Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Davis Film Festival, 2009

Organizer Judith Plank is very excited about the upcoming Davis Film Festival.  “Gosh, Opening Night at the Varsity is HUGE. A renowned UCD Professor will speak and filmmakers will attend,” she gushed.

The professor is Liz Applegate UC Davis Nutrition professor and expert on athletes and body image.  She will be speaking in conjunction with the film which will open this year’s festival, “Beauty Mark,” by Carla Precht, Diane Israel and Kathleen Man, which examines our culture's toxic emphasis on weight and looks through the eyes of Boulder-based psychotherapist and former world-class triathlete – Israel-- who tells her own story while interviewing other champion athletes, body builders, fashion models and inner-city teens about their experiences relating to self-image.

But “Beauty Mark” is only the first of twenty-two films which will be shown Thursday, at the Varsity Theater and Friday and Saturday at the Veterans Memorial Theater.

The festival is a labor of love for Plank, who volunteered at film festivals around California before she woke up one morning and realized that Davis needed its own film festival, and then set about making it happen.

“I did a test run and brought one human rights film to the Varsity. Will and Jane Lotter helped co-sponsor the film and we just about filled the theater..  I thought--Wow–if this can happen after one film, what can happen with a whole festival?”

So in April of 2004, the first official festival was held.  It included 19 films and a party at the Davis Art Center.  The whole thing was advertised by word of mouth and was highly successful.  “Now people expect it and I even have support from key players in the City of Davis, who realize the value of things.”

“Bob Bowen is like an army himself,” she joked, pointing out that Bowen’s breadth of experience and his numerous contacts have been a great help to the festival.

Bowen understands the importance of a film festival to a city like Davis.  "Not only do Davis moviegoers have a history of supporting the type of films that appear in festivals but having    one in town gives students and community members a chance to see these films without driving to another city" (Plank also points to the importance for city businesses, like motels and restaurants.)

The festival received city funding for the first year or two, but then Plank realized that with her own business skills and a successful beginning, she no longer needed city funding.  The festival has been self-sustaining ever since.

Since this is a Davis Film Festival, Plank makes special effort to involve local film makers and even bends the rules a bit for Yolo County people.

“The final deadline for submitting films is the end of February, but Yolo County film makers get an extra couple of weeks if they need it,” she admits. “I am also flexible on the entry fees for Yolo County entries.  I want to encourage local film makers.”

This year there are three talented local film makers who will be showing films.  The youngest of the group is Colin McDaniel, a 17 year old Davis High School student who started “messing around with the family video camera” with his friends in the third grade.  When he was in the fourth grade, his family got a digital camera and he began filming, writing and learning more about the camera and especially about editing programs.

He produced his first serious movie, “The Problem with James,” a psychological horror movie he started writing while on a road trip with his grandparents in 2004.

“I’ve made hundreds of short movies over the years, but most of those were mainly for experimentation.  I have currently finished five complete films.”

His 27 minute entry into this year’s festival, “Long Distance,” is described simply as “a visceral film about fear and paranoia.”

McDaniel is self taught in film and has learned what he knows from books and the Internet.  “I write, cast, film, direct, produce and edit my own films.  Sometimes I compose my own songs for the score.”

He definitely has the background for scoring his own films.  Colin plays drums on professional jazz gigs around the Davis, Sacramento, and Bay Area.  He also plays in the Davis High School Jazz Band, the Berkeley Jazz School Advanced High School Ensemble (a group that focuses on building jazz performance skills and contemporary original jazz composition), and various other music groups.

McDaniel was inspired by an interview with writer/director David Lynch, who spoke of gathering things that you truly love. 

“I tried to come up with ideas that were very personal to me without even starting to think about how they would fit into a movie, as I wasn't planning on compiling them into one longer movie. I wrote my ideas on scraps of paper.

“Another time, I was biking at night listening to the song that plays at the end of ‘Long Distance,’ and the final scene of my film came into my head. Again, I had no idea how it would fit into a movie, all I knew was I liked the idea.
“Also, I envisioned putting a green filter throughout my movie, as the color reminds me of nighttime.
“As more and more ideas came into my head based on my own experiences, thinking, and imagination, a movie formed and I wrote down the general outline. Then, I wrote out a summary of each scene. Next, I wrote the screenplay, which I edited multiple times. I didn't think of the title of the movie until after I started shooting.”

McDaniel cast his brother and his father in the film.  Brother Graham is a sophomore at Davis High and “has a natural intensity in his acting that worked well in the movie. He listens closely and he's easy to direct.”

The young filmmaker, who plans to attend the UCLA Advanced Digital Filmmaking Workshop this summer, says that he likes how movies can make people totally absorbed in another world.  “I make films to get across ideas that I have in my mind to a certain medium.”

Emma Coats had a unique idea in her mind.  The 23 year old former Davis Food Co-op employee now works for Pixar Studios and got her start in film making by creating claymation videos with her brother.  “I never went out with a video camera and made movies.  I’m very shy so I did animation.”  With that character trait, it’s no wonder she ended up at an award-winning CGI animation company.

After submitting six portfolios to Pixar, one every six months, she finally was called for an interview and has now been at the studio for the past two years, working with story boarding. “I’m constantly trying to improve my work and get them to notice me,” she says.

Her film, “Meat Love” grew out of her experience working in the meat department of the Davis Food Co-op.  She explained to me that when you bone a chicken and spread the two halves of the breast out, it looks like a Valentine heart (from which comes the unique logo for her film).    “In the down time at the store, you start making up stories about other people in the store.”  She began to wonder who would be the most grossed out by receiving a “chicken heart” Valentine.

Out of that came the idea for her movie.  Toby works at the meat counter of the Davis Food Co-Op. Lisa works at the deli counter. Toby thinks she's the most gorgeous girl he's ever seen, but he finds out that there's a minor problem - she's a vegan. "It's not like meat is my life," he assures her, but he's not so sure. Toby has to decide: MEAT . . . or LOVE?

Emma wanted to actually make the film in the Co-op and use some of her former co-workers in the cast.  (Membership Director) Doug Walter was the guy who made it all happen, the man who said “Yes you can shoot all night in the co op while it’s closed.”

Walter was happy to be a part of the project.  “She had the idea and she sent us a script treatment and said we’d love to be able to shoot this at the co-op.  Why wouldn’t we want to help her?” he said, though joked “How great a contribution to cinematic art this will be remains to be seen.”

He also admits that the story line is not that far off the mark.  “It’s not necessarily a true life story but it resonates with the staff.  People who hear the plot synopsis think ok–that could happen, couldn’t it?”

“Quite often does happen in real life,” agrees Jim Pavilchek, Co-op butcher, who also appears as the main character’s meat department co-worker in the film.  “Can a vegan and meat eater co-exist?  I definitely think so.  There’s an example in our own store, one employee, a dedicated vegan became one of my best customers.  That’s a switching in eating habits.  If the employee had stayed vegan, who knows?”

Pavilchek was particular tickled by the tag line of the film - “boy meats girl.”  “That made me laugh for a day and a half when I heard it,” he chuckles.

There was very little chuckling about 19 year old American River College student Jared Martin’s thirteen minute film, “The Lost Boys of Sudan.”  There is no humor about the subject of his film.

Like the other two Davis filmmakers, Martin started in film at a young age.  He was nine years old when he made a stop-action film using Star Wars action figures. When he was 12, his family got a computer – a Mac, which came with editing software and he began to get into more serious film making.

On a vacation, when he was 14, his family stopped to visit friends in Nebraska and he learned about “The Lost Boys,” a group of whom were living in town.  The family friend, knowing his love of movie making, thought he might enjoy meeting and interviewing them.  The project turned into 11 hours of film and the awakening of a real film career.

The Lost Boys of Sudan are more than 27,000 boys who were displaced and/or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005)  Boys as young as 6-years-old walked a distance equivalent to that between Denver and Chicago in search of safety. They walked in large groups for three months before reaching the safety of Ethiopia, with many dying along the way due to starvation and disease or attacks by wild animals. After residing in Ethiopia for approximately four years, civil war broke out in that country as well, causing them to flee once again to their war-torn country of Sudan.

Many died on that journey as well when crossing the deadly Gilo River. Those unable to swim were swept away in the turbulent currents. Others were eaten by crocodiles, attacked by hippos, or killed by enemy gunfire. The survivors remained in the bush of Sudan, hiding for approximately one-and-a-half years before making their way to the safety of the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. In all, these young men had walked some 1,000 miles by foot before reaching their destination.

After 14 years in refugee camps, their plight came to the attention of the U.S. State Department and beginning in 2001 about 3800 Lost Boys arrived in the United States, where they are now scattered in about 38 cities, averaging about 100 per city.

“They are amazing people,” said Martin.  “It’s just amazing to me that you can go through all that as a young child and still survive.   It just shows that the human spirit is resilient.”

The “boys” arrived in the United States as young men, who had to be taught the very basics of living in this country.  They had to be taught how to sleep in a bed under a blanket, how to use the bathroom, how to brush their teeth.  “Every little thing we take for granted they had to completely learn from scratch.”

There were also serious cultural differences (it is common for men in the Sudan to marry girls as young as 14, for example).  They now struggle to keep jobs and go to school, while trying to send money back to surviving family members (if any) in the Sudan.

Martin edited his 11 hour film down to 42 minutes, thinking he wanted to make a feature documentary, but then he set it aside for a couple of years.  A year ago, realizing the enormity of making a full length documentary as his very first project, he decided to rethink the project.  “I got some new editing software and edited it down from 42 minutes to the 13 min. short.”

The film has already received prestigious awards at other film festivals.  It won the Columbine award at the Moondance film festival for non-violent conflict resolution.  It also won the audience award at Moondance for best short film documentary.  He also won the audience award for student documentary film at the Sacramento film festival.

But what brought him the greatest pride was meeting Father Jerry Drino, a Catholic priest who works with Hope with Sudan, an organization based in San Jose, which coordinates the efforts around the US with those in the Sudan, other parts of Africa and the UK and offers scholarships to refugee youth in need.   “He actually takes my film around now and shows it before he speaks.  It kind of gives me chills sometimes to know that people are seeing it on a weekly basis.”

I asked Martin what he hopes that his film will accomplish. “I hope people see the film and get a better understanding of what these men went through because it’s really under-reported.  We’re hearing a little bit more about it with Darfur but no one knew about it and when the boys came some of them were discriminated against and a lot of them weren’t accepted.  People need to know what they went through to understand how they act and what they believe.  So I hope people realize that they are these amazing people and there is more to them than meets the eye.”

The diversity of just these three films shows that there will be something for everyone at the Davis Film Festival.

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