It took a few days, but Brian Gordon has his voice back. By the time the Nashville Film Festival wrapped up its 38th year last week at Green Hills, the fest’s artistic director could barely speak: his voice was a froggy croak at the after-party for the closing-night feature Americanizing Shelley. But Gordon felt anything but sick. The NaFF didn’t just set new attendance records this year—landing just shy of 20,000 patrons, a reported 26-percent increase—but it set them high enough to give the festival something of a mandate.
“I feel—pardon my days in California—empowered,” Gordon says. He attributes the increase to several factors, starting with the momentum the festival has built over the past decade. Promotion was better: from IndieWire’s Steve Ramos and Variety’s Joe Leydon to New York magazine’s Ken Tucker, in town to profile opening-night guest Rob Thomas, the NaFF got broader press coverage than ever before. Thomas didn’t hurt either, luring a contingent of shrieking fans from as far away as New York for the sold-out world premiere of his doc My Secret Record.
But the NaFF’s biggest attractions may be the things that set it apart from the increasingly competitive hierarchy of festivals: the greater chances of a small film getting noticed, the relative ease with which filmmakers can connect with their audiences and each other. Maurice Devereaux’s End of the Line, a super-scary Canadian shocker that got lost last year in Toronto, made a huge impression on Nashville horror nuts. The director was still beaming days later, despite a bout of food poisoning that some attributed to the festival’s VIP tent.
Similarly, audiences embraced Niall Heery’s Small Engine Repair, a slice-of-life crowd-pleaser about a bashful Irish country singer (played with rugged hangdog charm by Iain Glen) that won the festival’s top dramatic prize, as well as Ray McKinnon’s amiably goofy Randy and the Mob. As a result of their Nashville send-off, with Regal Cinemas execs taking notice, each seems destined for a theatrical run. With their commanding one-take thriller Adrenaline—a NaFF award winner that substantially raises the bar for Nashville feature filmmaking—local boys Robert Archer Lynn and David Alford likely got more attention from out-of-town critics than they would have at New York’s glitzy Tribeca festival.
At the same time IndieWire’s Anthony Kaufman was reporting, in a widely read article, how pushy Tribeca was strong-arming titles away from regional festivals—including ours—the Nashville Film Festival was quietly doing the heavy lifting of building a movie culture between the coasts. That included taking a chance on films such as Pedro Costa’s Lisbon slum still-life Colossal Youth and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s blissful Thai reverie Syndromes and a Century—vanguard films that drew few viewers, yet will help shore up the NaFF’s artistic credentials. Still, Gordon remains mystified by the poor turnout for Asian films. Even Johnnie To’s Hong Kong shoot-‘em-up Exiled, perhaps the most accessible foreign film at the fest, left its only showing half empty.
Not so the docs. As usual, the fest’s documentary lineup eclipsed the features both in attendance and dramatic impact. Films such as Marco Williams’ race-reparations broadside Banished and Keith McDaniel’s The Clinton 12, which collected the NaFF’s top documentary honors, filled theaters to capacity. So did the Parisian-cemetery portrait Forever, which had to be moved to a bigger theater; the Darfur wake-up call The Devil Came on Horseback; and Matthew Kennedy: One Man’s Journey, Nina Kennedy’s fond tribute to her father, the retired musical director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers (and invariably the week’s sharpest-dressed visitor).
But what will the Nashville Film Festival do with this mandate? The mission for next year seems clear: find more big sponsors, use the attendance figures and press coverage to lobby distributors and producers for more hot titles—and do this without spoiling the festival’s uniquely laid-back bustle. It wouldn’t be worth losing wonderful moments like the Griffey family of Dub Cornett’s winning The True Adventures of the Real Beverly Hillbillys holding court on a back patio full of industry types; rapper Al Kapone chatting with Belle Meade matrons after Craig Brewer’s “Steppin’ in the Hood”; or the wild Q&A that followed Cornett and Jacob Young’s doc The Urim and Thummim—a near revival meeting that left filmmakers such as Harmony Korine and Silver Jew’s Michael Tully agog. Apparently you had to be there. And if you weren’t—I wasn’t—there’s always next year.
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