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Hollywood comes to Alexandria

Bringing a little taste of Hollywood to Old Town, the seventh annual Alexandria Film Festival kicks off Nov. 7.

— It might be Patti North's favorite time of year, but it's certainly one of the most stressful.

As chair of the Alexandria Film Festival, North has spent moths preparing for this year's event, pulling together movies ranging from a few minutes to an hour or more in length from around the world and helping to line up Q&A sessions with as many filmmakers as possible during the festivals' four-day run.

This year, she's particularly excited to host a discussion with Benh Zeitlin, director of the film “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which was nominated for Best Picture in last year's Academy Awards.

"He comes from completely outside the whole Hollywood fishbowl," she said of the director, who has two short films included in this year's list of more than 60 offerings at four venues across Alexandria. "Now Hollywood is on bended knee for him," but Zeitlin seems determined to keep his "street cred" as an independent filmmaker.

Details

The Alexandria Film Festival will run from Thursday, Nov. 7 through Sunday, Nov. 10, at four locations around the City of Alexandria, including the Old Town Theater, the Lyceum, the Gates Learning Center Auditorium of the United Way, and the Charles Beatley Central Library. Tickets for each of the more than 60 films in this year's lineup are $12 in advance or $15 at the door. Find a full schedule and purchase tickets at www.alexandriafilm.org. Festival films shown at the Beatley Library are free; all other events require purchased tickets.

Zeitlin is currently filming a movie and will be appearing via Skype, and North said he hasn't been sure where he'll be calling from on Nov. 9, following a screening of two of his short films, “Glory at Sea” and “I Get Wet.” These films were made prior to Beasts, but "you can really see the development of Beasts" in these works, North said.

North has been involved with the festival since its creation seven years ago, first as a member of the city's arts council and now as the festival's chair. A "huge movie buff" for many years, North said she's glad to have the backing of the city council for the largely volunteer event that she sees as a celebration of digital art.

Her long-term goal is to help Alexandria's reputation as a hub for traditional art forms, like the painting and sculpture that take place within the Torpedo Factory, expand and evolve to become a breeding ground for filmmakers, composers and directors as well.

"Without art, Alexandria would be like Williamsburg inside the Beltway," she said. "More than anything, I'd like to see the city embrace the notion of digital art."

There are several local filmmakers involved in the event as well, including the world premiere of a new movie, “Ass Backwards,” from T.C. Williams alum and former “Saturday Night Live” comedienne Casey Wilson. The movie, which stars Wilson and Alicia Silverstone, will premiere in Alexandria before its national release, North said.

THIS YEAR'S FESTIVAL will kick off with a red-carpet event on Nov. 7 and feature series of six food-themed films, ranging from the near mythic respect for red and green chilies in New Mexico to the struggle for safe sources of drinking water in developing countries.

Another film to be featured opening night is “Capital Food Fight,” a 26-minute film from Springfield resident Robert Paschen that takes a look at the dispute over the increasingly popular food truck phenomenon in Washington, D.C., and the challenges posed by and to established brick-and-mortar restaurants, which contributed more than $250 million in taxes to Washington to help keep the city safe and clean.

The film started out as a student film at American University, studying the explosion in popularity in food trucks, which made their first appearance during President Obama's first inauguration in January 2009. Seizing upon an opportunity during that "super cold, super crowded" day along the National Mall, one proprietor, whom Paschen nicknamed the "godfather of the local food truck scene" rolled out his cart and kicked off a firestorm.

Since then, Washington has become the fourth largest market for food trucks in the country, Paschen said. But "it happened so fast the law couldn't keep up," leading to municipal skirmishes over how to regulate trucks and establishing their right to conduct business near traditional restaurants.

"The argument, in general, or my sense of it, from the food truck organization is that if you live in a free market society, let the market decide, don't over-regulate it," because that could squash the entrepreneurial spirit of the endeavor, Paschen said. Traditionally, that's been the rallying cry of more established, longstanding industries, but food truck operators have embraced it as their motto.

Food trucks can only operate for nine or ten months out of the year, and only tend to be open for business for a few hours a day, whereas brick-and-mortar restaurants are open longer during the day and operate year-round, which should help assuage any concerns about lost lunch business. However, that isn't always the case, and municipal governments across the country are struggling to find a compromise that encourages young investors who want to start or expand their food truck business with restaurants that contribute millions to the local economy each year, Paschen said.

There's also the fascinating timing of the food truck phenomenon, taking off at the same time that social media became a major communication tool. Food trucks could not operate without social media, as they have no other way to tell their potential patrons where they are located on any given day, he said. "Social media is the lifeblood of the food truck industry," he added.

Paschen is excited for his first film to be shown during the Alexandria Film Festival this year. "I'm really glad to be a part of it," and though he admits he's a little nervous for the Q&A session following the film, he's looking forward to seeing the other films showing on opening night.

ANOTHER FILMMAKER FEATURED on opening night is Daniel Stein, whose film “Grape” will be featured in Alexandria just two weeks after being included in the Washington West Film Festival. Another short film of his, “God and Vodka,” was screened during the Alexandria festival in 2011, and this year's festival features “Grape” and “Championship Rounds,” about a deaf young man who tries to recover from a childhood spent watching his father's promising boxing career destroyed by drugs and alcohol.

A native of this area, Stein now lives in Los Angeles, but his production company, Rushaway Pictures, is based there and in Manassas. "It's exciting to be showcasing our films locally," he said. "Having both films in the same festival gives us an opportunity to showcase the diversity of our projects."

“The Championship Rounds” might feel like a biography, but it's a story he co-wrote and directed with M.D. Walton, who "created a rich character and setting for a touching story, a story with grit and raw emotion that made it feel like a true story," Stein said. "Together we were able to build a foundation for this short film which we plan on expanding into a feature in the near future."

The script alone was enough to attract the support of some "very recognizable talent," including Harold Perrineau, Larry Gilliard Jr., Michael Buffer and Rutina Wesley, in addition to GLAD, the Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness. The 27-minute film was shot over six days, thanks in large part to the dedication of lead actor Michael Anthony Spady, who "not only had ... been training tirelessly in the gym and in the ring, but he dug deep emotionally," Stein said. "I never had to do more than a couple takes with the guy. I'm looking forward to working with him on the feature version of ‘The Championship Rounds’ and projects beyond."

The Alexandria Film Festival is the premiere for “The Championship Rounds,” while “Grape” has been included in a few other festivals. That film tells the story of a grieving winemaker whose daughter died a year prior and who is on the verge of selling his family's winery, when an accident on a cold winter night brings him in contact with a young man whose own life is at a perilous crossroads.

ANOTHER FILM that tells a story with limited dialogue is the seven-minute film “Pedestrian,” by Claire Ensslin, an Alexandria native who now lives and works in New York City. In fact, there's no dialogue at all used in the short film, which shows a man struggling with his urges to attack a young girl.

Ensslin, who received her first video camera at the age of 12 but always though of herself as an artist, filmed the movie in Alexandria and Falls Church, using locations she frequented when she lived here and attended T.C. Williams High School.

This film is based on a short story from the 1930s which was set in New York City and "really haunted" Ensslin when she read it. She kept the storyline the same but changed the era and the location, but stayed true to the subject over the course of the three-day shoot.

"This guy is obsessed with the idea of this small girl, but he always gets scared" when he sees her, she explained.

Ensslin said she submitted her script early last year to Panavision in order to be able to use their revered camera equipment, a request that was granted and provided for three days worth of shooting, despite her wishes to take six days. Without dialogue, however, the mood of the film comes through lighting and "tons of music," made by two instruments she won't name.

"No one's ever guessed them correctly," she laughed. "It's very creepy music."

A film that might be thought to have a creepy premise, “Grandfather (Ta)” is a 17-minute film from Kingstowne resident Kunlaken "Bim" Mamber that tells the story of a young girl who doesn't like to fall asleep by herself because of the ghost she claims are under her bed. Her mother, trying to calm her fears, tells her a story that could explain what her daughter has been encountering.

"Ta means grandfather in Thai," Mamber explained. "I wrote the script based on a true story of my grandfather Prom Thritsadi performing an exorcism for his neighbor back in 1971 in Kalasin, Thailand."

She admitted that it's a challenge to tell an entire story in 17 minutes, but she was able to take the film's central focus and use only those scenes that relate to that development for the story. "I did have to leave out some of my favorite shots and gorgeous takes that were not needed and trust me, it was quite difficult to leave them behind," she said.

While the story is based on her grandfather's actions, Mamber never met him. She grew up hearing the story from her aunt Tik, and "I always pictured it as a movie in my head [so] when I was able to make my first movie, I decided this story was the one."

She hopes people will feel "courageous" after watching the film, in addition to appreciating the beauty of Kalasin, where the movie was filmed.

"I had to learn an entirely different working culture and system than I am used to here in the States" after studying digital filmmaking in Washington but filming in Thailand, she said. "Luckily, I had a great and talented cast and crew and they helped make the process enjoyable."

The film has been featured in a handful of other festivals, including the Thai Short Film and Video Festival in Bangkok earlier this year and the Virginia Film Festival, but this showing is special, Mamber said. "Since Alexandria is my home, I would love to show my film to a hometown crowd. Thankfully, the Alexandria Film Festival committee granted me that opportunity."

THREE OTHER FILMS in the festival showcase opportunities to overcome hardships:

“Dream,” a film by Betsy Cox, looks back on students from an Anacostia high school who were given the opportunity of a college education if they finished high school, courtesy of the I Have a Dream Project in the late 1980s and early 1990s. She was involved in a project 20 years ago which collected oral histories from D.C. residents, including some of the "Dreamers," and Cox decided to find a group of them and see how their educational aspirations paid off. Success to these students might look different to other adults, but many of them —72 percent of students in the Dream program compared with 23 percent of their overall high school population — went on to college, and are in turn sending their own children off to higher education now.

"The kids in that community have always meat a lot to me," she said. "It's an opportunity to look at issues that still exist in Anacostia 20 years later."

The story these students, now approaching 40 years old, tell are inspiring and "really illuminate what is going on in this and other under-served communities in D.C. and across the country."

Another film, “Wheelchair Diaries: One Step Up,” from Washington, D.C., resident Reid Davenport, came about when Davenport wanted to study abroad but was discouraged from doing so, because he relies on a wheelchair for crossing long distances as a result of his cerebral palsy. He was skeptical that getting around Western Europe would be as difficult as others warned him, so he got a camera and went to see for himself.

Sadly, he was shocked to find that, in most cases, the naysayers were right. The populous and prosperous nations of Western Europe sometimes are considered more progressive and socialist than The United States, but that doesn't extend to accessibility, he found.

“A few parts [he visited] were really bad," he recalled. He's one of the fortunate ones, because he is capable of walking and moving without his wheelchair, but for those who are fully dependent, it can be a discouraging experience.

"There are so many gaps in accessibility" overseas, he said. "We heard all these excuses that [they] have all this really old architecture that can't be retrofitted," a claim he's hesitant to believe.

And another film, “Citizen Autistic” by William Davenport — no relation to Reid Davenport — looks at the challenges faced by adults and children with symptoms on the autism spectrum.

"My friends who have autism need help," he said plainly. "The money for autism is being drained from communities by Autism Speaks," an organization purported to be an advocacy group for better services for autistic people and their families, but "how they allocate money back to the communities is disproportionate to how much they take."

Funding should be dedicated to programs that would help facilitate vocational training and social skills, in addition to encouraging the use of assistive technology, he said.

In making the 63-minute film, William Davenport said he wanted to make sure to portray the people in the film as "articulate, political, caring individuals. I have found so much ignorance about autism because of the vapid media portrayals. I am interested in demystifying and humanizing autism, and exposing the many injustices which people on the spectrum are subjected to on a daily basis."

He admitted it was difficult trying to stay somewhat unbiased in making this film. "I showed the film as part of the Docs in Progress series and got wonderful feedback, which helped skewing the content into a direction that was not totally negative."

The film will premiere at the Alexandria Film Festival, because "I wanted to show the film locally," he said. "The film has shown at a couple of schools and a few autism organizations," but no other festivals to date.