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

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Indivisible: Love Knows No Borders

One of the reasons I started Reel Inspiration was to reach an audience for diverse films that create understanding by showing that we are more alike than different. There was one time in particular that I managed to accomplish just that.

It was 2010 and border issues were really heating up here in Tucson, Arizona. Hundreds of people were dying in our desert, trying to reach America for jobs to feed their children. The ones who made it lived in constant fear of being deported. Parents were dragged off in front of wailing children, not even given a chance to pack a bag or say, “Goodbye.” It wasn’t that long ago that not having papers was considered a misdemeanor, the equivalent of running a traffic light. But politicians used “illegals” as scapegoats, accusing them of causing the recession by taking American jobs. To bolster ratings, the corporate owned media exploited people’s fears by bombarding us with images of crimes conducted by Mexicans. They created the illusion that all undocumented Latinos were violent drug smugglers and home invaders.

In May of that year, local indie filmmaker LuisCarlos Davis invited me to a screening of his short doc, “389 Miles: Living the Border.”  When I arrived at the theater, it was standing room only. But LuisCarlos pulled out a chair for me. The audience watched transfixed as LuisCarlos documented the problems along the border with his camera. Seeing what was really happening was somehow empowering. People asked where they could get copies. He explained how the producers were in the process of getting distribution, so he could only screen his doc in person. I requested the mic. I told him flat out to forget distribution – that this film was too important. With so much miscommunication in the media, it was imperative that as many people as possible see his doc. Incredibly, LuisCarlos agreed. I put out a call to the Reel Inspiration community and my facebook friends asking them to set up public screenings at their clubs, organizations, churches, anywhere. LuisCarlos became an outspoken advocate for the undocumented, travelling the globe to speak on border issues.

(See the entire movie, "389 Miles: Living the Border" for free.)

This story was brought to mind by a recent screening of “Indivisible: Love Knows No Borders” presented by the Arizona International Film Festival.

Road trip! We ride along with a group of college students headed to Arizona. They are in turns excited and contemplative. They hadn’t seen their mothers since their mothers were deported. For one young woman, it had been six years! It’s not hard to get caught up in their whirlwind of emotions. And that’s exactly the point. Social Justice Activist Hilary Linder got fed up with the way that the corporate media was presenting undocumented teens (Dreamers) as statistics, so she set out to humanize their journey. In the doc “Indivisible” she shares three Dreamers stories of growing up in America and their efforts to be reunited with their families through activism.

I was astonished by the bravery of these students navigating their teen years (in a country that has become increasingly hostile towards undocumented immigrants) without the protection of their parents. One of the girls returned to the parking lot where her mother was pulled over by a policeman. She recalled how she watched in shock as her mom was dragged away in handcuffs like a criminal for not having a license. Despite growing up in the United States, these teens lived in constant fear of being deported themselves. They were raised to be quiet and invisible. But instead of staying hidden in their room, they decide to fight for a path to citizenship and a chance to be reunited with their families. They are making a lot of noise as activists, raising their voices in protest. They are drawing attention to their cause by organizing and attending protest marches, making speeches in the media, and even confronting congressmen. Remember when Obama announced the Dream Act? That was the direct result of their courageous actions.

After watching their profound stories, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house as the sobbing teens hugged and kissed their sobbing moms through the metal border fence.

Unfortunately, a wall still separates the Dreamers and their families. Our politicians have stonewalled the Dream Act, using it as a hot button election issue. It is up to the American people to pressure their representatives to get the act passed. During the Q & A, Hilary mentioned that she will be presenting the doc at film festival and community screenings before seeking distribution. She started her Tucson trip with a screening/discussion at Pueblo High School.

“Indivisible: Love Knows No Borders” is a great example of how powerful films can be – how a film can change people’s perceptions, open their hearts, and inspire action. I’m delighted to continue a Reel Inspiration tradition by putting a call out to our community. Please, support these brave Dreamers by hosting a screening of “Indivisible” at your church, club, organization, or anywhere with a movie or TV screen.

Find out how to arrange for a screening at:

I'm delighted to announce that "Indivisible" won a Special Jury Award for Inspirational Filmmaking at the Arizona International Film Festival!


Movie blessings! 

Jana Segal-Stormont

Monday, April 18, 2016

Docs on Climate Change and Hope: The Anthropologist and This Changes Everything

Since Dan and I started our blog, Sustainable Living Tucson, we’ve seen a plethora of films on climate change. Recently we watched “This Changes Everything,” screened as part of the Social Justice series held at the Loft Cinema. In the opening, narrator Stacey Raab admitted that she didn’t want to make another climate change documentary with polar bears. I found her doc in turns infuriating and inspiring. It was particularly painful to see conference attendees from the Heartland Institute (a think tank owned by the Koch brothers) cheering their success in convincing Americans that there was no global warming. But I loved the overall theme that we could rewrite our story. We don’t have to continue the narrative of profit at all cost. We can work together to take care of each other and the planet.

The film shared powerful stories of people from all over the globe uniting to do just that. Members of the first peoples of Alberta, Canada investigated a pipeline oil spill on their ancestral hunting lands. Indigenous people were studying up on the law in order to better fight for their rights. They were even installing their own solar panels. The movie demonstrated how much power people have when they stand together. Villagers in India succeeded in stopping a coal-fired power plant from being built in their backyard by using their bodies to block anyone from the power company from entering their village. People from around the world are now successfully using this ploy. This is the kind of message that people can get behind – one of hope.

Friday night at the Arizona International Film Festival, we had the pleasure of seeing “The Anthropologist.” One of the great things about attending a film festival is hearing the filmmakers illuminate us on their process and what inspired their projects. Director Seth Kramer also commented on how he didn’t want to make yet another climate change movie with polar bears and scientists explaining the greenhouse effect. Fortunately, the National Science Foundation sponsored the project based on the angle of an anthropologist studying the effect of climate change on people.

Compared with other environmental docs I’ve seen, this is a light-hearted romp. It stars a squabbling mother (Mary Bateson) and daughter (Susie Crate.) Susie is your typical American teenager. She doesn’t understand why she has to go with her mom to third world countries when she just wants to stay at home and hang out with friends. The film also featured segments with legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead’s now adult daughter about what life was like growing up in the field. It was included to explore how Susie might turn out.

As audience members we might relate to her discomfort of being dragged along on physically challenging trips to witness communities suffering from the effects of climate change, while being very aware of the great opportunity it is to see breath-taking scenery and colorful cultures.

Their first trip is a sort of family reunion with Susie’s relatives on her father’s side in Siberia. (Her mom met her father while working there as a young anthropologist.) We soon discover that Susie knows the language. In fact, she has a keen ear for languages and blatantly expresses her embarrassment when her mother struggles to communicate. We watch this teen grow as she sees firsthand how climate change is affecting that part of her family. The permafrost has melted causing the ground to turn to mush. The hay they need to feed their cows (their main source of food) has died as well as the trees. The change in Susie is especially evident when they return home and she visits with her friends. You can see it in her eyes as one of her friends says she doesn’t know if she believes in climate change because her father says it isn’t true.

After witnessing the devastation on island villages in the South Pacific being bombarded by the rising sea or the impact of glaciers melting in Peru, it’s hard not to believe in climate change. Traveling along with an anthropologist, we got a glimpse of the effect on the indigenous people, their cultures, and communities. What we learned about people left us with hope. People are durable and capable of change, and will find a way to adapt.

Both of these movies express hope for the people who inhabit this planet that we call home. “The Anthropologist” shows us how people are capable of change and “This Changes Everything” shows how we can change our story to one where we unite to save it.


Movie blessings!
Jana Segal-Stormont

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Growing Up at the "Lucky U Ranch" Trailer Court

Chubby eleven-year-old Junior (Trevor Robins) awkwardly lowers himself onto the tracks. The hollow whistle of a train dissolves into the heckling of cruel classmates - a fresh memory of being bullied at school. He puts his ear to the rail listening for the far off roar of a train. Trains hold a special wonder for Junior as he dreams of escaping to follow in the footsteps of his father. Startled awake by an old-timey locomotive in his dream, he picks up his discarded school books and wistfully tramps home through the harsh desert to the end of the trail: the Lucky U Ranch trailer court. 

Junior has plenty of time to daydream left alone in their trailer while his mother works long hours to support them. His longing for a father is always just under the surface. It comes out in fantasies where he plays a film noir private eye who rescues a little girl. The police detective raves, “Once again you saved the day. Your father would be proud.” His mystified mother (Harris Kendall) is doing the best she can. She can see how much he needs a father. She allows him his fantasies to protect him from the painful truth. But his expansive fantasy life is only making matters worse. When he misses the ball while daydreaming out in left field, he is ridiculed by his classmates.

Then, one day, a shiny Air-stream backs in next to their dilapidated trailer. A vision in pigtails chases her dog into his yard. Melissa (Donovan Droege) asks him to teach her to play jacks, and in exchange she gives him much needed baseball lessons. I love the way this confident pre-teen girl doesn’t shy away from sharing her expertise while coaching. She enjoys his sense of humor and really gets him. There are people who appear in your life just when you need them to teach you a pivotal lesson, and Melissa is one of those angels. Despite dealing with alcoholic parents that fight all the time, she saves Junior. Empowered by their friendship, Junior gains the confidence and courage he needs to face reality and to handle a life altering event.  

The running theme is one that many of us can relate to – longing for the love and approval of an absentee parent. It brought back my own fantasies of running away to find my birth father or of my father just showing up and being so proud of me that he was sorry he ever left. It takes real courage to accept them for who they are, faults and all.

This touching coming of age story draws from writer/producer Ginia Desmond’s years at the Lucky U Ranch trailer court. Like the character of Melissa, she was stuck in a trailer with alcoholic parents who fought. And baseball was one of the joys of her young life.

Guided by director Steve Anderson, the bond between the two child actors is so natural. Brian Shanley’s beautiful cinematography creates a melancholy atmosphere using our stunning desert to good effect.  Production designer Adam Sydney enhances Tucson’s small town feel with a keen attention to detail that gives "Lucky U Ranch" an authentic, nostalgic fifties vibe.

This Tucson-based indie does Arizona proud.

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal-Stormont