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This all started happening in a big way about 15 years ago. "The festival circuit wasn't much of a factor until Sex, Lies and Videotape opened at Sundance," Plympton says. "But that set the format for independent filmmaking since about 1990."
For festivals like Fort Lauderdale's, away from the big media capitals, those much-bruited marketing opportunities are limited for filmmakers. The French film Les Choristes, judged to be FLIFF's best of the festival last year, got some good reviews, but it made barely a ripple at the American box office.
Festival highlights have come to be films that both raise important issues and are the labors of love for the obsessed people who created them. A case in point may be What's Bugging Seth, by writer/director/producer Eli Steele, who will be on hand at FLIFF in November. The film is about a young deaf man intent on letting nothing stop him from going into the insect extermination business. Along the way, he falls in love with a double amputee. It's a rough world.
What's Bugging Seth is at the tail of the film-festival circuit, having won feature awards at eight of them already, including festivals in Fargo and Santa Cruz. Filmmaker Steele was born deaf and in 2000 underwent cochlear implant surgery that has since given him some hearing capability. But he's not interested in thinking of this as a "deaf" movie. "We have chosen to live our lives in the mainstream and compete in the so-called 'normal' world," he told me by telephone from California. "We don't see ourselves as different."
What inspired Steele's filmmaking career? Foreign-language films with subtitles, of course. When he first started going to movies as a kid, he says he just tuned out. "I would fall asleep," he says. "I couldn't understand them." Then, when he was 12, his parents took him to the Swedish kids-dealing-with-a-harsh-world film My Life as a Dog. Subtitles, hallelujah. "That movie woke me up." Steele realized he could combine his love for photography and writing with what he was seeing, but not understanding, on the big screen. Sweet dreams are made of this.
Consider another case of dreams coming true: Tom Anton, writer/director/producer of the love story At Last, who will be around in October for the FLIFF screening of his film. "It's my wife's and my true love story," he explained by telephone from North Carolina, where the couple have their second home. Their first home is in New Orleans, where At Last was filmed in the spring of 2004.
Anton and his wife grew up together in the '60s and were best friends in Michigan until Tom's family moved to levee-town when he was a teen. For years, they wrote letters back and forth. "I would tell her all about the French Quarter." Then the long-distance romance stopped. Thirty years later, Tom's mother sent him a box of letters salvaged from her attic that included letters she had intercepted back and forth between the two in her odd, maternal effort to ruin their romance.
After 30 years apart, after separate mid-life crises, divorces, and grown children, they reconnected, fell in love again, and did what all good Americans do: wrote a screenplay about it. "I've always wanted to do independent films," Anton says. "It was a dream. I have a closet full of screenplays that I've never shown anyone." At Last is especially significant now, a snapshot of New Orleans life, music, and culture, Anton says. "I've lived in the French Quarter for 12 years. About a third of our locations are now gone," he says. "So I have mixed feelings about the film. We were supposed to be the opening film of the New Orleans Film Festival this year. Now we want to show the world why we want to save our city."
Filmmakers Eli Steele and Tom Anton are now both in demand but might not have stood a chance in the totalitarian film-distribution system that deplores risk (again, in the case of nuclear attack on the Oscars, head to Telluride or Toronto). This is where film festivals step in. Movie critic Kenneth Turan notes that new independents want film-loving audiences, film-loving audiences want a diversity of films, and smaller distributors and non-U.S. film companies want a shoehorn into the U.S. market -- and the festival circuit is their opening.
"For while movie fans have not lost their taste for the artistic and noncommercial, theaters are not always willing to risk showing those films," Turan writes.
As good as it is for independent filmmakers to get the word out about the projects they have nurtured like babies, rampant film-festival infestation brings about some difficulties for planners. Like, what if a poor filmmaker is sitting in his squalid Brooklyn editing room/studio apartment with only one print to send to a single festival at a time for competition? Yikes. One film print to send them all, one film print to win them? It happens. "You play the shell game," FLIFF's Von Hausch says. "Sometimes, if they have two prints, it's a luxury." The one-copy rule is generally a problem only for traditional 35mm entries, though. An increasing number of them (900 entries came in this year, Von Hausch says) arrive in other formats, and at Cinema Paradiso, for example, the theater's technology can accommodate 35mm, 16mm, Digi-Beta, Beta SP, DVD, VHS, and DV-Cam.