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A PASSION FOR FILM
Fresno Filmworks may have just come of age. After four years of steadily bringing independent cinema monthly to the Tower District, the nonprofit group of film lovers will roll out 16 films in three days this weekend in the Tower District.
The second annual Filmworks festival, A Passion For Film, kicks off Friday night. Community journalist Jefferson Beavers talked with Filmworks President John Moses about programming the festival's wide array of offerings, keeping up with heavyweight movie theaters, and looking toward the cinema group's future.
This year's festival is much expanded from last year's lineup. What led to the additional programming?
We wanted to make this a real festival. The first year's lineup was a transition for us from monthly programming to festival programming. We were applying monthly series ideas to a festival format and some things didn't work as well as it could have.
We're adding a fifth feature [one more than last year] and mixing up the schedule, which gives us the flexibility to work in some short films and some new things. We wanted a lot of variety this year, more range.
I noticed that 10 of the 11 short films in the festival's lineup were 2005 Academy Award nominees. Why did you decide to bring the short films to the festival, instead of other full-length ones?
The whole collection of shorts is coming from one distributor. They've set it up as a package of Oscar nominees for short documentaries, animation, and live-action films.
Again, we wanted the variety. A number of people have been whispering in my ear after the [monthly] screenings, saying why don't we do some shorts. This was the opportunity to do that. The package gives us flexibility, not only in the two grouped programs but also with a couple other [single shorts] sprinkled in here and there where they fit best.
The Sunday matinee, Elevator To The Gallows, is a restored noir classic from the 1950s. As president of Filmworks, and as a published scholar on film noir, was that film your personal pick?
Because we've broadened the festival so much, we adapted our democratic principles for picking the films. Last year it was very difficult to vote on a film, go to a distributor, find out it's not available, and then go back and vote again. It was quite daunting.
We decided early on this time that we needed a programmer. And since I'm the one in contact with distributors, I became the de facto programmer. The Filmworks board approved my selections. We went through many drafts, and they made suggestions as I went along.
That said, Elevator To The Gallows is a film that I've been advocating since it was re-released late last year. It's being put out by the small distributor Rialto Pictures, which has been bringing out a whole series of older films, with the restoration process. Many of them, like this one, are slated for release on the Criterion label. They're being brought back to life and going to the best academic labels out there.
As a film historian, I love to do restoration films, revival films. Filmworks played one before, The Battle of Algiers, a couple years ago. So we think this one will fit nicely. And, the film connects with one of the festival sponsors, KFSR-FM, a station that's big on jazz. Elevator To The Gallows has a Miles Davis score and it's worth seeing just for the score, let alone the wonderful black-and-white cinematography.
The rest of the lineup seems to be an eclectic mix of films, both in genre and forms. What were the primary criteria you used to program the festival?
Mostly, we looked for a breadth of form and mood. Last year's films, almost by accident, came out to be very heavy in both theme and style. That wasn't our intent but it just happened, through voting and what was available. Other films we wanted that would have lightened the mood, we couldn't get.
In general, the short films with animation and comedy give great variety. We also snapped up the chance to do a family matinee [on Saturday]. The board for a long time has looked to get that kind of audience. Families with children often don't work for a Friday night show. We're very happy we could get Duma. The director, Carroll Ballard, has been doing quality family films for years.
Our top consideration, of course, is that the film hasn't played in Fresno. Duma, for example, is set for DVD release in just a couple of weeks. Fresno wasn't alone with film being overlooked. It didn't really get out to theaters, and that's a shame for this wonderful film.
We're still light on true comedy. The shorts have some -- Our Time Is Up is very funny. The opening show, The Real Dirt On Farmer John, is an eclectic mix of moods. It's a serious film on organic farming, and about the loss of home and community through farms in the 1980s. But at heart of that is this eccentric farmer, John Peterson, who brings comic touches to the film. I think it'll help set the tone for the festival.
And of course, Sophie Scholl -- The Final Days, our closing film, is very serious. You know it's going to end badly for the central character going in. That's a given. Others like The White Countess have enough twists to keep people guessing.
Filmworks recently celebrated its four-year anniversary in March. What has been the most difficult thing about keeping the project going month after month?
The past year has been very good. We've had problems in past with distributors, but that's changing. We're getting more of a core group of companies to work with now. Things have shifted and we're getting more options. [The distributors] know that we've got good box offices now, that we are their way of getting into the Fresno market for certain films.
The competition with Regal Cinemas has been interesting. In the last couple months, three of our films -- The Squid And The Whale, Paradise Now, and Cache -- have opened with us first [and then have screened later at Clovis Town Center]. We've had close to 400 people turn out each night for those films. So the later screenings from the majors haven't seemed to hurt us.
The group's mission is to eventually have a full-time theater in Fresno dedicated to experimental, foreign, and independent cinema. Has there been progress on that bigger goal?
I'd say things are slow and steady. We haven't abandoned the goal of a full-time art house, although our focus for the past four or five months has been on festival. ... Plus we have to keep thinking about the monthly screenings. Those things have kept our energy focused on those immediate things. But we will have spaces to look at once the festival has passed. We've had discussions with a commercial [real estate agent] who has some ideas for us.
So far there hasn't been an ideal space. We were looking first in the Tower District but so far there hasn't been the right fit. We are open to other areas of Fresno too, including downtown. Our first focus has always tended to be the Tower because it has been so good for us. It's a natural draw, a place people love to come to. Downtown has lots of potential, though. If something happens that could make us a part of the revitalization down there, that would be wonderful.
What else can people expect from Filmworks at the festival?
There will be a big opening night reception and party. We'll have a silent art auction through the weekend, with the works of 12 artists who have contributed work just for us. We've got some other things planned for the theater to make things a little different, a real party atmosphere throughout the weekend.
We'll have our first panel discussion on Sunday, focused on people's favorite films and why they love them. The panelists will be Jeff Booth, owner of The Movies video store; Jon Carroll, the president of Fresno Reel Pride; Sasha Khokha, a local documentary filmmaker; and Darrin Navarro, an independent film editor [from Los Angeles].
We've have had great community support for Filmworks year after year. People's support has allowed us to keep doing what we're doing. We've got five new board members with new ideas and new talents. The folks who've been doing Filmworks for years are happy there are some new folks who will be even better at getting the word out about what we do.