Fiends: The RiverRun Film Festival of Winston Salem, North Carolina is proof that one doesn't need premiers by high profile directors or big time actors for a most worthwhile film festival. A fine selection of films presented by enthusiastic cinephiles can make for an excellent cinematic experience. The currently running 13th annual RiverRun Film Festival includes some sixty features, old and new, from all over the world screening for ten days in five main venues and a few other locations, including one outdoors. The festival got off to a great start this past weekend drawing swarms of appreciative audiences, thrilled and delighted to have been introduced to a film that if not for this festival they might never have had the opportunity to have seen. The lobbies were thronged with exuberant film-goers discussing what they had just seen and what they were looking forward to seeing.
I spent the first weekend of the festival at its main three-plex hub at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts wearing a volunteer t-shirt and a volunteer badge around my neck assisting my friend Lyndon, who was overseeing the venues. Between counting empty seats and cleaning theaters and directing-film goers from the bus shuttle stop to the theater I ducked in and out of theaters sampling a healthy dose of the weekend's fare, seeing snippets of some movies and a few in their entirety.
One of the highlights was being able to see some of "The Class" again, the sensational Palm d'Or winner from the 2008 Cannes Film Festival about a young idealistic French school teacher playing himself trying to tame and inspire a Parisian classroom of children of immigrants. It was one of two Palm d'Or winners on the schedule, along with last year"s "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" from Thailand. It was the first time a Palm d'Or winner had played this festival. "The Class" was part of an eight-film retrospective on current French cinema. "The Class," as with "Read My Lips," was introduced by a professor from the School of the Arts and was followed by a superb commentary.
Festival director Andrew Rodgers, who once worked for Chicago's International Film Festival, did an exceptional job in trying to make every film presentation something out of the ordinary, introducing many of them himself with a personal and insightful touch. He was able to program one of his favorite films, "All the President's Men," linking it with the documentary "These Amazing Shadows" about the National Film Registry, as the Woodward-Bernstein film had recently been added to the registry. The film was one of his inspirations as a journalist, his profession before he became involved with film.
It was exciting to see this 1976 film on the big screen in the festival's largest venue, a 300-seat theater at the University. It was exciting, too, to see a bicycle wheel beside Bernstein's desk at the Washington Post in quite a few scenes. It was never mentioned, but I knew from having read the book that Bernstein had been frustrated with his career as a young journalist and was about ready to quit it and ride his bicycle across the country until the Watergate story fell into his lap. Rodgers himself had had a similar longing, but has yet been able to fulfill it.
I was only able to see the first hour of the movie. Bernstein never rides his bike during that time, nor was I able to find out from anyone who saw the rest of the movie if he ever does. Robert Redford, playing Woodward, in one scene lays his hand on the bicycle wheel and somewhat fondles it while talking with Bernstein, played by Dustin Hoffman. Behind Bernstein's desk is a somewhat surreal painting of a hefty guy bent low over the handlebars of a bicycle--all telling detail that add to the authenticity of the movie.
Rodgers also programmed a couple of other significant documentary/feature film pairings. One was "American Grindhouse," a history of American exploitation cinema. The film he chose as an example was Russ Meyer's "Motor Psycho" from 1965 about three motorcyclists in the California desert preying upon buxomest women and killing a few people along the way. Only twelve people had the courage to see the fine print of this film from the archives of the University of North Carolina Art School. It was introduced by one of the archivists. It was a transitional film, he said, from the "nudie-cuties" to the "roughies."
Rodgers also selected the documentary "Cameraman" about Jack Cardiff that has been a big hit on the film festival circuit from Cannes to Telluride. Director Craig McCall gave a quite animated introduction and Q&A with many fascinating stories from how he wore a kilt on the red carpet at Cannes in 1998 when he accompanied Cardiff for a tribute to how he succeeded in getting an interview with Martin Scorcese for the film. He said Scorcess gets thirty or more requests a day from film-makers who'd like to interview him. Even tho Scorcese wrote the introduction to a biography of Cardiff, he still had to be hounded to find time for his segment in the movie. Scorcese provided the print of "The Red Shoes" from his private collection to the RiverRun Festival, one of the countless films that Cardiff did the cinematography on during his illustrious career that began in 1918 as a child actor in England. He worked into his 90s, passing away just a few years ago.
Another exceptional documentary was "Kinshasa Symphony" following the only all-black orchestra in the world in the Congo preparing to play Beethoven's Ninth Symphony for an outdoor audience. The German directors of the film couldn't attend the festival as they were in Germany for an awards program, but the Congolese director of the orchestra was in attendance. He spoke alternately in French and English with the help of a Congolese translator. I'm glad I wasn't on the jury trying to decide which was the best documentary.
Another contender was "Nenette" by the French director Nicolas Philibert, who had another documentary showing in the French sidebar, "To Be and To Have" from 2002. Nenette is a forty-year old orangutan who has resided in a Paris zoo for most of her life. The camera doesn't leave her for the entire film. Though there are interviews with her keepers and overheard comments from those gazing upon her, the humans are never shown.
There were also a couple of significant documentaries fresh from Sundance including "The Flaw," a less cerebral and more entertaining version of "Inside Job," the Oscar-winning documentary detailing the cause of the present economic crisis. The "flaw" was a term Alan Greenspan used in testimony to Congress that he and his fellow economists did not detect, that real estate values could not continue to keep going up and up, leading to our recent economic failure. This fast-paced film was full of graphs and cartoons and movie clips and a barrage of boggling statistics. Income inequality is a theme of the film. It reveals that 15,000 Americans earn 700 billion dollars, half the gross national product of Brazil. The film asks the question, "How has the American elite been able to get away with it." But it recognizes that even though there is a resentment towards the wealthy elite, the less well off sure do like to see TV shows and magazine spreads on the mansions of the rich.
"Misrepresentation," also from Sundance, was a personal film by a young woman frustrated by the inequity in the number of women in politics and sexual inequality in general. She too heaps on the statistics--only 31 women have served as governors in the US compared to 2,317 men, 53% of 13 year olds are dissatisfied with their bodies, compared to 78% of 17 year olds. It was one of several disturbing and unsettling films.
The most extreme was "The Whistleblower" a true story about a young woman police officer from Nebraska played by Rachel Weisz who accepts a position with a UN peace keeping force in Bosnia at a salary of $100,000 for six months tax-free. She discovers a deeply entrenched sex slavery ring servicing the UN soldiers and run by them. She's assisted by Vanessa Redgrave and David Straithern in trying to save the prostitutes and prosecute their abusers, but is lucky to get out of Bosnia alive. "The Game of Death," a French documentary about a reality game show about contestants administrating increasingly heavy doses of shocks to fellow contestants for giving the wrong answers to questions at the insistence of the game show host and the audience also leaves one wondering how much hope there is for the human race.
That's quite a few films to have seen in two days, but it left me wanting more. There were many more enticing films playing over the next seven days, but I had to be on my way. I'll just have to wait until Cannes, just a month away, for a truly full immersion into the wide-ranging and provocative world of cinema. The twelve plus hour days Lyndon and I served flew by. Screenings began at ten a.m. and didn't end until nearly eleven p.m.
It was a half hour drive for us into the festival from where we were staying over in Greensboro. We set out at 7:30 Saturday morning so we could sneak in a couple of yard sales before reporting to duty at nine, a passion Lyndon has that is almost as great as mine for the bicycle. He has been in search of a bicycle trailer so Stephanie can transport young Sullivan. He has several resale shops in Annapolis on the alert. Our first stop was the Robin Hood Baptist Church rummage sale on the outskirts of Winston Salem.
"That's my kind of church," Lyndon said, "take from the rich and give to the poor."
There was no trailer but Lyndon can't go to a sale or a resale shop without buying something. An original yellowing Betsy Ross thirteen star flag caught his attention. "How much for the flag?" Lyndon asked.
"You can have it," the woman seller said, "I couldn't sell The Flag."
"I understand," completely," Lyndon replied. "I wouldn't sell it either."
At a garage sale we happened upon, Lyndon picked up a roll of paper on a rack for a quarter for Sullivan. We could have kept at it all day if we didn't have RiverRun responsibilities.