Asked to pick out a few highlights from Cucalorus 2011, festival director Dan Brawley begins with the Norwood Cheek retrospective, chains through a list of some 142 screenings and events featuring 83 film artists and closes with hosannas for the special lineup of Blue Velvet events.
That's why filmmakers and movie lovers will be packing up their cultural surfboards Nov. 10–13 to head for the 17th Cucalorus Film Festival in Wilmington.
If there is one essential ingredient at the festival (named for a light-filtering device that creates a dappled effect), it's the feeling of easy access and familiarity. At screenings and in between, there is always plenty of space for conversation. That's the point.
"We look for films that maybe haven't gotten as much press as they should," Brawley says. "We don't do a lot of academic planning, but there just happened to be a handful of foreign films that we felt were really deserving."
His list of the undernoted begins with three Scandinavian films: King of Devil's Island, about a boys' detention center; Turn Me On, Dammit!, about a young teenager, and Happy Happy, a comedy about Kaja, an eternal optimist with a husband who prefers hunting to sex with his "unattractive" wife. In her notes, Happy Happy director Anne Sewitsky says, "I wanted to tell the story of an insistently happy person."
Happy Happy may be a good antidote to one of the more bizarre and gritty films on the schedule, Restive, whose Austin-based director Jeremiah Jones, writes, "Centering around a disturbing performance by Christopher Denham (Sound of My Voice), the film provides a dark and hopeless exploration of domestic violence."
Hmm . . . "dark and hopeless." If that's not daunting enough, Brawley says, "That film is visually challenging as well. One of the most important roles of a festival is to make space for challenging films."
Cucalorus is all about open space and wide boundaries, and not just in looking at what's new, but looking back.
"This year we are launching the first N.C. retrospective," Brawley says. "That's one of the pleasures of being around for 17 years. We are in touch with filmmakers who remember making 8 mm films." That would include Norwood Cheek, one of 16 filmmakers who participated in the very first Cucalorus Film Festival in 1994 and who founded the Flicker Film Festival at Local 506 in Chapel Hill. There will be a survey of Cheek's work: six music videos (including for Ben Folds Five and Squirrel Nut Zippers), six short films and a Super 8 screening of I dreamed and Bluebird. There will be a post-film discussion with Cheek (who now lives in Los Angeles), which will be moderated by Durham filmmaker Jim Haverkamp.
And then there's the David Lynch classic Blue Velvet, one of the most celebrated (and disturbing) films ever to be made in Wilmington. This year is the 25th anniversary of the film that shocked audiences when it was released in the fall of 1986. Today, it's considered a masterpiece of that decade. Producer Steve Fox and director Ben Fancy will be on hand to talk about their in-progress documentary, It's a Strange World: The Filming of Blue Velvet.
"Blue Velvet is not a film that appeals to everyone," Fox says, "but there are some ardent film people who love this film." The story of the story of the documentary started at a Cucalorus festival.
"Ben Fancy was giving tours of the Blue Velvet locations. I took the tour to see what it was like and there was a young German couple, Norberg and Nadine Keil. She had a film in the festival. We were chatting and they were clearly interested in our documentary project and said, 'We want to help!' I said, 'OK fine, your mission is to go back to Europe and find Peter Braatz.'"
Braatz was an intern on the Blue Velvet production, and he later produced an idiosyncratic take on his experience called No Frank in Lumberton, which will be screened at Cucalorus as well.
According to Fox, they found Braatz living in Slovenia and, adding to the fire, Braatz offered up some 1,000 stills he had taken during the Blue Velvet shoot. Forty-two of Braatz's photographs will be on display in the "Dennis Hopper Building," or 20 Princess St., between Front and Water.
In one more serendipitous coup, Fox dug up a clipping from Christian Tomaszewski, a Polish artist and Guggenheim fellow who had created an installation of a room with every lamp from the film. Inspired by Fox's documentary project, Tomaszewski traveled to Wilmington for a bicycle tour of the locales and offered to contribute. The resulting video piece, Erased, is the film of Blue Velvet but with the characters edited out. In Tomaszewski's hands, Blue Velvet is distilled into a haunting series of architectural spaces.
If you are wondering what happened to the grassroots side of Cucalorus, look again. Two Triangle artists are right there in the mix. Linda Booker and Blaire Johnson will be screening their work-in-progress, Bringing It Home. It's the story of Asheville builder Anthony Brenner of Push Design, whose search for toxic-free building materials lured him into the construction of a house built from industrial hemp.
"This is not a film about psychotropic hemp," Booker says. "You would have to smoke a joint of industrial hemp the size of a telephone pole to get a buzz."
Clips from the film include a visit to the International Hemp Building Symposium in Granada, Spain, and Brenner explaining the quest that led him to hemp design: the dream of building a 100 percent toxic-free children's home in Asheville to accommodate children like his daughter, Bailey, who has been severely damaged by chemical sensitivity and needs a very safe place to live.
Triangle newcomer Aby Rao will be screening Singhing Bee, his short mockumentary film on the experience of a young boy from an Indian family pressed into a spelling bee. Working with a small budget, Durham resident Rao says there were not a lot of Indian-American professional actors, so he formed his cast from friends, colleagues and friends of friends. The action takes place in a Morrisville home, a local Asian market and Sitar India Cuisine on 15-501. Rao found his lead, Ashwin Punj, at the Natya Academy in Cary and lucked out when Ashwin's mother, Anita Punj, fit in as the on-screen mother. This gives the film a home-grown feel that suits Rao's comic style.
Among the biggest festival titles is the eagerly anticipated Tilda Swinton vehicle, We Need to Talk about Kevin, which is Lynne Ramsay's first film in nearly a decade—her last one, Morvern Callar, also had an early screening at Cucalorus. Other notables include the short film The Father by Australian David Easteal; Our Day Will Come, directed by Romain Gavras, who became something of a cult hero with "Born Free," his violent, politically incendiary music video for M.I.A. that Salon called a "nine-minute masterpiece"; Triangle director Ray Ellis' latest documentary, Certain Proof; Sara Terry's Fambul Tok, about traditions of truth-telling in Sierra Leone; and Tyrannosaur, directed by actor Paddy Considine, a feature-length follow-up to his short Dog Altogether.