The Joy of Independent Cinema

The Arizona International Film Festival's back--and it's cooler and weirder than ever.

Before November 1990, Tucson was one of those arid, inhospitable places like Dubuque or Kinshasa that lacked an international film festival.

Not wanting our city to suffer the same fate as those war-ravaged metropolises, Screening Room commandant Giulo Scalinger appeared--like some kind of dark avenger in downtown Tucson--and established the Arizona International Film Festival, that we might see independent cinema from the far corners of the earth and other places, too.

That first AIFF included not only such outré fare as the odd animations of the Brothers Quay, but also the William Wellman classic Wings, a film that would defy the conventions of time and space to go on to win the Academy Award for best picture in 1928. Indeed, the first festival literally had it all, in a figurative sense of "literally," whereby I mean it had a lot of great films that you couldn't catch just anywhere.

Then, after this momentous beginning, the festival fell silent until 1993. Some thought it hibernated so as to wait out the reign of George I; others believed the festival could only occur in years with 13 full moons. Actually, the Screening Room, where the festival was then held, was being renovated and that pushed things back a bit. Still, mystery surrounds this time.

Luckily, the festival roared back in 1993 and has been going strong ever since, getting larger, glitzier, and, yes, more movielicious with each passing year. Cunningly moving from November to April so as to gain some post-Sundance momentum, the festival has, in the last 10 years, given Tucsonans, and sometimes the world at large, their first glimpse of such films as Sythetic Pleasures, Mi Vida Loca, Mi Familia, The Unholy Tarahumara and Alex Cox's (director of Sid and Nancy and Repo Man) south of the border hit El Patrullero.

This year's fest promises more films that will go on to greater things, more bizarre oddities that you won't be able to see on Cinemax, and more documentaries that The Man would like to keep you from seeing anywhere. In fact, there's more of everything, as more than 100 films will be presented in dozens of screenings around town.

Having outgrown the cozy downtown confines of The Screening Room, the festival will take advantage of a variety of Tucson locations to present its many programs for film viewers, students and film creators. The Screening Room continues as home base for the festival, and will present the films that cling to the charming 16mm format. For those who must modern-up their world and view their movies in frames of 35 millimeters, such films will be shown at the plush Crossroads, which is conveniently located out on East Grant Road, so that eastsiders may also enjoy the blessings of fine cinema.

Plus, videos will be on screen at Access Tucson. Bookman's on East Speedway Boulevard will flesh out the program by offering some lunchtime screenings which allow you to browse for dog-eared copies of 1970s comic books and scratchy punk-rock albums before and after the film.

With so much going on at so many places, how can you decide what's worth watching? Well, for $5 or $6 a show (depending on the showtime), or $50 to $150 for a full festival pass (depending on whether you're a student or, conversely, a generous and good-hearted person), and with shows that include up to a half-dozen films, pretty much everything is worth seeing.

Plus, one of the best things about going to film festivals--especially the ones that aren't run by enormous celebrity cowboy movie stars--is that you get a chance see films you know nothing about. You won't be influenced by three months of promotions, trailers and prizes in cereal boxes. You aren't watching stuff that's been focus-grouped and reworked by committees of people who want to combine the 'tween appeal of the Olsen twins with the faux-edginess of Gwen Stefani.

You're watching real independent cinema, my friends. Savor it.

THE COOL THING ABOUT THESE little indie films is that they have an even greater chance to be awful than a big Hollywood production. because there aren't as many people along the way willing or able to say "no" to the petite auteurs who make them. But, they also stand a much better chance of being great than the big Hollywood movies for exactly the same reason: fewer people meddling and mediocritizing the product, along with fewer people saying "no" to innovation or uncomfortable moments.

For example, among the shorts you might want to check out is Request, a 12-minute drama about a young boy who wants to help with the embalming of his recently deceased mother. There's little in the way of plot beyond this, but it is disturbing and touching and exactly the kind of thing that is so uncategorizable that it's unlikely to be seen in any other type of venue.

Or maybe you'll want to check out Gravel, wherein a 15-year-old skater girl, her gay male friend, her middle-aged mother and her mother's gentle ex-con boyfriend quietly discuss tattoos over dinner. Yes, it's just like dinner at your house growing up, except for the part about the quiet discussion.

Really, though, going to any of the short film screenings is, for me, one of the best reasons for going to a festival. The Arizona International may be your only chance to see a juried selection of good shorts, and pretty much everyone who became anyone in cinema got started by making short film. You might catch the Paul Thomas Andersons and Phillis Dillers of tomorrow. Just imagine!

But perhaps the short form is not your thing. What else, you might ask, would something as educationally enlightening and aesthetically fulfilling as a film festival offer me, the seeker after knowledge?

In keeping with the you-can't-see-it-anywhere-else criterion, you might also like to check out as many of the documentaries as possible. Already causing buzz is a 2003 Oscar nominee in the feature documentary category, Spellbound. Sadly, it lost, but if you were watching the Oscars (in which case, please, please re-evaluate your entire goal structure) and heard it announced, and wondered, "Where might I see a film such as this?"--well, wonder no more. In fact, Spellbound is not to be missed. Yes, it's a documentary about spelling bee contestants. I realize that alone should sell it, but let me add that it is one of the tensest, most human films you'll ever see, and that includes films that are not about spelling bees.

Think about it.

THERE ARE ALSO A GOODLY number of fictional features getting their Tucson premiere at this year's AIFF. While some will seem standard fare on a smaller budget, many are as odd as Michael Jackson at a bar mitzvah. Among the filmmakers returning to the this year's fest is James Fotopoulos, whose new feature Families will be making its Tucson premiere.

Fotopoulos' work is reminiscent of early David Lynch in its creepy black-and-white grittiness and unrelentingly gloomy characters. Fotopoulos is fond of holding a stationary shot on two characters in dialogue, violating the convention of cutting back and forth between speakers. This technique, by its very oddness, creates tension and a sense of disconnect.

His early films all seemed a bit undeveloped to me, but Families is his best yet, surprisingly combining a greater sense of humanity with a greater feeling of cinematic experimentation. If you think these things can't go together, then maybe Fotopoulos won't be your cup of tea. But if you're willing to go a little further out, you should definitely check out Families.

As a special added bonus, or for those who find such things pretentious and pointless, as a special form of torture, Fotopoulos will be among the filmmakers speaking at the festival. Expect him to open his screenings with a brief talk and to end with the coveted Q&A session where you can ask him where he got all the sheep and football players he used in Families.

Among the many other movie-makers rumored to be attending this year's festival are Shirley Cheechoo, Alex Halkin and Greg Pak. Cheechoo is a Cree writer/producer/ director/actress whose Pikutiskaau traces the Cree ideas about earth as goddess and the responsibilities that this idea invokes upon those who profess it. Just follow the scent of patchouli to find the throngs who hang upon Cheechoo's every word.

Alex Halkin hails from the incredibly worthy Chiapas Media Project, and is making her third visit to the festival. She'll discuss the project's work in providing video equipment and training to "marginalized indigenous and campesino communities in Southern Mexico." You should not only go see her speak; you should also consider donating your used video equipment to keep the project going.

Greg Pak is a Canadian filmmaker with a special love of things robotic. His newest work, Robot Stories, will be featured at the festival, which will also carry an evening of his short films. Robot Stories is an anthology film about, shockingly, robots.

Well, sort of. There are four stories, each understanding "robot" in a sharply different way. My favorite was about a woman whose comatose son collected "Microbot" toys in his youth. Coming upon his collection in a box under his bed, she sets about the task of finding all the missing pieces by scavenging yard sales and thrift stores in the hopes that a complete toy robot menagerie will somehow bring back her boy.

Pak also makes his acting debut in another of the robot stories, this one about the iPerson, a business robot that is capable of everything except what these silly humans call "love." Oh no, wait, it is capable of love! Robot Stories may be your only chance to see real robot love, on screen, in glorious color, and that's something you definitely won't find in Harry Potter and the Creepy Priest or Star Wars III: Jar Jar Eats Sea Monkeys.

There are dozens of other features and shorts to choose from, in programs like the Premiere Showcase, Indigenous Cinema (featuring works by filmmakers from Australia, Bolivia, Mexico, and, yes, the eerie and alien climes of our socialized neighbor to the north, Canada), Midnight Movies (my favorite screenings, with lots of stuff that's illegal to show before 11:59 p.m.), the From the Archives series (this year featuring the most disgusting movie ever made, John Water's classic Pink Flamingos, which is the only feature film I know of to show actual dog poop actually being eaten by an actual transvestite), and, in celebration of 100 years of Westerns, a new addition to the festival, the Western Archives series.

Not to be missed among the westerns are The Great Train Robbery, often cited as the first narrative film ever made, and Arizona, which is not only called Arizona, but was actually filmed in Arizona. And not in Peoria or Yuma or Why, either. No, it was filmed in the bestest city in all of Arizona: Tucson City! This is the film that birthed Old Tucson Studios, and, thus, all the weird cowboy people and set painters and production assistants who make our desert Mecca their home.

OF COURSE JUST GOING TO movies is only part of the fun of the Festival. It's actually only 67.8 percent of the fun. 14 percent of the fun is to be had at the opening night gala on April 4 at The Screening Room. It's only $10, so who are you to say no to this?

An additional 2.2 percent of the fun is standing in line before the films, and the remaining 16 percent of the fun is to be had at the various workshops and talks that will be given around town. Among these, the Center for Creative Photography on the UA campus will present seminars to go with its screening of experimental films. Workshops on film art and the intricacies of filmmaking, some featuring actual semi-famous indie filmmakers, will be held at Pima Community College. Morning "sessions" (yes, they call them "sessions") with filmmakers will go on at Biblio on East Congress Street, and the Bookman's on Speedway Boulevard will host the coveted "Meet the Filmmaker" sessions, where you can gently shake hands with the actual humans who lovingly craft the movies you'll be seeing.

Mike Plante, one of the programmers for the festival and the editor of the incredibly hip Cinemad, which began way back in the 20th century as a print magazine and is now only available in the ultra-modern electronic format, explained why the AIFF is the fest to see if you see only one fest this year.

In short, he said, director Giulo Scalinger lets him do "a lot of weird shit."

Plante would know, too, as he not only programs for AIFF, but also for the hip CineVegas fest in Las Vegas and the lesser known Sundance festival which is held in some Western state by some guy who supposedly used to make movies in the '70s.

So let's get out and support this thing! It's cheap and it's your only chance to see the short films, experimental films and hard-to-find plain-old films that are the proving ground of the sell-outs of tomorrow and the mainstay of the real artists of the cinema world today. You'll not only be supporting Art, that highest of human achievements, you'll also be supporting programs like Festival-in-the-Schools, where filmmakers bring their work to more than 5,000 local students, and The Reel Frontier Film and Video Competition, which gives under-appreciated filmmakers a chance to get an award that isn't shaped like a little bald man.

Scalinger notes that, while Pima County has been very supportive, the city of Tucson "has not seen the marketing value of the festival." The government of the city may not see it, but the people should make it clear how much they value the cultural input that this festival brings to town. So buy a bunch of tickets, way more than you yourself can use. You can always hand them out to random gutter punks and hippies on Fourth Avenue.

Or, barring that, you can just go see an assortment of films that you won't be able to catch anywhere else. If you want true coolsumer credibility and hipster credentials, you have no choice but to attend.

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