IOW: Had the last NAFF, C-U?

We’re moving into a phase of C-U Blogfidential’s existence where it would be careless on our part to simply continue following the progress of the movies of Champaign, Urbana, and the cities beyond without direct involvement. In terms of the cinema and C-U, we see an abundance of showcase events as noted in the prior “Images of the Week and every C-U Biz-en-scène, an uptick in non-industrial film production in the area, and increasing interest in the media arts by children and students thanks to schools, non-profits, and groups such as Champaign Movie Makers and Illini Film & Video. We even notice a faint awakening as the C-U populace realizes there is more to movie life than the multiplexes, YouTube, and “Ebertfest.” That’s all groovy and encouraging to us, whether or not we had a hand in it.

And yet, when your humble editor and Art Theater mastermind Sanford Hess presented the New Art Film Festival back in April, an attempt concurrent with the annual Boneyard Arts Festival to congregate all those positives listed above with a bit of scope and some panache, it felt like the C-U smiled and nodded and then failed to back it up with reasonable attendance figures. What were those figures, you say? It’s not really our place to make the numbers public knowledge, but we will verify that they caused Hess to wince in relative disappointment and us to lower our heads in minor embarrassment. Seven months later, it brings up the inevitable question warranted by our redirected ambitions here at the Secret MICRO-FILM Headquarters

“Are you interested in seeing a second NAFF, dearest C-U?”

Rant break no.1: Below is the trailer for the enigmatic feature, THE SCIENTIST, the last selection presented at the NAFF prior to the “Best of Fest” closing night. Directed by Carbondale resident Zach LeBeau and filmed primarily in Iowa and Nebraska, THE SCIENTIST tells the story of a reclusive university science professor played by Bill Sage who attempts to circumvent time and aging with a secret machine built in his basement. Intriguing with a consciousness-shifting conceit not unlike PRIMER, THE SCIENTIST is thought-provoking with individualistic touches in the best indie film sense.

Before continuing, we need to be clear that our commentary here comes from the heart of the author and is not representative of where Hess might stand on the NAFF right now. We’re certain notes will be shared and ideas traded in the coming weeks about if or when the festival returns; since it is branded an Art event, the final call will most likely come from the main man himself and not your humble editor.

As Hess has learned during his first year operating the Art, and what we’ll have to learn together in terms of perpetuating the NAFF, programming decisions at a for-profit theater need to be adjusted constantly in order to satisfy clientele and bring in the operating dollars. Our guess, based on loose discussion with Hess over time, is that the NAFF provided the Art with one of its hardest financial hits in 2010, which Hess will admit expecting but not to the perplexing degree which ultimately came to be.

All box-office was designated to be split between the Art and the filmmakers. Of course, this left us even more humbled since, due to the miniscule monetary returns, the filmmakers could figure out really damn easily that NAFF attendance was far from stellar. This left us red-faced here at MFHQ for a long while after April 20 was in the books – not the money aspect, but the inability to provide mass exposure to the films we programmed especially since a high percentage were shepherded by friends, colleagues, and friends-of-friends-and-colleagues who trusted us. At least we received gracious votes of confidence from several featured filmmakers, which raised our spirits a little. Hess thanked them at the time and CUBlog thanks them all again right now for allowing their work to fill the NAFF platter full of good, inspiring, quirky content the first time out the gate.

Rant break no.2: Below is the trailer for the atmospheric thriller DEADWOOD PARK, directed by Eric Stanze of Wicked Pixel Cinema and released by Cinema Epoch. Stanze’s close-knit group of film artists have been collaborating on regional indies in St. Louis for nearly 20 years; their Super8 opus ICE FROM THE SUN was too weirdly whacked out not to appear in the very first MICRO-FILM. DEADWOOD shows what happens when a suburbanite in exile, played by William Clifton, and an amateur sleuth, played by Lindsey Dee Luscri, attempt to solve a murder mystery involving the abandoned rural attraction of the title. WPC is currently in post-production on RATLINE, their return to grungy punk-art horror. DEADWOOD filled one of the NAFF’s “late show” blocks.

Now might be a good time for NAFF attendees and no-shows alike to weigh in on what might be goals for a potential NAFF Deux to achieve. If you joined us in April, what did you like or not like about the selections and the quality of presentation? If you skipped out, why so – the overall local/Midwest indie film concept, the venue, the scheduling during Boneyard, the scheduling right before “Ebertfest,” other factors? Certainly, Hess and your humble editor could plow forth because “we believe in the NAFF” and take our chances again, but some volunteered direction on your part might help pave the way for a better attended, highly charged, and overall more successful NAFF. This benefits all of us in the long run: the movie makers, the movie watchers, Champaign-Urbana, the lovers, the dreamers, and me.

However, ripples from the bath taken by NAFF can still be felt at MFHQ. It’s frustrating given that we’ve been perpetuating the Confidential gospel through the pages of MICRO-FILM and on its own for more than a decade. Has it been so long since the original MF heyday and the last Freaky Film Festival that the overall NAFF ideology needs to be re-drawn on a big, blank canvas for the C-U to comprehend and respond? It can probably go without saying that witnessing the expected masses as they hovered around the Virginia Theater for Ebertfest mere days after the NAFF only deepened the pit in your humble editor’s stomach. This led to a very prolonged summer with minimal Confidential activity even though it seemed the wicked garnered very little rest.

We’ve sprung back into action since then but realize that we not only have to pick and choose our battles in the immediate future but also our pleasures. The lacking NAFF enthusiasm partially stems from a mighty MFHQ movie overload during winter/spring 2010 that led up to Boneyard time, which involved the planning of both NAFF and the second IMC Film Festival as well as publishing C-U Confidential no.4 and preparing to set up shop at Ebertfest. Believe it or not, we even had more planned attractions during that glut which became casualties including the belated MICRO-FILM 8. Don’t say we never put you before ourselves, dearest C-U.

Rant break no.3: Here is a local project shown during the NAFF that we discovered was available in its entirety on-line, the dramatic short film PRELUDE directed by Luke Boyce of Shatterglass Studios in Champaign. You can look here for the teaser or dig the full 31-minute production below. PRELUDE stars Micah Boyce and Vanessa Prokuski as strangers who meet in a coffee shop and talk Big Questions until fate deals one of them a bad, bad hand. Boyce and partner Brett Hays recently worked on the indie features LEADING LADIES and FINDING VIRGINIA and currently have their own feature in script development; they also kindly assembled the graphics projected before each film block at the NAFF.

Prelude from Shatterglass Studios on Vimeo.

Despite that unfortunate jam and our persistent money troubles, we’ve decided to spin a cocoon around MFHQ this coming winter and emerge in the spring with two other delayed issues finally tucked under our arms, C-U Confidential ’99 and MICRO-FILM 2000. We may also have one or two other surprises to spring on you in 2011 so, once you add up all that with the impending CUZine no.5 and expanding CUBlog, you might be asking, “When will they have time for all this and the festivals and everybody’s movies?” Well, we won’t. It brings us right back to the picking and choosing conundrum. If you’ve read this far, you probably realize where this is going.

Should the NAFF move forward without our participation except to advise, consent, and offer sponsorship of some sort, Hess will need your help to make a go of it. An event like the NAFF owes its audience – which by proxy is the C-U community – the best possible content and presentation it can provide. Its audience owes the event the benefit of the doubt while developing but also must be constantly taught and tactfully reassured that their support of the NAFF is appreciated yet vital for its survival. A portion of its audience, starting with the local filmmakers, cineastes, and Art Theater faithful, can hopefully step in to share the organization work load with Hess so he can also fulfill his full-time Art duties. While most festivals you may have seen play the Art since the NAFF have originated with University of Illinois departments, the NAFF is a presentation of the Art itself.

We were grateful that locals took our requests seriously for booking their work and inviting them to speak to audiences; we’d be ecstatic to see the same core group invest time and effort directly into the NAFF, particularly if retaining its regional indie film bent is of value. Yes, it sounds like the MFHQ crew is backtracking on our thesis from the outset although we still plan to be in the thick of our “film scene” to help cultivate it, but we also have to take care of our own business to ensure continuity and quality for, as our history has proven, if we want something done we usually have to do it ourselves.

Rant break no.4: Below is behind-the-scenes footage by Niles Thomas Maddox from the slickest production shown during NAFF, a 24-minute self-depreciating extravaganza called FALLING TO THE TOP directed by Wes Edwards and produced by RuckusFilm of Nashville. Your humble editor discovered it on their Web site right before asking permission to also show old-school MICRO-FILM favorite EXISTO, made by the same company but with a different creative team. Mildly surreal and extremely droll, FALLING follows a schmuck played by Travis Nicholson who attempts to restore his confidence after losing his girlfriend by finally getting a job. Poetic justice is served in highly unexpected ways. You can watch the complete film by clicking on the FALLING thumbnail on this Web page.

Several times a year prior to the C-U Confidential/Boneyard show at Caffe Paradiso in 2009, your humble editor was asked why he didn’t start a film festival or bring back the Freaky Film Festival. Being “back stage” during the entire Freaky era, I duly noted (and sometimes contributed) the blood, sweat, and tears – not to mention desire, time, money, and far-reaching favors – required to pull off such an event; the very thought of attempting to run such a show simultaneously with MICRO-FILM scared the shit out of me. I am not a believer in wasting someone else’s time and effort so I could only ever see disaster in that scenario, particularly in the years immediately after the Freaky core disbanded.

More recently, we’ve staged several one-off MICRO-FILM shows in the C-U that met with middling-to-poor success, thereby failing to stoke the film festival fire so many people saw within their humble editor. Rejuvenated somewhat by the emergence of CUBlog and then CUZine, we set up the Paradiso event on a lark and, in its own modest way, it worked. Encouraged even further by Hess’ invitation to expand the concept with the Art as host facility, we made the leap and miraculously pulled it off. Having admitted that very fact, we should be on the up-and-up because the NAFF played pretty much like we intended it to – except for that extremely nagging issue regarding the lacking attendance.

A few empty chairs at a café are one thing; a whole bunch of unoccupied seating in a movie theater is quite a different story. We’ll let you know if the New Art Film Festival earns a second chance or is consigned to the “old news” heap.

~ Jason Pankoke

p.s. An event like the NAFF also owes its once and future audience a record of what actually went down – especially all the good stuff that we can think to tell them. I’ll see what sort of reasonable post-mortem I can come up with during the holidaze; feel free to chip in with recollections if you played a part in our festive film folly.

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