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Electric, Eclectic

A UNC-TV series shows an interesting grab bag of short films by local filmmakers


Most discussions of the difficulties of independent filmmaking center around the never-ending search for money. Filmmakers bemoan the high cost of producing a movie, but the struggle to complete a film often obscures an equally vexing problem: how to find an audience.

There are, of course, hundreds of film festivals around the world promising exhibition, including several in North Carolina. The trouble with festivals, however, is that they are attended mostly by industry people--producers, journalists and other filmmakers--but very few ordinary filmgoers. And even if filmmakers manage to land a spot at a prestigious festival such as Sundance or Durham's own DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival, there's no guarantee that their films will get any attention amid the din of hundreds of films clamoring for notice.

Enter North Carolina Visions. Now in its seventh season, this production of UNC-TV provides Tar Heel filmmakers with a statewide audience every Saturday night. Nineteen filmmakers are presenting their work during the eight-week series, which began Sept. 8 and has already shown films by the likes of Triangle residents Jim Haverkamp and 2001 Indies Arts Award winner Brett Ingram. While they are all well-made, worthy films, and several are exceptionally good, it's unlikely that many of them will have the luck and timing required to get widespread distribution. This makes the exposure provided by North Carolina Visions all the more gratifying to the filmmakers.

According to producer Caroline Francis, who has produced North Carolina Visions since its inception, the series was conceived with a particular emphasis on short films. "There's a wonderful independent film community in North Carolina, with different viewpoints and different topics," she says. However, "there aren't that many places for shorts to be screened."

Judging from this fall's lineup, the Triangle is the most fertile filmmaking area in the state, although Francis notes that other years have seen strong representation from the mountains and Wilmington. This year, nine of the 19 films come from artists in Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh. The series will include the latest work from veteran artists, fascinating documentaries by first-time filmmakers, profiles of noteworthy citizens and adaptations of short stories.

The Triangle films are a disparate lot--there's no overarching theme, no aesthetic flag being waved in the manner of the Italian neo-realists or the "morally anxious" Polish filmmakers. This diversity is part of the appeal of the North Carolina Visions series. It's a grab bag of visions, and the eclecticism, in the absence of masterpieces, makes it consistently interesting.

The series began on Sept. 8 with Strangers, a feature by Winston-Salem resident Ramin Bahrani that was filmed in his parents' homeland of Iran. It continued last Saturday with four shorts, three of which were made by Triangle filmmakers: the lively, oddly inspirational Techies, Trashers and Tightwads, by the Raleigh duo of Zach Weddington and Zoe Haley; the bleakly funny Last Pack by Durham's Jim Haverkamp, and Ingram's Panic Attack. (Those wishing to catch the episodes that have already been broadcast will have at least two more opportunities. The series will be rerun next April, after the spring pledge drive, and then again in the late fall of 2002, according to Francis.)

Although the series is two weeks gone, there are many opportunities to catch Triangle film artists in the next six weekends. Episode Three, to be broadcast on Saturday, Sept. 22, features three films by Triangle filmmakers. The first comes courtesy of recent UNC-Chapel Hill grads Aaron Garrish and Adam Powell. Portsmouth: In Search of the Past is a 13-minute exploration of a little known historic region of North Carolina, Portsmouth Island, situated just below Ocracoke Island. Portsmouth was once the most important point of entry into North Carolina, but it went into decline after the Civil War. Today, the island is abandoned, but the area residents are active in preserving what could be an excellent destination for those in search of novel weekend excursions.

Next up is Durham documentarian Sandra Jacobi, whose eight-minute video, Martha Heine: Tapestry Weaver, is a lovely portrait of a local artisan who died of cancer last December. Heine, whose works can be seen at the Durham Arts Council and other public buildings, emigrated from Germany in 1949 and took up tapestry weaving in retirement. Her modernist creations are breathtaking, as is her summation of her life and art, which she delivers with barely a flinch: "Little bright spots in the darkness."

Wrapping up Episode Three is Nothing But the Truth, a first film by Durham lawyer Paul M. Green. The 30-minute film probes the apparently wrongful murder conviction of a Wilkes County man, who was subsequently sentenced to die. Though this film doesn't attempt to match the artistry of Errol Morris' A Thin Blue Line, Green lays out the facts with lawyerly precision, making an excellent contribution to the anti-death penalty dossier. However, after a half-hour of dreary trailer parks, ethically challenged cops, a mendacious district attorney and a truly frightening convict who claimed to be the real killer, viewers may find themselves making a mental note to avoid Wilkes County.

There are no Triangle filmmakers scheduled again until Episode Seven, to be broadcast Oct. 20. This broadcast kicks off with Birthmark, a video production by another Triangle-based filmmaking team, director Joshua Gibson and writer/producer Nancy Ann Norton. Based on a short story by Doris Betts, Birthmark takes place in a late-19th century Appalachia where, as the Chinese are said to say, the mountains are high and the emperor is far away.

Birthmark begins when a young woman saves a baby from being drowned by the infant's demented father. This young woman, Zelene, is a holy fool of the sort so beloved of Southern literature, and the community permits her to adopt the baby. In a quick series of scenes, we see the town misfit flower into a fierce and loving mother. Although some of the dialogue and characters suffer from the overdeliberateness characteristic of John Sayles' films, the story nevertheless builds to a powerful Old Testament conclusion when justice is delivered by the terrible swift fall of an ax.

Also on Oct. 20, California filmmaker and Chapel Hill native Karen Price sends a care package to her home state titled Living by Instinct: Animals and Their Rescuers. This film, shot as part of Price's MFA studies at the University of Southern California, is a moving portrait of people who dedicate their lives to the rescue of abused and abandoned animals. We meet a woman who saves retired racehorses from slaughterhouses, an activity she finances by waiting tables. There's also a couple that saves turtles, a woman who captures and neuters feral housecats, and a woman who shelters a motley collection of cast-off farm animals in her "Gentle Barn." The animal rescuers are a devoted bunch, and seeing their stories will no doubt induce some viewers to open their checkbooks (the organizations' addresses are provided at film's end).

Episode Eight features only one Triangle resident, but it's an auspicious debut from a Chapel Hill-based young Turk named Khang Mai. His 15-minute creepy comedy, Bureau of ... , is the story of a bureaucrat who seems to have stepped out of the lighter sketches produced by such paranoids and obsessives as Dostoevsky, Melville and Kafka (the film is, in fact, adapted from a story by a writer named Steve Rasnic Tem). Here we meet a man who has spent his entire 25-year working life as an anonymous dispenser of everything from parade permits to fishing licenses. Day after day, he settles into his office with his newspaper, quite content to remain undisturbed. Of course, he is disturbed--this is a movie, after all--by a mysterious apparition outside his door.

While this film lacks the emotional and philosophical heft of its influences, Mai demonstrates a flair for storytelling. His camera work is smooth and assured, and he has a natural sense of narrative rhythm. Nothing if not prolific, Mai already has two more short films in the pipeline, and he is also finding time this year to help organize next spring's Hi Mom! film festival at UNC-Chapel Hill. Filmmakers interested in this venue should check the festival Web site, www.himomfestival.org.

Mai, who has a day job at a Chapel Hill film equipment rental house, appreciates the television exposure. But he notes that one of the most gratifying things for a filmmaker is experiencing the reactions of a large theater audience. After screening a film at a festival, Mai says, "people will stop you and say, 'Hey, man, that was great!'" EndBlock

For more information about the North Carolina Visions series, consult the WUNC-TV Web site at www.wunctv.org. In addition to scheduling information, the site contains interviews with the filmmakers.

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