The 4th annual Philadelphia Independent Film Festival runs from June 22-26 at a variety of venues including the Franklin Institute, Raven Lounge, Media Bureau, Café Treece, and the Random Tea Room. This year’s program showcases over 100 films (lots of shorts) as well as a series of roundtables and three days worth of music.
The PIFF provides a film festival experience that is much different than what Philadelphians are used to. “We have worked to attract a different type of filmmaker, a digital one,” explains Benjamin Barnett, founder and Digital Media Strategist of Northern Liberties’ Media Bureau, Inc., the Digital Media Agency that organizes the festival. “We look to discover work that stretches boundaries…we’ve never actually gone out to a festival and requested a movie.” Barnett and the Media Bureau gang’s programming instead relies on their 12+ years of experience working in the digital media community. “We have submissions sent from all over the world from a very wide selection of filmmakers, 12 months a year.” This programming via submission-only method results in some truly unique film choices, the majority of which would never receive local screenings if it wasn’t for the PIFF, a refreshing change of pace in a city where the two major festivals are programmed based solely on the selections of other festivals. Barnett expects the PIFF to continue as an annual event far into the future by studying the business models of the larger film festivals while remaining true to Media Bureau’s independent roots and his own values as an independent filmmaker.
Full schedule, screening times, and tickets are available at the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival’s official site.
Now for Cinedelphia’s opinionated rundown of some of the festival’s highs and lows…
Back in the 1990s, during the height of The X-Files, thousands of upstate New Yorkers witnessed mysterious lights in the sky. Two of these people included the healer mother and aunt of co-director/guide Bill Hussung who, shortly following his mother’s cancer diagnosis, decides to explore the area around Pine Bush, NY in order to uncover the truth behind the UFOs. The documentary Adventures of an Earthling follows Hussung as he interviews Catskill Mountain folk who relate their personal experiences with aliens, banshees, mothmen, and reptilian rapists. The husband/wife filmmakers approach the believers with open minds, which teeter on the edge of belief during a sequence involving the exploration of an interdimensional chamber. Adventures is a ton of fun that will drive Coast to Coast fans into a frenzy. Temple University professor David Jacobs serves as the film’s sensibly skeptical UFO scholar du jour.
Murdered: Intersecting Memoirs is pure “filmmaking” insanity. The documentary concerns a decades-encapsulating series of murders that occurred in the 9th precinct of Manhattan’s Lower East Side and how these events affected narrator/filmmaker Terrence Ross. Ross conveys event details, memories, and random thoughts with every visual trick that iMovie has to offer. The result is a barrage of fast-moving onscreen titles, confusing picture-in-pictures, and a narrative track that tends to differ greatly from the visuals presented…it’s too much information for even viewers with short attention spans to process. While the historical events themselves are interesting, the self-righteous wit and wisdom of the filmmaker borders on the ludicrous and the production itself is ultimately unwatchable.
The difficultly-named SixFtHick are a 16-year-old “swamp rock” band from Australia whose sound is best described as post-punk by way of The Jesus Lizard. 6ft Hick: Notes from the Underground is an hour long document of the titular band’s third European tour in which they perform 15 shows in 18 days. Fans, peers, and an insanely overenthusiastic manager attest to the power and violence of dueling vocalists/brothers Geoff and Ben Corbett whose onstage stunts alternate between dangerous and embarrassing. The piece ultimately has a promotional feel, but musicians who are familiar with tour etiquette and floor crashing will surely identify.
Liam McEneaney is an NYC-based comedian who wears funny pants. He is also the founder of a popular weekly alternative comic showcase in Brooklyn called Tell Your Friends!. The 2011 SXSW selected Tell Your Friends! The Concert Movie! documents a one-night showcase of the club’s best regulars. Musical comedy is supplied by Reggie Watts and Rob Paravonian, Leo Allen gives an offensive Power Point presentation, and the duo of Kurt Braunohler and Kristen Schaal (Flight of the Conchords) stage a filthy reenactment of the world’s first telephone call. The show is occasionally interrupted with interview segments that feature the likes of Colin Quinn, Janeane Garofalo, and Jim Gaffigan who discuss the perils of being comedically inclined. These segments are always entertaining though reactions to the main show will surely vary based on personal tastes in humor.
A few years back, legendary rock musician Todd Rundgren built his temple-like dream home in Hawaii and, on the eve of his 60th birthday as well as the release of his new record Arena, invited 250 fans to come over and hang out, Burning Man-style. Toddstock feels like a home video as it loosely documents the resulting Q&A’s, house blessings, and traditional luaus, which are expanded upon by seemingly scripted post-event interviews with Rundgren and his wife. Fans are granted close and personal access to the musician as well as his new home, which features a toilet that’s an actual throne. About half of the film is studio/outdoor performance footage featuring songs that span the artist’s career. The “Utopians” in attendance provide just enough weirdness to ensure that the movie appeals to both Rundgren fans and connoisseurs of the bizarre.
Big Guns is a raunchy low-budget comedy out of Asbury Park, NJ that concerns a bumbling, but capable police officer named McDick who gets fired from the force, becomes a P.I., and ends up on the run from some generic gangster-types. Director/writer/star Chris McDonnell finds humor in gay stereotypes and a tiresome repetition of his character’s namesake (I lost count after 20 McDick’s), but he actually proves himself to be a rather capable comedic talent with a charming screen presence. The film is visually a real drag though, just another one of the thousands of indie films currently out there that are taking advantage of the HD Red One camera without actual filmmaking knowledge beyond their own DVD collections. An easy, forgettable watch.
Enter into the secret life of an NYC strip club bathroom attendant in the shot-on-Super 16 comedy From the Head. Set almost exclusively in the self-contained bathroom environment over the course of a single night, the film begins with an interesting premise, but quickly devolves into a rather blatant and unashamed rip-off of Clerks (the film is, for some inexplicable reason, set in 1995, a year after Kevin Smith’s debut feature). Disillusioned “Shoes”, the college-educated attendant played with a degree of charm by first-time writer/director George Griffith, struggles with his dead-end job amidst an ongoing parade of eccentric patrons who file in and out of his kingdom like Quick Stop customers. A small sampling of the patrons include a poetic goombah, a Frank Zappa-obsessive, and Matthew Lillard. The bathroom location feels suitably suffocating after 45 minutes; by the 60 minute mark it’s almost unbearable. Even the Clerks gang ventured beyond their workaday prison walls once in a while. From the Head doesn’t amount to much, but it’s a respectable effort.
The British faux documentary Frontman captures the reunion of fictional rock band Stanley and the Knives, 25 years after their teenage heyday. You’d expect a This is Spinal Tap riff, but the film actually plays out as a heartfelt indie drama. Stanley passes away and leaves his estranged band mates 10,000 pounds along with posthumous orders to reform the band. They do so in a series of small-scale comedic misadventures, which vary in effectiveness. A lot of the film is spent with the characters’ individual home lives where confidence, love, and friendship is regained by all just prior to the climactic battle of the bands. First-time director Ben Hyland occasionally cuts to music video sequences, which range from awkward to rather clever. The film is a bit long at 104 minutes and the music, which can be best described as “safe rock”, is often dull, but it’s a charming affair nonetheless.
True Nature is an oddball familial drama/supernatural thriller that concerns a college-aged woman who disappears during a nighttime run only to mysteriously reappear covered in dirt and leaves a year later much to the horror and surprise of her slimy father and overbearing mother. Strange happenings follow her homecoming: birds drop dead and drains bubble with a slimy ooze. Glimpses of the past are revealed against a corporate conspiracy of sorts that holds the key to the mystery of the woman’s disappearance. First-time feature film writer/director Patrick Steele amps up the atmosphere and follows the standard genre tropes in a manner that disguises the simplicity and silliness of it all. A strange film both structurally and narrative-wise that is ultimately more frustrating than anything else.
Since 2007, East Africa’s nonprofit Burundi Film Center has been educating the nation’s people on the usage and methods of 21st century filmmaking. The Center’s 2010 compilation of short films offers a wide range of both genres and subject matter, all presented with a charming degree of honesty and sincerity. The program’s highlights include The Return of Old Man Kabura, a heartfelt drama focusing on a man who returns to his country of birth after fleeing from a series of ethnic massacres 38 years prior, Pigfoot, a brief fable concerning inescapable life in the marketplace, and Knock Knock (Who’s Dead?), a dark, over-the-top comedy starring the Jerry Lewis of Burundi. All of the films presented are valuable in that they provide a first-hand view of life in the impoverished nation and it’s always interesting to see how they adapt filmmaking conventions for their own purposes. Highly recommended.
Fanning the Fire is a 20 minute documentary that traces the slight evolution of bluegrass music from its inception in the mid-1940s to the present. Performers both young and old, amateur and experienced attest to the power of the genre, which may be lost on some. Lots of guitar plucking and old-timey goodness.
Hostage is a brutal, but (thankfully) brief five minute short concerning a captive woman with a bad case of Stockholm syndrome. Feels like a film student’s dramatic scene assignment.
The Pond is a high concept short that was presumably made by some new age Renaissance Faire-types. It concerns an unexpected return from the grave and features an unexpected appearance by Hack’s David Morse as the Depression-era attired Adam 12 (don’t ask). A surprisingly well-crafted film that is reliably sincere even at its most absurd…and boy does it get absurd.
Again, full schedule, screening times, and tickets are available at the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival’s official site.