the Boston Film Festival: the Independent Fest has three official Competions, giving prizes for Best Narrative Feature, Short, and Documentary. Roffman arranged three juries of pedigreed film people to see all movies in their categores and select winners. For instance, the Narrative jury consisted of Linda Moran, producer of L*I*E, Demane Davis, director of Lift, and Matthew Ross, managing editor of Filmmaker Magazine.

     OK, but what about the movies I previewed?

     Ivans XTC.-It's a brazen idea that almost works: filmmaker Bernard Rose moves Leo Tolstoy's masterly 19th century Russian novella, The Death of Ivan Ilych, to today's Hollywood. The guy in the middle of life who surprisingly succumbs is no longer a conformist, wealthy Russian family man but Ivan Beckman (Danny Huston), a coke-imbibing, whoring, bachelor LA agent. It's Beckman who gets incurable lung cancer in the middle of a typical whirwind, wheeling-dealing week, in which he beds down several blondes and convinces an actor heavyweight (Peter Weller, convincing as a swaggering, piggish sexual adventurer) to jump over to his agency. Huston, with his Jack Nicholson-devil eyebrows and desperate grin, is terrific as the fast-lane, fast-dying Beckman, but there's little that he (or a movie?) can do to approximate the tormented internal life of Tolstoy's Ilych. And there's no way on earth in LA to match Tolstoy's blazing Christian-spiritualist conclusion.

     Nothing So Strange - The perfect title for Brian Flemming's brilliant, one-of-a-kind faux documentary, which begins with the assassination of Microsoft's Bill Gates, gunned down at the bandshell of LA's MacArthur Park. Is the killer the black man who is shot dead in turn by the LAPD? Or someone unknown? This movie traces the several years' search to find out what really happened by an ad-hoc group called Citizens for Truth, who are, in their politics, don't-trust-the-police, left-liberals. Nothing So Strange couldn't be further from a "mockumentary." There's no mocking, no jokes or satire, the search is done straightforward, and it's completely credible, as all the people on screen are absolutely immersed in what they are obsessed about. You almost have to pinch yourself to say: WAIT A MINUTE! BILL GATES IS ALIVE. No, he's stone dead in the meta-universe of this movie, which carries into the final credits. There are no actors' names, just the same names we've heard used by the people on screen; and they are identified again as members of Citizens for Truth, for which there is a solemn website.

     Rhythm of the Saints - Director Sarah Rogacki assembled a commendably multicultural cast of New York teenagers, but the acting of these young amateurs can be awkward, especially when they are put in the service of a too-predictable melodrama: an ennabler mom goes off to work while her deadbeat, scummy boyfriend makes passes at her teenage daughter, finally raping the youngster. There's the expected revenge and some routine TV-movie police work, though Sarita Choudhury and Daniella Alonso come through as, respectively, Mom and the daughter.

     Soft for Digging - In JT Petty's minimalist, almost-without-dialogue horror movie, a ghostly old man (Edmond Mercier) who lives in the country chases after his runaway cat and becomes witness to the brute murder of a little girl. The police come, but there's no body. One day, he digs up a girl's pink hand, the cops drive up again, again no body. The movie is slow, deliberate, a bit of a stretched-out short, but it does pick up in tension when the old man takes to the road, and heads for a very gothic orphanage and a confrontation with the murderer and the little girl. The latter isn't the lamb-like creature he'd imagined. Think: The Exorcist.

     The Hunger Artist - Tom Gibbons's short is a delicately crafted animated rending of Franz Kafka's sublime short story, about a man whose carnival act consists of his sitting in a cage and (he never cheats) not eating a thing, day after day after day. What's confusing is why Gibbons, having set the story up so persuasively, then skips away from duplicating Kafka's peerless ending: the (true) artist starves to death unnoticed, but the jubilant crowds return when he's replaced by a shiny, showy jungle beast.

Decasia - Bill Morrison's ingenious movie is a morbid, elegaic parade of perishable, 35mm nitrate images lifted from eroding silent films which rot more before our eyes, lethal chemicals turning the already archaic into shadows and potholes and and water-bug blobs. The theme couldn't be dramatized better: those preening people on film-stern cowboys, religious zealouts, hilarious comedians,etc.-are turned to celluloid mush. O mortality! All is vanity, all is dust.

     Met State - Local filmmaker Bryan Papciak's mini-masterpiece, a camera flying about an eerie, unearthly, abandoned mental institution. Paciak's freeze-frame march across the terrain of skeletal furniture feels like a long-lost, ominous chapter of Disney's Fantasia.

     Populi - A worthy Met State companion-piece, David Russo's jampacked, 8-minute, time-lapse visual poem in which a wooden-head totem is juxtaposed with what seems like a thousand other clashing bits of imagery. Grand movie-making by a technical virtuoso and genius.

     The King of Sixth Street - Charles Burmeister's colorful, affectionate homage to Gerry Van King, an obstinate, self-absorbed, self-destructive and (marginally) talented Austin, Texas, street musician. Van King's funk repertoire of eccentric songs makes him a local institution the way of Cambridge's Little Joe Cook, and both sing their limited repertoire thousands and thousands of times. The occasion of the movie is Van King's chance, at last, to make a CD preserving his songs. The dramatic question: will he fuck it up, and be back with a bass guitar and a hat on the ground for dollars on East 6th?

     Reconstruction - I've earlier reviewed Irene Lusztig's superb film, which shows the Newton-based filmmaker learning Rumanian so she can travel to Bucharest and find out the true story of her Rumanian-Jewish bankrobber grandmother. A disturbing, important expose of Stalinist terrorism.

     Ruth and Connie: Every Room in the House - A reprise of Deborah Dickson's stirring audience favorite from the Boston Jewish Film Festival and the Provincetown Film Festival. Ruth and Connie were Brooklyn-Jewish friends, both married with kids in the 1970s, and then they fell in love. They're still together, twenty-five years later, and the ferocity of their amour, and their passion and openness as "out" lesbians, is so strong and romantic that, as the saying goes, there won't be a dry eye in the house.

     Speedo - Jesse Moss's energetic documentary is a real Independent Film Festival discovery, the complicated, bad-boy story of Ed "Speedo" Jager, a macho, trophy-winning demolition driver who, at home, has slept on the couch for years, estranged from his disapproving wife. Moss's film takes you smack dab into the eye-opening redneck world of demolition derbies, but moves just as easily into the personal, where "Speedo" fights with both dignity and stupidity to patch up his messed-up life. Can he keep the love of his two sons while running off with a new woman, who understands his demo-derby dire needs? Can "Speedo" move ever to the next level, dignified NASCAR stock car racing? (That's like a porn person taking his act to holy Hollywood.)

     Have You Seen This Man? - Anna Boyden and Ryan Fleck's delightful, bemused portrait of Geoff Lupo, a New York conceptual artist who put up posters with his telephone number offering to sell mundane items-thumb tacks,toothpicks, pen caps-for 25c each. The camera tags along when Lupo travels to clients' apartments to make the 25c transactions. There's the art, says Lupo, a modern-day Duchamp, in the "play-acting, the mutually agreed-on absurdity, the arbitrariness of artistic value."

(April, 2003)


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