Chapel Hill's Hi Mom! Film Festival is a defiantly unpretentious event that may have found the key to keeping its ambitions close to the do-it-yourself ethos of youthful artists: Keep stewardship of the fest in the hands of an ever-shifting cast of undergraduates. Although the festival, in its fifth year, now attracts over 400 entries from around the world, its organizers are determined to keep the scale of their event small.
The event was founded in 1998 by undergraduates at UNC-Chapel Hill. But undergraduates have a tendency to graduate and move on, so the stewardship of Hi Mom! has been passed to a different crew every year. Despite its humble ambitions, Hi Mom! secured a niche on the festival circuit over the last two years thanks to the work of Mike Connor and Kendra Smith, who have since departed for the more bustling film scenes of Austin and New York, respectively. With these heroic organizers gone, this year's fest is a bit of a watershed in the short history of the event.
Stepping into the breach is UNC senior Cady Bean-Smith. True to Hi Mom!'s laid-back form, she doesn't have an official title: In the program she is credited merely as "Mover/Shaker." A wispy, blond-haired 21-year-old, Smith appreciates the path that was cleared by the formidable duo of Connor and Smith. "I was impressed by the tremendous amount of time and energy they had poured into it," she says, speaking alongside fellow organizer Khang Mai, in her tidy Glen Lennox apartment. "I drove around town approaching potential sponsors and found that they'd heard of us. We're finding a niche in the film circuit--people know about us more and more. All of that is attributable to Mike and Kendra. I'm honored to carry the torch along."
The 22-year-old Mai, a cheerfully attitudinal Chapel Hill filmmaker, describes this year's festival as a "step back and a step forward," meaning that this year's crew reassessed the goals of Hi Mom! and decided to kick it up a notch in its professionalism. Probably the biggest news is that, for the first time, Hi Mom! will have a celebrity guest, the famed documentarian Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens), whose last film, LaLee's Kin, was nominated this year for an Academy Award for best documentary. Maysles will appear at the opening night program at the UNC Student Union and will introduce two of his shorts from the mid-1960s, With Love from Truman and Meet Marlon Brando.
Another innovation this year is an open-air screening on the roof of the Rosemary Street parking deck, which will happen on Friday night. Although this year's festival promises to be somewhat slicker than in years past, Bean-Smith and Mai have no interest in taking it to the big-time. "We don't want to have to deal with the pressure of sponsors to sell tickets," Mai says. "When you deal with Time Warner or somebody, you lose artistic control."
While having more big-time sponsorship can make certain goals easier to accomplish, Mai notes that ticket prices inevitably go up as a result. "Look at DoubleTake--$100 for a weekend pass. I mean, come on!" she says. In contrast, weekend passes to Hi Mom! are available for $15, though Bean-Smith notes that adding Maysles to the program did cause a slight spike in this year's ticket prices.
Despite the potentially "dangerous" introduction of celebrities and sexy venues, certain charming Hi Mom! features will remain, including the flaming trophies, modest prizes and a closing night performance by an area band (this year, Trailer Bride). But what about the pancakes, in the shape of your initials? "It's a Hi Mom! tradition. We can't seem to get away from it," says Bean-Smith, sounding very much like she wants to do just that. However, it sounds like, for at least another year, a griddle will be plugged into a wall somewhere. For those truly determined to get their cakes, Bean-Smith says, "You can get a pancake for a bribe, or a compliment!"
If the lo-fi aspects of Hi Mom! conjure up images of silly undergraduate video projects, the films in competition are a diverse and accomplished lot, united only by low-budgets and a DIY ethos. "No fat cats!" is Hi Mom!'s longtime slogan, and that hasn't changed. "We wanted films where thought went into it, not money," Mai says. Bean-Smith adds that the selection committee rejected films that were deemed too slick, with high production values and minor stars. "Some filmmakers see short films as an exercise, a calling card for Hollywood. We're more interested in films as an outlet of personal expression."
One of the best films on tap, Heisenberg Principle, comes courtesy of Australian filmmaker Chris Jones. There's probably no maxim of modern physics that has appealed more to artists than the German scientist's notion that the act of observation affects what is being observed. Jones finds a marvelous Beckett-like story in his film about a man alone in the Australian desert, devoid of memory or identity, and in possession only of seven matches, seven cigarettes and a cardboard box on which is written, "This Way Up."
Other highlights include a breathtakingly beautiful 35mm short by Massachusetts filmmaker Christina Gruppuso called 1000 Marys. This film, which will be shown at the midnight 35mm program at the Varsity on Friday, is a montage of details, from centuries of paintings, of the most fetishized woman in history. In three brilliant minutes, Gruppuso manages to simultaneously provide a feminist take on the subject, and celebrate its imperishable beauty.
Although the filmmakers in this year's Hi Mom! fest hail from four continents, Bean-Smith says that "we are still consciously committed to showing local films." No fewer than six films have Triangle return addresses, including Armor of God, an entertaining, empathetic study of a local Christian performance artist by Durham stalwarts Jim Haverkamp and Brett Ingram. Another local entry is Unsomniac, a true DIY effort by David Palmer, which was shot on a single roll of Super-8 film and cut "in-camera." And finally, former Hi Mom! honcho Mike Connor shows that he's been busy down in Texas with a music video called DTs, a witty dance routine set in a featureless, cubicled office.
With Hi Mom! set to sail through its fifth year, it's becoming a more secure institution. However, Bean-Smith and Mai stress that the festival remains a year by year affair, with no permanent administration. For her part, Bean-Smith doubts that she'll be in town to run it next year--she's graduating from UNC next month with a degree in communications and media studies, and is thinking seriously of returning to her native Austin, a filmmaking hotbed that is home to Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez--and Mike Connor. If she leaves, it won't be without regrets. "Organizing Hi Mom! has been my most satisfying experience working in film since I've been in Chapel Hill," she says.
Both Bean-Smith and Mai continually emphasize the crucial roles played by other volunteers, and it's inevitable that one of them will step into Bean-Smith's shoes for next year. It's the beauty of Hi Mom! that it's a free-floating festival, carried aloft by waves of undergraduates who pass through Chapel Hill. It seems that the fest will be with us as long as energetic movie lovers continue to matriculate at UNC.
The Hi Mom! Film Festival will run from Thursday through Saturday, April 11-13, at various venues in Chapel Hill. For a complete schedule, pick up a program at local book, music or video shops, or visit their Web site,