by Marc Maximov
A week after the twin eruptions of cinephilia at the far corners of the state (Cucalorus in Wilmington and the Asheville Film Festival), the Triangle played host to a festival of its own last Sunday. In its fourth year, the Carrboro Film Festival is comparatively low-key, and strictly locals-only—all entrants must reside, or have at one time resided, or at least stopped for gas in or near Orange County (just kidding about the last part). Sure, the organizers may be a bit loose in their definition of “local,” but then, a loose, down-home atmosphere is part of the festival’s appeal.
In a compact, six-hour schedule—shorts only—27 films screened to a packed Carrboro Century Center. Hoots and whistles greeted the names of the usual suspects in the credits, as the familial Triangle filmmaking crowd gathered to celebrate their own. There was something for every taste—music videos, animation, comedies, dramas, the odd genre horror film, even a relic from the late ’70s that brought to light the considerable distance, for better and worse, between that era and our own.
The three filmmakers who won Indy Arts Awards this year, Nic Beery, Ajit Anthony Prem and Todd Tinkham, made a strong showing, with five films between them. Particularly impressive was Prem’s HELLO, SORRY, WHATEVER, a Cliffs Notes romantic tragedy built around snatches of dialogue consisting almost exclusively of the words in the title. Amory Casto, an actress from Wilmington who’s since moved to Austin, gives a deeper performance than one can reasonably expect from a short in any festival. Coupled with an impressive turn by her co-lead, Dan Kelly, the film reveals Prem’s deft hand with creating dramatic situations, and with spotting and harnessing acting talent.
Another outstanding performance, by local theater stalwart Mike Wiley, was recognized with the Craft Award for Best Actor. In EMPTY SPACE, Wiley inhabits several of the characters from his one-man stage show, Dar He: The Lynching of Emmett Till. Co-directors Rob Underhill and Aravind Ragupathi shot Wiley in a raw indoor space with a mattress and a chair, rather like a spare stage set, putting the focus squarely on Wiley’s performance. It’s the first time he’s brought his work to film, and he was impressed with the results.
“The film captured the grittiness and desperation of the characters,” said Wiley. “The proximity of the camera makes the experience in some ways more immediate. With close-ups and with the sound and the music, it puts it in your face more than I’ve been able to achieve so far on stage.” The screening was Empty Space’s premiere, and it won the audience award for best film.
The nonfiction contingent increased its market share over previous years, with more documentaries than ever, according to committee chair Selena Lauterer. Two docs addressed the hazards of mountaintop removal, the coal extraction process that’s scarring wide swaths of the Appalachians and endangering nearby communities. Another pair centered on the Elsewhere Artist Collaborative, housed in a former thrift store in downtown Greensboro. George Scheer created the unlikely art space and “museum” in his late grandmother Sylvia Gray’s shop, which was stuffed with 58 years’ worth of accumulated cloth scraps and odds and ends.
The art space has been attracting attention around the state since it opened a few years back, and was irresistible material for film students Cara Clark of UNC-Greensboro and Natalie Fava of Elon University. Clark’s film, SYLVIA AND GEORGE, completed a North Carolina trifecta of sorts, having played last weekend in Asheville and Wilmington. It’s informative, well-paced and lively, and earned Clark the Student Award.
A notable theme in the festival was the number of films that straddled the line between cinema and graphic design. Software packages like After Effects have democratized access to high-caliber special effects, providing a great many new tools to artists working in the “experimental” genre. Visually dazzling, nonlinear films swept the first- and second-place jury awards: ICHTHYOPOLIS, a campy, surreal blend of opera, collage and, uh, fish, by UNC-Wilmington professor André Silva, took first. BLOOD AND THUNDER, a music video by Philadelphia-based stop-motion animator Tobias Stretch, took second.
Widely available technology has also made it easy to add jazzy design elements to straightforward narrative films. Perhaps the best example of the latter was the third-place winner, FAIT, by Charlotte filmmaker and NC State grad Chris Crutchfield. It’s the story of an adorable little girl who entertains a stranger on a park bench with a shaggy dog story, which comes to life in the form of CGI text and symbols that appear to hang in the air all around them. The catchy visuals are reminiscent of a big-budget commercial, but they’re the product of a one-man, 10-day project.
A good reference point for the profound changes that filmmaking style and technique have undergone in the last 30 years was provided by BALLERINA, a short with an intriguing backstory. Shot in 1979 by Miami-based cinematographer Kenneth Peterson, it sat in a box for 30 years, and aside from a few small screenings, it hadn’t seen the light of day until now. The original prints of the film were destroyed in Hurricane Andrew in 1992, but a work tape survived. Peterson, who moved to the Triangle area 15 years ago, decided to submit it to Carrboro and hope for its first festival appearance.
Ballerina tells the story of an aging ballerina and her longtime admirer, who finds her living in an isolated manor decades after her career took a tragic turn. The film unfolds in a leisurely 20 minutes, and the shots are intentionally hazy and slightly dim. The unhurried pace and the distinctive soft focus clearly place the film in its era. “I was going for an almost film-noirish effect,” said Peterson by phone (he was away in California for the birth of a grandchild and couldn’t attend the festival). “I meant it to be dark and romantic in its look."
Peterson has observed first-hand the vast changes in filmmaking techniques that separate his film from the other entries. Today, for instance, filmmakers can roll inexpensive videotape to their heart's content, whereas Ballerina was carefully composed on scrounged "short ends," scraps of film stock left over from larger productions—"150 feet, 100 feet, 350 feet, whatever we could get our hands on," he said. "Shooting was different then. You didn’t have a preview screen on the camera. You had to have your act together—whatever came out of the lab is what you got, which was sometimes scary.
“Editing was a very physical process—you were marking the film with a grease pencil and cutting it with a razor blade,” he said. “Effects were done in camera. Now everything is done in post.” As for the blurry, dark, “romantic” effect, Peterson achieved it by using a stocking behind the camera lens. Keep in mind, the word “stocking,” as it’s used here, isn’t a technical term for a special piece of filmmaking equipment—it refers to a pair of women’s pantyhose, from which a circular section is cut, stretched tight and held in place behind the lens with a small rubber band.
Peterson fondly recalled the favored brand of stocking: “It was Fogal Noblesse noir,” he remarked, rolling the words off his tongue.