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Mixing it up at the movies
Fresno Filmworks celebrated its seventh anniversary in March — seven years of bringing first-run independent, experimental, and international movies to the central San Joaquin Valley each month.
Now, to kick off its seventh year, the all-volunteer nonprofit group has its fifth annual festival in store for April. The 2009 Fresno Film Festival will feature 23 films from 10 different countries. The festival will run April 17-19 at the historic Tower Theatre.
The group's president, John Moses, took some time to catch up with Fresno Famous for an interview.
There are some big titles in the festival lineup this year, including the French drama Entre les Murs (The Class), the Israeli animated documentary Waltz With Bashir, and the epic Stephen Soderberg biopic Che: The Argentine. Why do you think the local multiplexes passed up these award-winning international films?
I can never fathom what goes into the booking decisions for this area. I would have expected a majority of these films to be picked up by Regal or Sierra Vista. For example, the trailer for The Class was playing here as early as December. There was at one point a likelihood that it would come to the Fresno area but it never came. The distributor expected it to come when Filmworks first asked for it earlier this year. But we were told no, because it was expected to play at the commercial theaters.
Three of the films we're showing -- The Class, Waltz With Bashir, and The Garden -- all were nominated for Oscars. In some respects, when they didn't win, it became more likely that we could book them.
Part one of Che was one of the first features we booked. The two parts together, the "Roadshow edition," is four-and-a-half hours long. We considered that at one point for a special monthly double feature. But the longer version seemed to have a limited appeal and we decided that we didn't want to devote such a big chunk of the festival to it. In talks with the distributor, the second part, set in Bolivia, doesn't do as well [at the box office] as the first part, set in Argentina. Che: The Argentine is still a complete film, though. There's no looking for a finish. We're pleased with it and think people will get a clear look at Guevara's story with only part one.
Speaking of The Garden, the documentary about South Central Los Angeles farmers being kicked out of their community farm, how did Filmworks come to choose this controversial film?
It was mostly due to the overlap with our own community's situation with the community garden in southeast Fresno. The film was also one of the first features we decided on and booked. It was a natural selection because it has a small production company and it wasn't likely coming to the big theaters. We wanted to make sure it came to Fresno.
There's a lot of outreach we'll be doing with this film, overlapping with multiple communities. It's an important story to tell, even if it focuses on South Central L.A. It's an engaging story that more people need to know about, even without our own community's controversy. We expect the film to have a lot of local interest and support.
This is the festival's fifth year. The schedule features 23 films -- seven features and 16 shorts -- from 10 different countries. What surprises does Filmworks have in store this year?
Well, overall, we've got a great lineup of films that people have been asking us about for months. We've been fielding lots of questions from people at our [recent] programs about films that people had been hoping would come to Fresno and now we have them. You're not going to have to wait for them to come out on video.
We will again have our big opening-night party. People have had a lot of fun with that the last four years. We've got musical entertainment planned, with local musician Benjamin Boone, fresh off his performances at the Rogue Festival.
Many filmmakers are also talking to us about coming. Some will be from the features and many will be from the shorts. We're expecting more than a dozen filmmakers to represent their films, including opening night and with Q&As after the two short-film programs. We're also planning on a Q&A with The Garden, possibly with both the filmmakers and the subjects. Again, the connection to our own community garden controversy will be part of that.
What general criteria did Filmworks use to pick this year's festival films, in comparison to the picks for its usual monthly screenings?
We definitely wanted a broader tone. We wanted to make sure there was breadth in the kinds of films but also some lightness as well, particularly in these economic hard times. I think we absolutely succeeded with that. We've got a good mix of documentaries, dramas, and comedies, which is true not just of the features but also the two full programs of short films as well as the ones that will screen before the features.
This year, the selection centered mostly on films that are currently in distribution or are shortly going into distribution. Last year, we had some festival-circuit selections, the ones you see at festivals first but don't really hear about nationally until later. But this time, we're getting things right now as they're coming out in the bigger markets. We took the opportunity to set a wide net for all these current films that Fresno won't miss now.
The festival opener, Skills Like This, is an American independent film that won the Audience Award at the South By Southwest festival. How did you decide on that film for the opener?
Opening films set the tone for the festival but they also have to be a bit of a party film. Over the years, we've had great opening-night films that have been lighter and people have enjoyed them for that reason. Last year, we had The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which was a wonderful film. But while the audience appreciated seeing it, the film was a little serious and a little dark for opening night. We took that to heart. So, we were looking for just the right comedy for opening night.
We considered a number of other choices but Skills Like This caught our attention because it was an Audience Award winner South By Southwest. It's an enjoyable comedy that I think will surprise our audience a bit. We've never shown a film quite like this. It's a little bit of a caper film. But it's not like other caper films in that it's not someone robbing banks out of desperate need for money but something else. It's not dark, not a film noir type of heist film. But it's a group of 20-something people who stumble into a situation.
The film is matched wonderfully with the short film Old Dogs, which has one of the best production values I've seen in a short film and has recognizable stars who are all in their 70s. They also stumble upon a criminal situation, which they're drawn into. The pairing is going to be nice for both our traditional audience and what we hope will be a young audience that's drawn in by Skills Like This.
Again this year, Filmworks has chosen a family-oriented revival film -- the restored Buster Keaton classic, The General -- at a Saturday matinee. Why choose this film?
We were looking for a current re-mastered family film that had a festival feel to it, one that wasn't coming to the multiplexes. I was at the Mill Valley Film Festival this past October and went to three or four family films to really research them. But nothing really caught my fancy there that was new. So, we fell back on one of the classic comedies of all time.
We did a Charlie Chaplin film last year. Rather than being associated permanently with Chaplin -- even though, of course, City Lights or The Gold Rush are great films -- we decided to choose the other great comedian of the silent era, Buster Keaton.
While Keaton has many great films that could've been selected, most of which are available, The General is the one he's most remembered for. It's the epic comedy of 1927. So I think that audiences, families, and children who come will very much enjoy the visual humor.
Filmworks sometimes takes some heat from local amateur filmmakers for not screening enough short films by and about people from Fresno. How would you respond to that? What Fresno-related films are in this year's festival and how did Filmworks come to pick them?
We do have an open call for festival films each year. We get local and worldwide submissions. It's only fair to pick the very best, regardless of where they're from. The quality of short films that have been submitted to us keeps getting better and better every year. I'm just amazed at the quality of the short-film submissions overall that we're getting.
The thing is, we don't look specifically where the film is coming from in order to rank it. We don't have special criteria for judging. We simply try and look at what's the best among the submissions.
One local connection this year is the documentary Colorado Experience. It's a 30-miute doc, screening before The Garden. It's about a Japanese family from Fresno who escaped the internment camp experience by going to Colorado and joining other Japanese Americans living there instead of going to the camps in World War II. It's a very hard life for them. Colorado gives them more freedom than at the camps, but it's still not a rosy picture. They still suffer from the racism during World War II toward Japanese Americans.
We've also got a short tragic-comedy called Wig from screenwriter Scotch Ellis Loring. He's also the executive producer. Loring graduated from Washington Union High. He'll be here to talk about his film and will bring a number of the actors as well. It's a little homecoming from him; he left Fresno at 19 to pursue his career in L.A., where he lives now.
Then there's a short film called The Crooked Eye. It's based on a Betty Malicoat short story published in the San Joaquin Review at Fresno State. The director is D.C. Douglas. Betty lives in Coarsegold and might appear at the festival.
Filmworks recently celebrated its seven-year anniversary in March. What has been the most difficult thing about keeping the project going month after month?
In a lot of respects, it is a difficult time for people to have the financial resources for entertainment. A lot of venues that we're competing with are struggling, in terms of audiences. We've managed to have very loyal supporters over the last seven years.
Our audiences continue to regard us with a great deal of affection. They expect us to be there at the Tower Theatre every month and we appreciate them. Some months, we have smaller attendance than others. But then our audience always helps us bounce back with just the right film on the right night.
We have some new, youthful, energetic board members that are keeping us going right now with new ideas and new ways to reach audiences. We're certainly trying more things this year, with outreach for younger audiences through Twitter, MySpace, and other kinds of social networking. That's not part of my world, but we're learning!
Finally, we have 25 sponsors for the festival this year. [This includes the presenting sponsors Anti Laboratories, the Fresno Arts Council, K-Jewel, 1300 KYNO, Fresno City Councilman Henry T. Perea, and Stella Artois.] This is very important and rewarding for us, especially in these tough times. Our festival costs are higher but our sponsors have responded to that. We're thankful.
Visit FresnoFilmworks.org for the full details about the 2009 Fresno Film Festival.