by Bruce A. Smith
The 9th Annual Rainier Independent Film Festival was held last weekend in the mountain town of Ashford, WA, and it was a strange mix of industry insiders, local artsy-types, and thirty-eight films – many of them weird, flawed, or fascinating.
As “independent” films, they are generally not the kind of movie usually shown in a multiplex, and this lack of popular appeal limits the reach of the festival. As a result, the crowds were thin.
But those in attendance were treated to a bevy of meaningful films even if viewers had to wade through a bunch of clunkers. Most of the films shown were short fiction or documentary types, and about a dozen of so feature-length movies averaging about 90 minutes in length, which were also the most appealing.
The Friday night opener, Booze, Boys and Brownies was the quintessential “Indie” charmer, and later was voted the Audience’s Choice Award.
Profoundly lacking a narrative arc that would have had a beginning, middle and an end – with a resulting dramatic pay-off in the last scene – BB&B was instead a solid stitch work of beautifully crafted vignettes portraying a young woman’s pursuit of a movie career in Los Angeles.
It’s a tough slog, and the heroine Viviane, played by Veronica Mannion, also finds that she has to sort through her feelings towards a slew of handsome lads, who are also dealing with their own turbulent desires for love, glory and commercial success.
Basically, it’s a tangled mess, and everyone lubricates the friction of their lives with vodka and pastries. Hence, the title.
Mannion, who also wrote the screenplay, produced the movie, and directed the shoot, is clearly a genius. Her acting is wonderful, and she brings a sonic touch that is sublime; and BB&B is sprinkled with musical interludes that are short and sweet, like miniature droplets of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
In addition, the acting is tight and dynamic throughout, and the scenes are sharply crafted, even if they don’t build into a coherent momentum. In a sense, BB&B is a collection of twenty or so excellent mini-films, and one day we will see Mannion accept an Oscar for her work in a town she calls “Hell-A.”
But until then she needs a top-notch mentor and a seasoned writer to shape her obvious talents.
Sadly, the magic that was present in BB&B was missing in most of the short films presented at the festival, most of which lasted between 10-15 minutes.
However, there were a couple of exceptions. One was a five- minute gem titled Nature, which spoofed Big Pharma ads, and showed the benefits of the outdoors as a remedy to life’s ills.
“Ask your doctor if Nature is right for you,” is the tag line from Nature that continues to ring in my head and put a smile on my face.
Another piece that also deserves attention is Mei-Mei. This is a thirty-minute film narrative by Dmae Roberts, which portrays the life of her mother, a Taiwanese immigrant who survived WWII. Their story has been featured on NPR.
The feature films were uneven in quality, with one, Land of Leopold, being a real stinker. But most of the films I viewed, even if “not great,” were satisfying because they looked at themes not usually explored in commercial films, such as Wildlife and its approach to incest.
Another stellar film was Imperial Dreams, the tale of a young African-American man released from prison who returns home to Watts with a profound determination to transform his life. Even though his frustrations are many, and his angry and discouragement real, the film is a touching look at one man’s journey to creating something greater in life.
Imperial Dreams received the “Best Film Award” for the festival. Not only was this accolade richly deserved, film lovers will surely see this movie on a screen somewhere in the near future.
Perhaps the most interesting part of RIFF was meeting the people who made the films. This festival is exceptional for creating an environment where actors, producers, film buffs and average Joes can mingle easily with each other and talk movies.
Thus, the highlight for me was spending half the weekend trading insights with film professionals, such as producers Luke Taylor of Buffalo 8 Productions in Hollywood, and the LA-based John Adams of The Adams Family Productions, along with the aforementioned Veronica Mannion. We talked animatedly on the nitty-gritty of making a movie with very little money.
Adams’ worthy effort, The Shoot, was filmed for 30K, while Mannion said her Booze, Boys and Brownies was made for 20K!
Yet Taylor was courageous enough to tell me how his company attempted to fix the 250K Leopold with voice-overs when the initial shooting showed the movie to be woefully deficient.
“We knew right away that it had a lot of missing story points,” Taylor acknowledged. Following, we talked at great length on how to make a movie “less sucky” and still stay on budget.
Money is the essential ingredient in independent film productions, and everyone had compelling stories on how they saved money and cut corners. Money determines how big a movie can be made, and everything – the script, locations, and the plot – must conform to those limitations. Simply, a film producer can not squeeze War and Peace into a fifteen minute film.
“Keep it simple,” is the primary approach, and John Adams’s company employees his family’s two daughters, Zelda and LuLu, as interchangeable actresses, camera operators and technical assistants, with mom Toby Poser rounding out the roster. In fact, John and Toby handled the leading roles in The Shoot while their kids filmed them.
Zelda, at 11 years old, was in attendance and captivated those who spoke with her. Effervescent and ever-present, Zelda talked easily about her life in films, and described how she and her family travel about the United States – exploring the country and making movies. The Adams’ also attend a number of film gatherings as a way of marketing their movies, and Zelda called RIFF her favorite festival.
When she’s not making movies, Zelda enjoys playing soccer, and also, playing the drums in a band Kids Kalifornia, with her father.
In contrast, Luke Taylor characterized Cannes as “chaotic and crazy” and Sun Valley as “cool” for their networking opportunities, but he called RIFF “serene.”
The ambience of RIFF also added to the ease of schmoozing with the guests. Most of the films were held at the Lions Hall in Ashford, and the Lady Lions hosted a bar that served wine and beer at fair prices, while delicious food was generally available through the auspices of John and Tammy Bratholm of Eatonville.
Adding heft to the conversation, film impresario Warren Etheridge of Seattle mc’d the questions and answer periods that followed every movie.
Etheridge also hosted in own workshop, titled: “Don’t Shoot the Messenger.”
As in years past, the Rainier Impendent Film Festival was hosted by its founders, Win and Sarah Whittaker. They also entertained the audience with the story of how they met – she was a camera operator and Assistant Director of Photography on a film shoot in Utah while Win was also the First Assistant Director overall.
“It was a hot day and Win had just come back from climbing Mt. McKinley,” Sarah told me. “All the men had their shirts off, and I said to my girlfriend, who’s that guy over there, the first A.D….”
Veronica Mannion and Alan Kaiser, stars of Booze, Boys and Brownies at RIFF
Zelda Adams and her father, John, at RIFF
Win Whittaker, co-founder of RIFF
Bruce A. Smith
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