Last weekend’s 31st annual Nashville Independent Film Festival drew more than 10,000 patrons to Regal’s Green Hills Commons 16 for workshops, panels, and screenings of 275 shorts, documentaries, and features. Throughout the NIFF’s five days, the Scene’s Noel Murray and Jim Ridley logged more than 70 hours at the festival. Over coffee and Visine, they discussed the results of this year’s festival.
J.R. Noel, you’ve had a lot of experience with the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville, and you went with me to Austin this year for South by Southwest. Those are both large, well-funded, well-established film festivals. How did you think Nashville’s held up in comparison, at least in terms of the way it was organized?
N.M. Top-drawer. Shows started on time, audiences were shuffled in and out with little complication, and there were only a few technical glitches during the screenings that I attended. One film broke, and there were some sound problems on a few others, but all problems were rectified speedily. The venue choice is ideal, both in terms of ease of access, and ability to get from screening to screening. Kudos all around as far as that goes.
J.R. Having all the screens in one area, close to the lobby, is certainly a vast improvement over Austin, where you inevitably miss a half-dozen films trying to shuttle back and forth between theaters. And the scheduling seemed a lot more considerate. It was too bad the On Music Row pilot, which was pretty good, was slotted directly against the second block of the Tennessee Film Night. But I’m not sure there had to be two blocks of Tennessee films anyway. The second one was three hours long, and it was grueling.
N.M. I was particularly disappointed with the large number of Watkins-produced short films, most of which would have no resonance for anyone outside the classroom. They should’ve been part of the morning ”Young Filmmakers“ program, if they had to be screened at all. And quite a few of those Tennessee films, Watkins and non-Watkins, struck me as little more than artified commercialsfor musicians, or for other films. I know that the stated purpose of the festival is to showcase different kinds of filmmaking, but I don’t see the point of putting amateur work and promotional videos for country bands alongside more qualified locally made films like ”Tent Revival“ or ”The Meter Man.“
J.R. I said this after last year’s festival, but it bears repeating: At a film festival, the quality of the work should represent the area’s filmmakers, not the quantity. Michael Catalano introduced the program by saying Tennessee filmmakers had sent in a record 55 entries. Sure, that’s encouraging. But of those, 18 were shown, and of the ones I saw, I’d say maybe eight deserved to be in a festival. Acceptance into a film festival shouldn’t be a given: It should be a privilege. A festival sets high standards and inspires filmmakers to meet them. That goes double for the NIFF, because Nashville, fairly or unfairly, still has to prove itself as a filmmaking community to the powers that be on the coasts.
N.M. Absolutely. This isn’t even a matter of taste. There were films at NIFF that I didn’t personally care forlike Last Chance or Americanosthat were still clearly festival-worthy. Too many films, though, were either subpar made-for-cable-quality features, simplistic shorts with all the subtext of an appliance manual, or student films that had no meaning for an audience of paying customers. I won’t name names, because why kick a sick horse?
J.R. Hey, I’ll kick some sick horses. I walked out of Sordid Lives after a half-hour. Every performance was pitched to the back row; every joke seemed intended to make the audience feel superior to the characters; and the lighting and camerawork were glaringly ugly.
N.M. The festival doesn’t do anyone any favors when it allows subpar work in. The audience feels cheated, or worse, they develop a patronizing attitude toward independent film, thinking that they have to walk into the screening with lowered expectations. Meanwhile, the filmmakers come to Nashville and have a disappointing time, with tiny audiences, lots of walkouts, and no good Q&A afterward.
J.R. I wonder if marquee value accounts for how some these films get selected. I doubt Sordid Lives would’ve been shown without the presence of stars like Beau Bridges and Bonnie Bedelia. Indeed, of the features I saw, the least impressive ones were invariably the ones with a big-name cast. The Simian Line was a mess of quirks and poorly integrated plot devices, despite talents like William Hurt and Lynn Redgrave. Under Hellgate Bridge was a routine mob melodrama, even though the lead actress, Jordan Bayne, is a real find.
N.M. The way I see it, ideally the films at the festival shouldn’t be competing with each other; they should be competing with all the other entertainment options in Nashville, or at least the other films at the Green Hills theater. I don’t want folks thinking, ”Well, that wasn’t bad for an indie film.“ I want them to say, ”Wow, that was better than The Virgin Suicides,“ or ”I’m glad I saw that instead of Shanghai Noon.“
J.R. Well, was there anything you saw that left you feeling that way?
N.M. Yes, indeed. Scott Barlow’s comedy The Last Late Night featured memorable performances and sparkling dialogue, and it captured perfectly the feeling of being tempted by old friends into doing things that you know are bad for you. Watching it, I thought to myself that there’s nowhere else in Nashville that I’d rather be than in this theater, right now.
J.R. The Last Late Night is exactly the kind of movie the festival circuit was made for. It has no marquee names, restricted sets, a low budget, all the things that would work against it with a distributor. But it has a smart script, some truly risky black humor, and three finely drawn lead characters. And the audience loved it. You could feel how excited people were to be seeing emerging talent. I was delighted the movie won the audience award.
N.M. The softball documentary Fastpitch, which I actually saw on tape before the festival, was just as good in front of a live audience. The crowd was captivated by Jeremy Spear’s story and the people he met, and you could hear groans and cheers during the tournament sequence that closes the film. In moments like those, you could feel it all come together. The crowd was stimulated and entertained, and the filmmaker derived some deserved satisfaction from the reaction. Those are the moments that make film festivals special, and this year’s NIFF had a lot of them. Were there any you caught that I didn’t?
J.R. The Don Most film, The Last Best Sunday, had an amazing lead performance by Angela Bettis, even if the movie was ruined by its lurid, overwrought plotting. By and large, though, the documentaries were far more impressive than the features. Watching The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack or Fastpitch or the short-form prizewinner ”Hollerin’ “ or the sleeper Amargosa, you encountered characters, details, and stray bits of history and knowledge that were richer than fiction. The same was true of the Kathy Conkwright-Demetria Kalodimos documentary about Prophet Omega, Friends Seen and Unseen.
N.M. Yeah, the Prophet Omega piece was a real winner, as was the short they put with it, the encore presentation of ”I Still Miss Someone.“ Boy, imagine a Tennessee Film Night with those two pieces, plus ”Tent Revival,“ ”Meter Man,“ and a couple of others from those two programshow impressive would that have been? Without the chaffand I would estimate that slightly more than half of what I saw was chaffthis would have been a stellar festival.
J.R. I think it is a stellar festival. It has accomplished a tremendous amount in a three-year turnaround period, and it may be the only arts event I’ve seen in recent years that’s creating the same kind of civic excitement as, say, the Titans. Its biggest challenge is setting higher standards for submissions. The area I heard the most complaints about was experimental film. Every person I talked to who saw the experimental shorts, including those who liked them, agreed on one point: Many of the films weren’t experimental, in the sense of breaking traditional forms. I saw another short listed in the program as ”experimental,“ and it was just a badly edited, incoherent narrative short. How would you feel if you bought a ticket expecting to hear free jazz, and instead you got a dose of a wanna-be Kenny G?
N.M. I caught the first animated shorts program, and after four duds in a row to start the night, my dander was up. Then the pieces started to get better, and despite a few other misfires, the program hit enough high notes that I forgave the shoddier pieces. Several of the animated shorts, like the bulk of the live-action shorts, seemed to have been accepted solely because they had decent production values. It used to be that for animated shorts to have a distinctive look, the animator had to have a superior drafting style. Now, with the advent of computers, even folks with minimal drawing skills can craft a professional-looking animated short. But the key word there is looking. Having something to say still matters.
J.R. That’s just as true of the features. At a SXSW panel, someone was delivering the standard line that to make an indie film, you have to have some bankable stars to secure financing, video sales, what have you. Split Screen host John Pierson shot back that was ridiculous: If you looked at the most significant indie films of the past decadeClerks, El Mariachi, In the Company of Men, even The Blair Witch Projectnone of them had name actors. What they had were stories, scripts, characters, concepts. They weren’t just investment packages; they were movies that had to be made. That’s the feeling I got from the features that affected me most at the NIFF: The Last Late Night, the character-driven noir thriller Dead Dogs, the low-key character study Mud Season.
N.M. Those are the films that a festival like this is made for. The buzz around fests like Sundance and Cannes has made people think that a film festival is where you go to get the scoop on films everyone will be talking about months from now, rather than a place to see films that you might not ever get another chance to see. The NIFF should just stay focused on quality independent film, regardless of name stars or potential distribution. That said, the festival could seek out some of the better films that have already played other festivals. Of the things we saw at SXSW, I bet the organizers could’ve booked The Target Shoots First, The Woman Chaser, The Independent, or The Wilgus Stories, and audiences here would’ve loved them.
J.R. The whole reason we’re being tough on the festival is because its potential grows every year, along with its audience. I think the business community, even Music Row, still doesn’t understand how much potential it has. Imagine if Mercury Nashville had talked the Coen brothers into making O Brother, Where Art Thou? the opening-night selection. The festival would’ve received national coverage; Mercury Records would’ve gotten a huge send-off for the soundtrack; and the movie would’ve had the friendliest possible reception. Sigh. Is there any advice you’d give the Nashville Independent Film Festival for next year?
N.M. Less is more. Having to turn away customers from screenings is not necessarily a bad thing. And to the filmmakers who are submitting, a few thoughts: Enough with awkwardly sprinkling in profanity to make your film ”edgy,“ and enough with riffing on genre conventions. Using cinematic clichés for humorous effect is itself a cliché. Finally, to the audience: Be a little tougher. If someone is smart enough to master the technical details of filmmaking, they should be smart enough to see when they’ve written a stale gag. The audience shouldn’t let them off the hook by laughing. But even in its most frustrating moments, that’s the great thing about going to a film festivaleven the sniping is part of the fun.
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