I was minding my own business, just trying to drive home from work. I had a half mile to go when I saw him in my rear-view mirror. It wasn't Johnny Law with a radar gun, but it was someone I try to avoid with the same determination: a filmmaker with a camera.
Living in Chapel Hill, I encounter this kind of thing all the time. Everyone with a camcorder is an amateur auteur, and film students regularly test their skills on our streets. As if 10 years of living in group houses hadn't already left me feeling like a character on MTV's The Real World, I've had to contend with pesky movie-makers around every corner, turning my real world into their art. Time and time again, I've found myself under the glare of a lens, an inadvertent extra in somebody's school project. And I've never even been to a casting call.
So on that afternoon last October, the last thing I wanted to see was a 35mm camera strapped on the hood of a beat-up Honda that was following me home. But before I acted on my impulse to fire back with an obscene gesture, I saw who was behind the wheel: Mike Connor, possibly the Triangle's least annoying film fiend. With a sigh of relief, I turned, waved, and hollered "Hi Mom!"
Later, I asked Connor what he had been doing. "I was shooting a time-lapse shot of the commute from Raleigh to Chapel Hill," he said. "It's nice, but it wasn't what I was hoping for. At least lots of people waved. I've never made more friends on the freeway."
It was another mission accomplished for Connor, who makes movies for the sake of making movies, and for the sake of making friends. Those are the same reasons he and Kendra Gaeta run the Hi Mom! Film Festival, an annual gathering of short-film buffs that flaunts tradition and strips away the pretensions of bigger budget festivals. At Hi Mom!, smaller is better. Friendlier is better. It's a family affair.
The festival, which makes its fourth run this weekend at several venues in Carrboro and Chapel Hill, was started by members of the Carolina Production Guild. Before Hi Mom!, local short-film makers already had regular opportunities to share their work at the long-running series of showings called Flicker. The idea, Connor says, was to capitalize on that foundation and start "a more prominent event that brings a lot of people to town and really gets people excited about filmmaking in this area."
"Our main mission is to bring work here that people in the area have no other way of seeing," Gaeta says. Flicker organizer Jim Havercamp says that's exactly why he's looking forward to this year's Hi Mom! "There are a lot of films on the list that I've heard of, but I haven't had the chance to see, so it's a good way to catch up."
Without venues like Hi Mom!, many of these films, almost all of which are small-budget but high quality and heartfelt, won't make it to an audience. That would leave short-film fans with only the major festivals, which, Havercamp says, are saturated with "Hollywood types trying to make their 'calling card' films--and those are really boring." Touring several such events left him thinking that "it's just really depressing that the people with all the money are the only ones getting their films out."
That won't happen at Hi Mom!; the festival's slogan is "No Fat Cats." The criteria for which entries are accepted are not strictly defined, but Connor takes a stab at explaining the festival's litmus test. "I would say that every film we show was conceived of by a person, or maybe two people working together, not something that was done by committee or to meet someone else's expectations," he says. "These are films that were done on their own terms."
Hi Mom! has demonstrated that there's an untapped well of such works waiting to be shown. This year the festival received 325 submissions, 49 of which made the cut. The shortest is 30 seconds, and the longest is 32 minutes. The films arrived from near and far, from five continents, including Antarctica.
It's impossible to distill a representative sampling of the flicks that will show at Hi Mom!, because this collection covers so much ground. But you only have to see a few to get a sense of how fertile the short-film underground is.
Some of the best are intensely personal. "Every day I've lived, I've wanted to die," says Peter Brinson in his film It Did It, a mind-bending, day-by-day account of his attempt to treat his depression by tinkering with his seratonin levels. As the festival program puts it, "My pal Peter popped a peck of purple Prozac pills." It's a wild ride: Along the way, he fakes UFO footage and meets with alien kittens. "You know, I think I'm thinking about myself too much," Brinson says in the film, and by that point it's hard to argue with him.
Other mini-movie makers stretch the limits of film by focusing on the basics. In Rejected, Academy Award nominee Don Hertzfeldt presents a series of line drawings billed as "rejected commercial work, never to see the bluish light of television, doomed to play only at film festivals like Sundance and Hi Mom!" Nina Paley's animated Panderama is entirely hand-drawn--instead of using a camera, she painstakingly sketched the images onto 2,880 frames of the two-minute film.
A few entries tell complicated stories. JLB Television, Connor's new "conspiracy fantasy," as he calls it, is an example. It would be a crime to reveal the plot, but Connor gave me permission to report that "it's about bank robbers, corporate intrigue and soulless ad agencies."
Roger Beebe, a former Duke student who used to run Flicker and now teaches film at the University of Florida, contributes a more surreal work that demonstrates how Hi Mom! has promoted sincere, small-scale filmmaking. Last year, Beebe won the festival's coveted cinematography prize: $500 in free film from Kodak. This year, he's premiering his Strip Mall Trilogy, shot on Super 8, which somehow manages to find beauty and tranquillity in a butt-ugly commercial zone. In his new hometown of Gainesville, Fla., Beebe says, "they have the biggest strip mall I've ever seen in my life, so this was about me getting used to that, trying to liberate these elements from the consumer culture, trying to find these things that are crass commercial logos and symbols, and aestheticize them."
Hi Mom! is nothing if not anti-commercial, so you might wonder what Beebe thinks about pursuing independent art with a grant from a giant corporation like Kodak. He says the arrangement doesn't trouble him, since the company had no say in how he used the film. Besides, he says, as a filmmaker accustomed to working on a shoestring budget, "I'm happy to take handouts from wherever I get them."
"There are very few new festivals that aren't just trying to be Sundance," Beebe says, "where they appreciate people who aren't trying to make 'calling cards,' where it's not a venue where you try to get discovered." Hi Mom! is one of them. "You're not just there to display your wares, you're there to hang out," he says. "I mean, no one comes with their stickers and posters. No one's doing that whole huckster thing."
"Our approach is to be really friendly and personable," Connor says, "because we can't compete with the fancy-pants element in the film festival world." Why should they? Hi Mom! has created what many consider to be a vastly preferable alternative, a small-film culture that puts person-to-person contact before profit motives.
There are many flourishes that set this festival apart. To begin with, prize winners receive trophies doused in lighter fluid which are then set aflame, and directors' mothers do the presenting. Also, participants feast on Gaeta's "pancakes in the shape of your initials," a tradition she launched at one of the many potlucks during last year's festival. And, starting this year, visitors will be provided with bicycles, courtesy of the Recyclery, a Carrboro-based group that repairs and donates two-wheelers to people who need transportation.
Last year's Hi Mom! was such a success that attitudes about homemade movie makers began to shift, even among those who, like myself, are weary of the incessant video surveillance that plagues college towns. My conversion came during Gaeta's film, Cold Soup, a delicious parody of the emotional hang-ups and stilted conversations of artsy college kids. There's a scene where a cast of familiar Chapel Hill faces hovers around the bar at Henry's Bistro. As they bantered and glared their way through boredom, boozing and broken hearts, I felt the combined comfort and unease I'd expect to encounter in a parallel universe.
When the film was over, I had learned my lesson about spurning film students. The next time one of them trains a camera on me, I'm not going to flee--I'm going to step into character.
For more iformatio ad a film schedle, go to wwwhimomfilmfestivalorg