There is one fairly reliable method by which independent film-makers can shepherd their film toward the masses, and that is to submit their works to an independent film festival, such as the 12th Annual Sidewalk Film Festival happening this weekend here in downtown Birmingham. In those 12 years, Sidewalk has turned itself into a very well-respected event, and was named one of TIME magazine’s “Film Festivals for the Rest of Us” in 2008. This year the festival will feature over 200 predominantly American-made independent films, with a smattering of work from around the globe, including Mexico, Greece, Spain and Japan. There will be narrative features, documentaries, short films, a showcase of Alabama-made films, a screening of films helmed by teenagers, films for children, panel discussions on film-making and, for the first time ever, a contemporary video art installation featuring ten artists from seven countries. Video art differs from conventional film in that it does not often conform to typical filmic conventions and may not have a clear story, or even distinguishable actors. Many are only a few minutes long and will be playing on a loop at various locations within the festivals footprint.
This year also marks the first time the Sidewalk Film Festival has partnered with the Fifth Annual Birmingham SHOUT Festival, Alabama’s only film festival dedicated to showing compelling work created by and in support of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community. The two festivals will now share the same dates, venues and audiences. (For more info on the SHOUT Festival, see Jesse Chambers’ feature.)
Speaking of venues, Sidewalk hosts its films in a number of excellent downtown locations, including the Alabama Theatre, the McWane Center, the Carver Theatre and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. These places would be worth a visit in their own right, but fill them with good film and how can you lose?
The film chronicles what for many of these men has become a life-long obsession, as it finally comes to an end. After an expansion to Wrigley’s bleachers in 2006, the number of balls that made it out of the stadium was severely reduced, and the film gives a touching portrayal of these dedicated odd-ball fans as they cope with the loss of their beloved hobby. (Sunday, 3:40 p.m., Alabama Power)
Common Carriage laws date back from the inception of regular mail, and state that all mail is treated the same, and a carrier can’t open or hinder any piece of mail. This idea carried over to phones and internet, until the FCC ruled the laws were too outmoded for the Internet. But when the story of Robb’s findings made national news, it brought to the forefront questions of Net Neutrality and treating all messages the same.
If something can get the ACLU and the Christian Coalition to agree, then it’s probably a good idea. This fascinating documentary examines how Net Neutrality can preserve freedom of speech and the idea that the Internet is a meritocracy where a little guy with a good idea, or a great video of kittens doing wacky things, can succeed. (Sunday, 1:30 p.m., Carver Theatre)
Black, White and Blues: Bailey (Morgan Simpson, who also co-wrote the film) is a drunken bluesman who’s afflicted with stage fright. He owes money to Boyd (Luke Perry), but instead of paying sleeps with Boyd’s wife (Taryn Manning). When a mysterious black cowboy named Augy (Michael Clarke Duncan) tells Bailey his grandfather died and left him something, the two travel together from Austin to Huntsville, Bailey’s childhood home.
I was wary at first that Duncan’s character was the sort of magical black man who exists solely to drop into the life of the white main character and fix his problems (like Duncan in The Green Mile, Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance or Morgan Freeman in everything), but Duncan gives his part enough specificity and depth to keep things interesting.
The film’s plot can be predictable at times, and Perry’s character is a caricature, but director Mario Van Peebles and the cast make the movie into a charming, affecting story. (Sunday, 1:30 p.m., Alabama Theatre)
The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan: Over 40 years ago, Texas native McKinley Nolan told his wife he wanted to see the world, enlisted in the army, went to sunny Vietnam and never came back. Supposedly, Nolan deserted the army, joined the Viet Cong and was later killed, but the truth was never definitively discovered, and rumors persist that Nolan survived.
In 2005, retired Lt. Dan Smith was visiting Vietnam and met a man he believes to be McKinley Nolan. This film follows Smith and Nolan’s brother, Michael, as they travel to Vietnam and Cambodia, trying to get some answers. The film is fascinating as it finds VC and Khmer Rouge officers who relate their complicated feelings about their service in the war.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is Smith, a veteran who says his life was ruined when he killed someone. “I truly believe that when you take a life you forfeit your own,” he says. Smith is trying to do right by the Nolans, and is visibly shaken when he thinks he may have led them on a goose chase.
The documentary is spellbinding as it explores issues of forgiveness, betrayal and love, and the way the horrors of war can poison someone’s life forever. (Saturday, 7 p.m., Alabama Theatre)
The Happy Poet: Bill (Paul Gordon) is a poet who wants to open a vegetarian food stand, and eventually a restaurant, but while he may make a tasty “eggless egg salad,” he has no idea how to make a buck. When Bill’s stoner friend Donnie (Jonny Mars) offers to start a delivery service, business picks up more than Bill expects.
The joke here is that the Happy Poet doesn’t seem all that happy. Gordon, who also wrote and directed the film, has a decidedly low-key approach to comedy. Bill doesn’t really ever raise his voice during the film, instead getting laughs through a well-timed pause or stammer.
The Happy Poet is a slow burn, but it ends up being a charmingly awkward, low-key film. (Sunday 11 a.m., Alabama Power)
Mars: The Space Race of the 1960s brought out the best in human ingenuity and heroism, but once we got to the moon we kind of got bored. In Mars, though, it’s 2014, and we’re trying to land three astronauts (Mark Duplass, Zoe Simpson and The Happy Poet’s Paul Gordon) on the Red Planet, but in order to raise enough money for the trip NASA had to televise the voyage to a world that cares more about celebrities than science.
Homemade rotoscoping animation over live actors gives the film a trippy, ethereal feel, as well as a broad scope, and a hilarious cast, including Kinky Friedman as the president, gives the movie a distinctly off-kilter look at the sci-fi genre.
Mars features plenty of romance, derring-do and jokes about bodily fluids, but it’s also a sly and warmhearted commentary on human endeavor in an age when “we just aren’t that good at stuff anymore.” (Saturday, 3:40 p.m., Alabama Power)
Marwencol: Directed by Jeff Malmberg, Marwencol is a documentary that offers insights into the healing power of making art. Amateur artist Mark Hogancamp was beaten badly outside a bar in Kingston, N.Y. He suffered brain damage, and it was difficult for him to draw because his right hand shook. Instead, he built Marwencol, a scale-model World War II-era Belgian village in his backyard. Hogancamp peoples the village with dolls, invests them with personality and uses them to act out stories that he captures in photographs. The doll who functions as his alter-ego is beaten by Nazis, but—unlike Hogancamp in real life—is rescued by the women of Marwencol. According to Tod Lippy, a magazine editor who published Hogancamp’s photos, “This idea of someone using art to sort of access something they’ve lost or to regain something they’ve lost was so beautiful and moving to me.” The film also reveals another facet of the artist’s personality, one that may have led to his savage beating. (Saturday, 11 a.m., Alabama Theatre)
Night Catches Us: The past isn’t through with Marcus (Anthony Mackie) when he returns home to Philadelphia in 1976 to bury his father. A former Black Panther, Marcus was accused of snitching to the FBI and getting his best friend killed. The only one who welcomes him home is Patty (Kerry Washington), another former Panther who is now a lawyer with a young daughter.
When feelings blossom between Marcus and Patty, they try to put the past behind them, but youngsters are still twisting their notions of the Panthers’ ideals to suit their hatred, and more violence erupts.
Tanya Hamilton’s debut feature is a powerful, gripping story that benefits from a strong cast (including The Wire’sWendell Pierce as a police detective) and a terrific score from The Roots. (Saturday, 4:30 p.m., Alabama Theatre)
Not My Son: This Alabama-made documentary tells the story of Birmingham resident Carolyn Johnson-Turner, founder of Parents Against Violence, a group of Birmingham-area mothers who have lost sons to gun violence and want to prevent the same thing from happening to other mothers. Turner lost her son, Rodreckus DeAndrew Johnson, when he was shot and killed while attending a birthday party. Turner finds purpose in helping the other women in the group deal with an overwhelming sense of loss that never completely goes away. The film was made by Dwight Cammeron of the Alabama Center for Public Television and film student Ginger Jolly. Not My Son is moving, so much so that it’s difficult to watch. It’s a reminder that attached to every crime statistic is a victim and the victim’s friends and family. (Saturday, 10:30 a.m., Alabama Theatre Studio)
Surviving Hitler: a Love Story: A documentary by director John-Keith Wasson, Surviving Hitler tells the story of the romance between a young woman in Nazi Germany named Jutta and her boyfriend and eventual husband Helmuth. Jutta and her mother are Jewish, and Jutta and her parents—and eventually Helmuth, following his service with the German army on the Russian front—risk their lives as part of the anti-Nazi German resistance. They are all imprisoned, with Jutta’s mother being locked up briefly in a concentration camp. However, as the film’s title suggests, the ending is a happy one. Jutta and Helmuth are married in the ruins of post-war Berlin, and the event is recorded in some of the personal photos and home movies that give this story its immediacy. Jutta, still elegant at age 90, narrates the film. (Sunday, 4:15 p.m., BCRI)
Wah Do Dem: Max (Sean “Bones” Sullivan) is a young hipster from Brooklyn who has won a Jamaican cruise trip. But after he’s dumped by his girlfriend (Norah Jones, in a cameo) on the eve of the cruise, he ends up going by himself.
On the ship, Max mostly wanders around, feeling out of place being one of the few people “under 65 and on [his] own,” but once in Jamaica he falls in with a couple of locals who take him to a secluded beach where his vacation takes an unexpected detour.
The film was shot on a tiny budget by a very small crew, but it uses the backdrops of the cruise ship and Jamaica (and the final days of the 2008 presidential election) to make the movie feel expansive.
The film feels a little simplistic as it compares insular Americans to the bustling communities of Jamaica, and comes dangerously close to suggesting that the entirety of Jamaica is there to help Max learn some sort of lesson, but it ends up being nuanced and realistic enough to always remain interesting. (Saturday, 7:15 p.m., Alabama Theatre Studio)
Wheedle’s Groove: It isn’t widely known, but long before Seattle became known for grunge music, it had a thriving soul music scene in the ’60s and ’70s full of music that sounds as vital today as it did decades ago. Around 2001, DJ and record collector Mr.
Supreme began finding soul 45s from Seattle record labels, and later convinced Light in the Attic Records to produce a compilation of these acts. The documentary takes us through a survey of excellent bands like Cookin’ Bag, Robbie Hill’s Family Affair and Cold, Bold & Together (whose lineup featured Kenny G).
The film also shows us what the soul scene was like, with tons of great clubs and plenty of bands who almost made it but never quite did, as well as the peculiar aspects of Seattle, this city so distant and solitary, that fostered great music (the many rainy days encouraged lots of practicing).
Wheedle’s Groove shows us some terrific music from people who didn’t quite get famous but never stopped loving to play. (Saturday, 11 a.m., Harambe Room)
Other Films We’re Looking Forward To:
Dogtooth: This Greek drama won the Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, and concerns a family that’s holed up in a countryside compound, and the parents control every aspect of their children’s lives, to the extent that they teach their kids incorrect definitions of words, and tell them that cats are evil.
Exit Through the Gift Shop: This documentary starts out as an examination of the mysterious British graffiti artist Banksy by director Thierry Guetta, but soon Banksy turns the cameras on Guetta, who becomes immersed in the street art scene himself. Some believe the film to be a hoax and Guetta to be an alter ego of Banksy.
The Human Centipede: Depending on whom you talk to, this German horror film is brilliant, or trash, or both, but certainly not for the faint of heart. It concerns an evil doctor who kidnaps people and sews their mouths and anuses together.
Lifted: This film was shot completely in Alabama and stars a number of actors from the area. It concerns a young boy whose father is a soldier deployed in Afghanistan and whose mother is a junkie. He moves in with his grandparents and discovers a love of singing.
Mutant Girls Squad: Another gonzo horror film, this one from Japan and the makers of Tokyo Gore Police, it concerns a teenage girl who discovers the power to transform her hand into a deadly weapon capable of destroying just about anything.
Ready, Set, Bag!: Amazingly, there is an annual U.S. National Grocers Association’s Best Bagger competition to see who can bag groceries the fastest, and this documentary follows a few bagging prodigies.
This has only been a small sample of the vast ocean of film that awaits you, should you venture downtown for the Sidewalk Film Festival this weekend. It is one of the premiere events that Birmingham offers, something that we are nationally recognized for and that we can all, as Birmingham residents, be very proud of. This year over 13,000 attendees are expected, and many of them will be coming to Birmingham for the first time. What better way to show off our city than with a cultural powerhouse like the Sidewalk Film Festival?
For more information, you can visit www.sidewalkfest.com. Weekend passes are $65 ($50 for Sidewalk members or students), Opening Night (Friday) only tickets are $25 ($20 for members or students) and a Saturday and Sunday Day Pass is $25 ($20 for member or students). If you would just like to pay for your films individually, they will be $10 each. Passes DO NOT guarantee you seating, so make sure to arrive as early as you can for the showings.
Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.