Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Arizona International Film Festival: My Fest Within a Fest

I have been attending the Arizona International Film Festival for 18 of its 25 years!  It all started in 1998 when I decided to make my first short film.  I went to find out what exactly constitutes a comic short.  Back then, the genres weren’t clearly labeled on the program, so I picked out any shorts that sounded the least bit funny. I accidentally ended up going to a dreaded doc program! I used to avoid documentaries because I thought they were dry, boring educational programming. I credit the Arizona International Film Festival with igniting my passion for documentaries. I found out that the best documentarians are great storytellers. Docs can be hilarious character studies, heart-breaking human tragedies, breath-taking thrillers, and current, cutting edge insights on important issues that affect us all.

I used to get one or two of the discount passes (5 films for $25.) But it is so worth it to get the all access pass. You can get your money’s worth in one weekend!  With over 100 films screened in 17 days, you can pick and choose to create your own fest within a fest. I managed to get at least four fests in: Human Rights Docs, War Films, International Shorts, and Tucson Filmmakers Fests.

Shorts programs are great because you can be a theater seat adventurer and discover a new interest that you might never have considered. And if you don’t care for one short, they’re short! Wait a few minutes and there will be another one. You can always hang out in the lobby with Angie and Amber and have a brewsky. But you may not get the chance. The shorts have been that good!  

My one regret is not seeing more of the comic and dramatic shorts this year. Ironic, since I started off as a screenwriter and I have made three narrative shorts. Two were screened at the AIFF: “Desert Angel” and the comedy I was doing the research for, “The Bath-a-holic.” Lately, my heart has been drawn to human rights and environmental films. (See my reviews of "Indivisible" and the "Anthropologist.") The short docs program was so inspiring for me.  Kai from “Riding the Highline” shared his adventures hopping trains and read a visceral poem inspired by the experience. (It won a Special Jury Reward for Creative Achievement!)  I am still in awe of Sister Judy Bisignano for her courage in sharing her weaknesses that made “Sister Jaguar’s Journey” so powerful.

The Arizona International Film Festival has grown into an important fest. It receives submissions from around the world.  This fest is not about celebrities. It’s about indie filmmakers connecting with their audience and other filmmakers. And there were plenty to connect with! Howon Kim, the lead actor of the fascinating short "Chalet," flew in from South Korea to spend the day at the fest. An interpreter was provided for the Q & A. But the actor didn’t need an interpreter to exclaim, “Filmmakers! I want to hang out with you!”

One of my favorite parts of the fest is hanging out with the filmmakers between films. The festival holds free Connect with Filmmakers panels each Saturday. I met Kai from "Riding the Highline" and Vinnie, the producer of "Monty and the Runaway Furnace"(Special Jury Award for Visual Storytelling) after one of the panels. A good rule of thumb is to attend the films of the people you meet. The first weekend I had a blast chillin’ with Seth (I ended up writing about his film, “The Anthropologist” that later won Best Documentary) and Doug the cinematographer of the beautifully shot “Caravan" (Special Jury Award Documentary).  It wasn’t about collecting business cards (though collect them I did!) It was about getting to know some really fascinating people!

Attending the fest is a great way to show support of Tucson's own indie filmmakers. I sat with writer/producer Ginia Desmond of the moving family film “Lucky U Ranch” (see my review) during several screenings.  I have enjoyed following Anna Augustowska's ("Our Desert Farms") progress since seeing her touching doc, "Donnie."  Frances Causey squeezed my hand when I showed up for her important doc, "Ours is the Land."  And I was there to congratulate Daniel Hyde when he won the coveted Arizona Filmmaker Award for his incredible short, "Manna."

Another great thing about the AIFF is its commitment to community engagement.  Mia Schnaible, our enthusiastic MC, encourages the audience to be a part of the discussion during the Q & A with the filmmakers.

Here we are in the front row with Ginia.
After screening “A Bitter Legacy” about the secret "Citizen Isolation Centers" built to separate "trouble-makers”within the WWII Japanese-American incarceration camp system, filmmaker Claudia Katayanagi spoke about her family connection to the story. This timely film really hit close to home when she called up an Arizona couple who remembered the camp near their trading post. Other members of the audience recalled the incarceration camp as well.

The filmmaker of “Return to Dak To” shared his experience of returning to Vietnam with four other men from his unit to deal with their unresolved issues from the war. He did a shout out to any other vets in the audience. Some were moved to share memories the film evoked. The audience really got involved in the discussion. We were all very emotional after that powerful doc and "Heart of a Tiger" about a WWII pilot who returns to China to thank the villagers who saved him.

Ferguson 365” filmmaker Christopher Phillips also shared his journey. After Michael Brown was shot in his neighborhood, Christopher picked up a camera. He was arrested for recording a non-violent protest. He said he would be expanding on the theme of how poor black people are exploited by the system in the feature version. (How a $100 traffic ticket ends up being $1000 in fines that lands the driver in jail when he can’t afford it.) The Q & A led to a passionate exchange about social injustices during lunch.  Blown away by the audience response, Christopher said he could “feel the love.” Talking about "feel the love," "Ferguson 365" ended up winning Best Documentary Short! Congrats, Chris!  

This year,  AIFF organizers took advantage of the opportunity to share some cutting edge technology. I tagged along with my roboticist husband to the drone workshop. The filmmakers of “Our Desert Farms” and “Fly Spy” used drones to enhance their films with aerial shots. We enjoyed the spectacular drone footage and then the filmmakers shared their expertise and answered questions from inquisitive audience members. The workshop expanded my own vision about ways I could enhance my projects using drone footage. 

I never dreamed that I would become a pass-carrying fan of the festival docs. But I have been BLOWN AWAY with the quality of the docs this year. One after another of profound, important, mind-expanding docs! In its 25th year, the Arizona International Film Festival attracts filmmakers with their fingers on the pulse of the most current issues we face as a society. On the 16th day of the 17 day fest, I am overwhelmed. My biggest challenge was not having enough hours in the day to watch all the fascinating films or to write about them!

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal-Stormont


Dan Stormont said...

It's not too late to catch the Best of the Fest on Sunday!

Jana Stormont said...

Check out the Best of the Fest on Sunday. $6 for each program or $10 for the whole day!