Hello, all! Apologies for the hiatus, it’s been a busy school week for me! To recap, the last time I posted, I was about to let you all know about my experience covering Toronto Indie Week’s inaugural film festival last Friday, the Reel Indie Film Fest 2013.
The festival lasted 5 days, from October 16 – 20, and included an excellent array of independent feature films, shorts, and music video debuts, as well as industry panels covering everything from producing indie films on a micro-budget, to ways of financing your project (crowdfunding, investors, and private funding – in case you were curious :P), to music licensing, successful pitching and merchandising. There was also an Indie Happy Hour industry mixer that I soooo wanted to attend but couldn’t reschedule around! Oh well.
Let me tell you about the films that I did see.
A Little Bit Country (Amy Coop, 7 mins):
Dylan is your typical teenager – angst, sulky and moody. But one night when he thinks he is home alone, he heads to his room to reveal that he has a dark secret…he really likes country music! And not just the music…Dylan is a raging countryphile – records, tasselled jackets, cowboy hat, the works!
And then his parents come home unexpectedly and discover his stash, to his dismay and to their absolute horror.
The beauty of this short is that it is hilarious. The melodramatic reaction of his parents to his secret obsession is priceless. “It’s almost as bad as that, what do you call it, car keys in the bowl…” his father says. “What, swinging?” his mother responds, horrified.
They immediately demand that he packs up the records and paraphernalia and throw them out before the neighbours discover the shameful secret, and he complies, sulkily. But as he is walking away with a box full of his treasures, the camera stays on his parents, sitting in his room. There is still one country record in the record player, and as his father moves to remove it, his mother stops him. Next thing you know, the music is playing, and they’ve progressed to dancing together and laughing, and his mother playfully puts the cowboy hat on his father’s head to no resistance. Dylan, watching this all through a gap in the door, smiles and walks off, knowing his collection is safe.
Playful, fun, and really well shot and acted. The writer/director Amy Coop has quite a few accolades already for this film, as well as for her other work, going by what she has up on her website, so I’d definitely be interested in seeing what else she does!
Jesse and the Fountain of Youth (Tracey Anarella, 12 mins):
This is the story of Jesse Seth Cohen, a subway musician and busker living in New York City, who is trying to take his music career above ground, beginning with a studio recording of his best song. The “Fountain of Youth” in the title refers to this song, which he records in the studio with the hopes of selling it for film and television use. The song is presented almost as a tribute to his late mother, who supported his art by writing down all the songs he would create when he was younger, including this one which he wrote at 19, but didn’t then have the technical playing skills to make the most of it. Now he has rediscovered the song and it just might be the one to take his music to the next level.
The film begins in a New York subway station, where you see cuts of various musicians performing on the public stage of the platform. Then you get to Jesse, and you know that this is the Jesse of the title even before he is formally introduced because of how the camera lingers on him playing his guitar. It then proceeds to follow this shy, unassuming, almost reticent young man as he goes about his life, from playing on the street to performing in front of a gathered crowd at a music venue, to meeting and being invited to record at the studio of producer Peter Fish. Interspersed between the scenes is an interview with Jesse at home, where he talks about his music, his life, and the conflict between the simple joy he feels at busking on a subway platform and the realization that if his career is going to go anywhere, he needs to come out from underground.
A brief slice-of-life story, the centrepiece of Jesse is the studio recording session where producer Fish encourages him to broaden the song “Fountain of Youth” by including a full backing band – piano, a second guitar, drums and a mandolin player. Simply made and unassumingly presented, this film really lets you catch a glimpse of the sort of life that you may not think twice about, beyond the handful of coins you toss into their guitar case in passing. Filmmaker Tracey Anarella, who began this film as a student project after she had just learned to shoot, do sound and edit, explained after the screening that she intended to follow it up with a second film exploring how far Jesse has gotten in his musical and life journey since this was made. I for one would be interested in seeing that, too.
The Shorters (aka, music videos!):
Circle (Dominique Van Olm, 1 min):
The premise of this (extremely short) experimental film was filmmaker Dominique Van Olm wanting to explore the ways different artists might approach the same idea. Specifically, she wanted to see if a word could be translated through music to an image. She gave the idea to a composer to translate it into a musical movement, and then used the movement as a filmmaker to translate into visuals. According to the expanded explanation on her website, “I approached my friend Mitch Thomson to create the music for the project based on the word ‘circle’. I imposed a set of requirements that in my eyes were ‘circular’. I asked for the instruments to be round in construction as well as the final sound containing several loops, finishing where it started. Mitch composed this piece using a flugelhorn, a tuba and a banjo. It has become the sequel to our first sound/video project, LINE. Done in the same style using a different idea.”
Now, I didn’t get a chance to see the video at the festival (being a minute long, it was extremely easy to miss when I came in at a couple minutes past 7pm!!) but Van Olm has the film available for viewing on her website (as well as quite a few other interesting things!) so I was able to watch it there.
The video begins with an old-school film reel countdown and a voice saying “One, two, three, four…”, then the music starts with a jaunty, upbeat banjo tune, coupled with dancing, ephemeral visuals showing images of the instruments being played (a banjo, a tuba and a flugelhorn), layered over with kaleidoscopic patterns and graphics – all retaining the circular motif. It ends on the same note it begins (musically, that is!) which speaks to Van Olm’s requirement of the composer that the music be “circular” – in this case, meaning that not just the instruments, but even the composition itself needed to include loops.
I liked it. It was fun, playful, and visually interesting. A lovely little experiment, I’d say.
To the Beat (Atom and the Volumes, 4 mins):
This was the festival debut of the self-shot music video for Toronto indie band Atom and the Volumes’ single “To the Beat”. A stop motion video involving, well, toys, the lead singer explained afterwards that his brother had just had a baby and while they were digging up their old action figures, the idea occurred to them to have their video be said action figures dancing to their music, moving “to the beat”, so to speak. (Punny, aren’t I? :p)
The song featured the stop-motion-jerky dance skills of the Incredible Hulk, Wonderwoman, the Joker, and Batman getting down on a checkered dance floor and in/around the Batmobile and around the band’s amplifiers, guitar pedals, piano, old show posters and other paraphernalia, intercut with scenes of the band performing on stage. “To The Beat” was a fun little video to see. As a photographer, I couldn’t help judging the quality of some of the shots (sorry!!) but all in all it was a pretty ingenious no-budget solution, and looked like a fun project all around.
Walking Proof (Matt Dorman/Marcio Novelli, 72 mins):
Walking Proof tells the behind-the-scenes story of how Hamilton indie rocker Marcio Novelli pulled together some of the most renowned names in music to help him record his solo debut album It’s Not An Excuse, It’s A Reason independently in just 17 days.
Featuring the talents of producer Jim Wirt (who’s worked with musicians like Fiona Apple, Incubus and Jack’s Mannequin) and audio engineer Nick Blagona (famous for much of his work with artists including Green Day and The Police), this film is as indie as it gets. It was shot entirely by cinematographer Matt Dorman (whose day job, I discovered, is making promotional docs for the Hamilton Tiger Cats!) except for a number of confessional style, handheld iPhone video clips shot by Marcio himself in front of a mirror, and produced, directed and edited by the duo.
The film really yanks you into the process right away through fast-paced, kinetic editing and deeply personal forays into Marcio and Chelsea (his wife and manager)’s lives in the just over two week process of creating the album from scratch. It plays like an extended MTV special (back in the good ol’ days when the “M” actually made sense!) with a mixture of in-studio and at-home footage, talking heads interviews with the principal cast overlaid with catchy pop-rock music, and a real sense of getting at the truth of what the process is like, warts and all.
An engrossing and cleanly edited tour into the process of creating an album on a low budget and with a severe time crunch, it also features a revolving cast of supporting characters contributing their talents in one way or the other toward his cause. These include two separate drummers (Dan Fila and the ridiculously photogenic Rio Nicolle) providing backing drums for several of his tracks each, as well as bass by Chris Steele, bassist for Alexisonfire, whose cousin happened to be one of the audio engineers in the studio.
Speaking of familial connections, though, there really seemed to be a family atmosphere in the studio, goodnatured fights, teasing and all. In one scene, engineer Nick Blagona is making fun of Marcio who apparently always seems to be eating something, by asking him if he’s from Naples. Then someone suggests that the film include a compilation of scenes of Marcio nibbling at something and this is followed by a very meta superclip of scenes of Marcio nibbling at something.
For a low budget he really pulled together an excellent team, all the way down to a personal voice coach, Jennifer Molinaro, in the studio with them, helping him ensure he was reaching the peak of his vocal potential. One thing I took away from this film is that in the entertainment industry, as much or even more than in any other, relationships seem to be the grease that keep the gears spinning, because to a person all of those involved in making the album expressed their adoration of Marcio.
“That’s the thing about him,” says one of the cast during an interview. “He’s got all this positive energy!”
That energy is something that comes across quite clearly in the film. Incredibly personal, it really showcases a very reachable artist, someone who feels very close to the audience not just in terms of accessibility, but also in terms of having similar challenges in life, and a powerful determination to overcome them. The personal nature of the film might have been helped by the fact that he and Matt Dorman, who shot and edited the film, have been friends for over a decade.
It really made me wonder if this – low budget, high quality production done with friends and family – was the future of indie music making? Or maybe it’s already here, and this is simply the canary in the coal mine.
All in all, certainly worth a watch, if not for the educational value for all you aspiring artists out there, then just for the sheer fun of the ride! (The film is also available to purchase with the physical version of his album, here)
Musicwood (Maxine Trump, 80 mins)
Musicwood is a truly fascinating look at the controversy surrounding the wood that is used to make some of the best-known acoustic guitars in the world. It features extensive interviews with the CEOs and presidents of Gibson, Taylor, and Martin guitars, as well as musical performances and perspectives from some of the biggest acoustic musicians today, including Yo La Tengo, Kaki King, Steve Earle, the Antlers, and Sergius Gregory, among others. But the film also looks at the broad cultural, economic, and political conflicts at the heart of the issue.
Specifically, it looks at the situation from the historical perspective of the Native American tribes, primarily the Haida, who live in South East Alaska, and who have a stake – literally – in the last rainforest of its kind. The majority of the wood used, particularly sitka spruce, according to the film, comes from an area in South East Alaska, the Tongass National Forest, which is an ancient forest with giant trees that have grown for centuries. It is overseen by the Sealaska Corporation, a Native American-run corporation which was formed to make the best use of the land for the most benefit to the Haida people, and one in which essentially everyone in the tribe is a stakeholder. But the controversy arose when Sealaska was criticized by radical environmental group Greenpeace for overlogging and irreparably disrupting the ecosystem through a process known as “clear-cutting”, where vast swathes of the forest are mown down without factoring in the ecological impact.
The music industry got involved when the CEOs of the big three guitar giants found out that the core species they depend on for their acoustic instruments, sitka spruce trees growing in the Tongass National Forest, were in danger of extinction within a decade or so. They realized they needed to convince Sealaska to change its logging practices in order to prevent that from happening. But given the historical disenfranchisement of Native Americans by the government and other typically white, male people in positions of power, the Native American tribes at the centre of the controversy were understandably leery of accepting any demands as to the way they conducted their business.
Recognizing the need for dialogue however, the three sides – Sealaska, Greenpeace and representatives of the music industry – created an uneasy coalition called the Musicwood Coalition to try and work out solutions that would benefit everyone. But things never go quite according to plan!
The great thing about this film (aside from the slick production, great soundtrack and informative digital graphics) is that it really tries to evenly showcase everyone’s perspective, and doesn’t try to give you all the answers.
From the often-frustrated Greenpeace representative, to the earnest-seeming guitar manufacturers facing major changes to their industry model, to the steel-willed Native American board members of the Sealaska corporation determined to retain authority over their land, to the Native American residents of the South East Alaska region who feel the corporation does not speak for them but rather for its own profits, there seem to be a thousand stories and a thousand perspectives on the issue.
At its heart, it is a culture clash on multiple levels, with a timely message about caution when it comes to exploiting the planet’s natural resources, no matter what side of the debate you’re on.
It was a great watch, and pretty informative, too. Makes you think twice about the Beatles line, “While my guitar gently weeps…”
At the end of the festival last Sunday night, the RIFF winners were announced, in the categories of Best Music Video, Best Short Film, and Best Feature. And the awards went to…..*drumrollllll*
2. Best Short Film: sponsored by Cinespace Film Studios, R. Luke DuBois: Running Out of Time directed by H Paul Moon. The synopsis on the website describes it as a “short documentary [that] tells the story of R. Luke DuBois, a composer and visual artist in New York City. His creative work builds on notions of cultural and romantic memory, exploring how information can be manipulated over time for emotional impact.”
3. Best Feature Film: sponsored by Harold Greenburg Fund, Los Wild Ones directed by Elise Salomon. Los Wild Ones is a documentary following the lives of Reb Kennedy and the artists on his LA-based indie label, Wild Records.
So that was my weekend last week! The week was full of presentation making, video-shooting, photography, and general school-related work, and this weekend has been spent
plotting mayhem and madness trying to study and work on my major film project for the semester, a five minute doc short that will hopefully debut here at the end of the year once the, ahem, mayhem and madness have subsided 🙂
Tomorrow, I’ll share some of the weird and wonderful things that have caught my eye in the last few days. Till then, thanks for coming by!