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BendFilm 2006 Festival Wrap Up Report

"It's all about the filmmakers!"

In my fourteen years in the entertainment industry I've never attended an event, festival or gathering that was more focused on filmmakers than the 2006 Bend Film festival. Over the course of three days I met and had fairly in-depth conversations with almost every single filmmaker who had a film at the festival - an experience so inconceivable I wouldn't believe it if I had not experienced it myself. Getting this level of access (and it's access that ANYONE at the fest could have) provides such an extra dimension to the film-going experience, it's something you could never get seeing these films in theaters or on DVD.

Perhaps my most profound discussion at the festival occurred with Eve and The Firehorse director Julia Kwan. Cornering her at one of the evening cocktail parties, I shared my unresolved feelings over the end of her film. Open, honest and completely interested in discussing the finer points of her film, we talked for over half an hour about Eve and The Firehorse. It was a fantastic experience and one which could never be captured in an audio commentary or behind the scenes footage. Kwan also spoke at length about how the Canadian government lends its support to emerging filmmakers and how they helped make it possible for her to make the film. She also detailed her struggle to get US Distributors to even touch a film which has Asian themes. It's astounding that such a great film hasn't found a home in US theaters. However, Eve and the Firehorse IS available on DVD in Canada, so pick it up for your chance to see the film as well as Julia Kwan's award-winning short film Three Sisters on Moon Lake.

Some of the films that played at the Bend Film fest have also played other festivals. It was interesting to get the perspective of the filmmakers on their different experiences. Writer and star of Backseat Josh Alexander emphasized how good film fests like Bend, Austin and Oldenburg really stick out from the rest. Backseat is a unique take on the conventional 'road trip movie'. It embraces many of the genre's strong elements while constantly finding new ground and undiscovered territory on a road well traveled. Backseat is a very honest and modern look at the relationship between male friends and how removing those relationships from the confines of everyday life can both liberate and forever change them. Josh Alexander does a fantastic job on double duty as both lead actor and writer, and in a move almost unheard of in the indie space, he turns his first time film over to seasoned commercial director Bruce Van Dussen, who brings out the magic in this film. Backseat is a real launching point for Josh Alexander, Aubrey Dollar and Rob Bouge, all of whom should have very strong careers as a result of their work in this film.

It's a rare experience for me to see a movie completely 'blind'. I've almost always seen some sort of trailer, clip or blog posting about a film before I see it. Nicky's Birthday Camera was one of those rare treats where I had no idea what I was going to see before it unspooled at its world premiere at the festival. As the audience sat silently stunned at the closing scene of the film I was so happy that no one had yet spoiled the film's many twists and turns (and ultimate stunning ending). Without giving too much away, Nicky's Birthday Camera follows Nicky Hanson, a mute adopted son of your fairly 'normal' family. A video camera given to him for his thirteenth birthday becomes the universe through which we see Nicky's world. Shot from the point of view of Nicky the film navigates its way beyond the surface of Nicky's family into the moments that are often hidden from the rest of the world. Nicky's Birthday Camera features some amazing performances including co-writer John Walcutt who is simply phenomenal as Frank, a big city cop now living as a small town sheriff, Jamie McShane as Dave, Nicky's adoptive father, and Robert Hays in a role so far from his work in Airplane you won't believe it. Director Andrew J. Traister, who has done extensive work in theater, pulls fantastic performances across the board and brings a sensibility to his direction which is extremely rare among first time directors. Dark, twisted and completely engaging, Nicky's Birthday Camera is the kind of unexpected treat you find at a quality film fest and one which is sure to thrill and surprise audiences when it gets picked up for distribution.

One of the most surreal experiences at the festival was witnessing the shouting match and near altercation in the gargantuan line for the debut of 10 Questions for The Dalai Lama, one of the most popular films at the festival. (So many people had to be turned away at its debut screening that they scheduled an additional screening later in the festival.) Director Rick Ray was blown-away at the frenzy surrounding his film, "I really made this film for me. It was my personal journey and I had no idea so many people would respond this way." Often my talks with Rick Ray were interrupted by festival goers making a bee line to Ray to tell him how impacted they were by his film. Response to 10 Questions for The Dalai Lama was so overwhelmingly positive it may be destined to become the definitive film on The Dalai Lama.

Another truly surreal experience at the festival was at the screening for SQUONKumentary, when two older women got up and walked out on the documentary, precisely around the period of time during which the film was discussing how some audiences had walked out on the Squonk Opera Musical on Broadway. SQUONKumentary looks at how Broadway has become increasingly hostile to experimental and non-linear narrative works and how one theater company from Pittsburgh attempted to succeeded in the face of great adversity. Director Peggy Sutton seemed to embrace the irony of the walk-out and the overwhelmingly warm reception she received by the rest of the audience in the film's world premiere at the festival. I spoke at length with Peggy Sutton, who has to be the warmest and friendliest New Yorker I've ever met. SQUONKumentary is Sutton's debut film and after speaking to her about the projects she has in development, I'd absolutely say she's a director to watch!

At this year's fest there was quite a contingent of film makers from the North West (and coincidently many of them, like me, are vegan!). Jeff Pearson and Mary Jones from the fantastic film Pirate Radio came down from Seattle to support their film, Portland natives Aaron Katz and Sarah Bing were there there in support of Dance Party, USA, as well as Trout Grass Producers Andy and Tasha Royer. All these films were covered in my Bend Film Preview article.

Often overlooked, some of my most enjoyable experiences at Bend Film were with the short films and their filmmakers. Some of the short films of note include: Uncle Mondo Mojo Man, a quirky and wonderfully styled look from director Greg Lastrapes at a man who keeps his Mojo going even though he lives in an extremely dilapidated home; Perils in Nude Modeling, Scott Rice's extremely well done art school fantasy short which coincidently played at the Longbaugh film fest right near my short; Full Disclosure, the brutally honest short that asks 'what if you told someone everything on the first date?"; Ilona Upstairs, Melissa Hammel's beautiful portrait of a talented artist that coyly reveals some of its secrets while never quite showing its entire hand; Just, ex-attourney turned film maker Jesse Wheeler examines what happens when a lawyer must face the reality of his client; and, Filter, Hason Mitchell's intelligent look at how a story changes in the hands of the media.

After a mountain of praise I have for this year's fest, my only real gripe was the Jury and their selections for the prize winning films. The jury seemed fairly out of touch with the majority of festival goers, as they often are, but I really expected it to be different for Bend Film. Deftly serious and seemingly charged with some sort of mission to make pretentious and esoteric selections, the festival jury seemed to really miss their mark, awarding many of the prizes to just a couple of films. Several of the awards even went to films which were clearly festival fillers (like The Virgin of Juarez which is already on DVD). My biggest disappointment was the mountain of praise which was heaped on to the film The Trials of Darryl Hunt; while I think Darryl Hunt's story is amazing and has immense impact and the film does a competent job capturing it, I really prefer the film After Innocence, which covers very similar ground. The incompetency of this year's jury was best captured by notable entertainment columnist Jeffrey Wells, who introduced the award for best Musical Score (which went to Kareem Roustom) with "I didn't nominate this one, but I went along with the jury on it...so it's not like I didn't want it to win..."

As with any festival, it's impossible to see and experience everything. A few films I regret missing include: Forgiven, Encounter Point , Asparagus! (A Stalk-umentary) and The Chances of the World Changing. Also, a great festival doesn't happen without the help of other great people. So a few special thanks... Thanks to Leanne Littrell DiLorenzo for furiously introducing me to so many people, to Jane Sage and Tom Olbrich (who run the Ashland Film Festival) for always being a ray of sunshine at every fest we always seem to share, to Laura Jane Henneman for being the ultimate fest insider, and to Katie Merritt for putting on the best damn fest out there.

- Geoffrey Kleinman

Be sure to also read the BendFilm Preview Report which includes more reviews of films.

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