Expectations were high for this festival, now in its sixth year, which is why increased attention is being paid by the public and distributors. It doesn’t hurt that Ethan Hawke is one of the judges this year. Running from June 9th through the 16th, it showcased 5 features, 16 short films, and a special midnight screening in celebration of the 25th anniversary of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2.
All screenings were at the Sunshine Cinema at East Houston Street, which has rapidly become a gathering place in the neighborhood for lovers of independent film. The program included a documentary celebrating one of the legendary icons of the lower east side, the Streit’s matzo factory. Directed by Michael Levine, Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream chronicles the history of this institution, and of its special importance in the preservation of Jewish culture in New York.
The festival’s closing selection, Babymooners, is another New York valentine. Written and directed by Shaina Feinberg and Chris Manley, it stars Feinberg as an anxious, expectant mother who creates a “video” letter for her unborn son in which she tries to prepare him for the turbulence of life in millennial America. If there’s any doubt that Woody Allen is an influence, one of the characters is based on her “shrink”. Parenthetically, I was pleased that Musk, a film by Bruce Smolanoff and his wife, Emilie McDonald, was also a festival selection. I had spotlighted that film when it was shown at the Queens World Film Festival in February.
The festival directors seem to want it clearly understood that, while they are all serious film lovers, this festival stands out from the rest in one important aspect: they love to party! That’s why the screenings have well-stocked bars, and the panel discussions, special events and the opening and closing nights are always upbeat fun get-togethers. Be assured that the “spirits” are both high and liquid at the LESFF.
But I don’t want to give the impression that there’s something unprofessional about it either. Co-director Roxy Hunt organized the festival with the others in 2011, and it was at least partly to advance their own career goals. She co-founded BDF Productions, with Castle, in order to be an active force in local filmmaking. Hunt is currently directing a new docu-series for Morgan Spurlock.
The closing night party, at which the awards were announced, was certainly a joyful experience. Everyone seemed to be having a great time, including the filmmakers who got no recognition from the judges. Held at the Bowery Bar, the place was so packed that you couldn’t hear the background music and nobody paid attention to the Cavs-Golden State finals. The filmmakers came with friends and hangers-on, but a lot of family members also showed up to give support. Weston Wiener, whom I interviewed (see below), brought his brother, while festival co-creator Tony Castle brought his proud, beaming mom. But, hands down, the largest group by far was the Babymooners bunch. I couldn’t keep count of all of them, which probably included the pediatrician for the director’s son – the subject of the film – who is now a year old. I can certainly see why the film won the “Audience Favorite” award.
At any rate, here is the complete list of winners:
Best Feature Film: “Americana” by Zachary Shedd
Best Live Action Short: “Killer” by Matt Kazman
Best Animated Short: “The Mega Plush: Episode 1” by Matt Burniston
Best Music Video: The Knocks’ “Collect My Love” by Austin Peters, music by the Knocks, featuring Alex Newell
Best Documentary Short: “Erosion” by Brandon Bloch, Tim Sessler and Brandon Bray
The Advocacy Award Presented by Here TV: “Video” by Randy Yang
The LESFF Neighborhood Award: “Streits’: Matzo and the American Dream” by Michael Levine
Best of the Fest, the LESFF Prix D’Or: “Art of the Prank” by Andrea Marini
Audience Award: “The Babymooners” by Shaina Feinberg and Chris Manley
I interviewed the filmmakers of two of the short film entries at the festival. While both are set in Los Angeles, it would be hard to imagine a greater contrast in theme and mood. Although they weren’t award winners at LESFF, each had a certain, distinctive style that often reappears in a filmmakers’ later, more substantial work.
Noticed stars Sigal Diamant, an experienced actress who also co-wrote the film with her sister, Limor Diamant, who directed. They are very proud of the film, which won the International Short award at last year’s Roma Film Festival, and was selected for at least eight other festivals.
The theme of the film is loneliness, and of its effect on the imagination. Loneliness has been an underlying theme in all of Limor’s work. It tells the story of Olga, a postal worker, who lives a life of total, willful isolation. She eats dinner while watching Sergio Leone westerns on TV, reciting the dialogue she knows by heart. These are the only spoken words in the film, except for the “next, please” she says to post office customers. One night, she notices a man standing by the window in the apartment across from hers. But she realizes he is looking at her through a pair of binoculars; a Peeping Tom. She sees him again, the next night, and several thereafter. Somehow she knows she is destined to meet him. The film details how she prepares for that confrontation.
Sigal said she loves to write, and hopes to do more, especially with Limor. But, as a trained dancer, she’s most proud of the “gun dance” she does in the film. In the dance, Olga holds and twirls a pair of pistols, suggestively, by the window; an invitation of sorts for the man watching her. She created the moves herself, and it was the most difficult part of the filming.
But the film has a different significance for Sigal’s sister. After nearly twenty years in the film business, mostly as a producer, Noticed is Limor’s first full directing credit. It serves as a kind of landmark for her, since she’s known she wanted to be a filmmaker since childhood, ever since she was “moved in the dark” by E.T. Later influences include Woody Allen and Pedro Almodovar.
Limor credits her four years at CalArts with making that dream happen. In fact, she went to no classes at all her senior year of high school because she was making a 16mm film to present to CalArts. The risk was worth it because the film was the reason she was admitted to the school. Now that she has a director’s credit, she is looking to get financing for her dream project: her own adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
In almost total contrast, we get Jolly Boy Friday, which can be summarized as mini-Tarantino with product placement. In 15 minutes, writer-director Weston Wiener chronicles a drug deal robbery scheme that has double-betrayals, motorcycle chases, movie references, heavy coke usage and Japanese swordplay. Wiener, who lists himself as “Weston Razooli” in the credits, stars with Jacob Grodnik and Chris Stathis as a trio of lowlifes who think they can rob Jolly Boy, a hip-hop spouting drug dealer in L.A. with major muscle protection. The scheme turns into a disaster when Jolly Boy shows up with certain unanticipated friends. Wiener telescopes a lot of action in a short time, using jumbled chronology to give a layered effect to the story. He told me the original ending was scrapped, making it more cynical.
At 25, he has his own production company, Psychic Films, and has made several short films. But “Jolly…” is a major step up because it’s the first he’s made with an actual budget and a crew. He worked for a film production company while in high school, but has no film training. His college degree is in fine arts and design. Really, his illustrations are very detailed and impressive, especially his fantasy action drawings. While he likes working in the crime film genre, it’s just a starting point; they’re cheap to make. But his real goal is to make fantasy adventure, as inspired by Star Wars, for which he’ll need a big budget. He also knows he’ll need to be an established name for that. In fact, it’s why he sometimes uses the name Weston Razooli; it makes him sound more like a filmmaker.
He’s working on three things at the moment. First is a solo show of his drawings. He’s also finishing up a comedy script he’s writing with Jacob Grodnik that he’ll pitch to networks. He’ll be shooting the pilot the end of this month. But he’s most hopeful about Shades of Paradise, a short film he made last year in Barcelona. He wrote the script with his girlfriend, who lives in Barcelona. It’s also in the crime genre, but, unlike “Jolly…”, it’s the kind of story that can be expanded to a feature. He’ll be looking to get the funding for that once the film hits the European festival circuit at end of summer.
I’m sure that many of the other filmmakers at the festival have interesting stories to tell, but these are the two I selected. I look forward to following their future careers in film.
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