Nestled into the urban sprawl that is the Greater Orlando area is a gem of a movie theater called the Enzian. For over 30 years, this member-supported nonprofit has provided Central Florida residents and visitors alike with high-quality independent and international films—and for the past 25 years has been the home of the Florida Film Festival, one of the true joys of the film festival circuit, which this year went on between April 8th and 16th,
The Enzian is also home to Eden Bar, a (mostly) covered outdoor café serving as the theater’s kitchen, allowing patrons to eat and drink before and during films and events. It’s not nearly as awkward or intrusive as it may sound—Enzian staff has gotten pretty good at being ninjas, as they’re affectionately nicknamed.
Frankly, I’ve been attending film festivals for over 20 years, and the growth in their numbers has been nothing short of stunning: There are literally thousands of them around the world. Like restaurants, film festivals come and go with alarming regularity, and, again like restaurants, they’re expensive to start and maintain. In a field where your audience is finite and the number of quality films is limited, a festival really has to hit on the right formula to make a go of it. To last 25 years, you’ve got to be doing something right.
Which is why I was proud this year to serve on FFF’s documentary jury alongside 2015 short doc Oscar nominee Courtney Marsh (Chau, Beyond the Lines) and Andrew Carlin of indie distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories. It was our task to watch 10 features and 16 shorts, eventually bestowing three awards, including the short film grand jury prize, which gives the recipient the ability to submit his or her film to the Academy Awards without going through a costly and laborious public screening process, a huge boost to a short filmmaker. (The FFF is also an Oscar qualifier for the live action and animated shorts categories.)
The films showing in the doc program were a mix of those that have made their ways through the festival circuit for a while and those just getting started, with all but one experiencing a Florida premiere. Garrett Zevgetis’s Best and Most Beautiful Things, to which we awarded the Special Jury Award for “Individuality of the Human Spirit,” had one of those elements every documentary filmmaker falls asleep wishing for: a luminous subject with an incredible story in Michelle Smith, a 20-year-old recent graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind who was also diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.
Michelle Smith in Best and Most Beautiful Things
A headstrong young woman with a penchant for Hello Kitty, Monster High dolls and anime, Michelle is determined to not let her disabilities get in the way of her desire to live an independent life. Best and Most Beautiful Things follows Michelle on a five-year journey as she struggles to overcome both the challenges posed by her disability and those foisted upon her by a world seemingly unwilling to accommodate her. Along the way, Michelle’s ups (her first romance) and downs (an inability to hold down a job) lead her in a surprising, but wholly inspiring, direction. She’s my hero.
Absolutely seek this film out, but by all that’s good and holy, do not watch the trailer or read too many reviews. There’s a wonderful and exciting twist to this magical journey that will, I swear, improve your life if you happen upon it organically.
On the other end of the emotional spectrum is a film no less accomplished but rife with ethical dilemmas, featuring a protagonist at the end of his journey, rather than at the beginning. Justin Schein’s Left On Purpose tells the story of Mayer Visher, a pivotal but largely unsung Yippie activist who was a fixture in New York’s Greenwich Village. A consistent rabble-rouser and counter-cultural figure, Visher struggles with depression and pain throughout the film, the majority of which deals with his long-held plans to commit suicide and Schein’s increasing involvement in his subject’s life. The pair debate the ethical and real-world implications of this involvement, but we felt that the film was all the stronger for it, and awarded it the Grand Jury prize. It’s as much an intimate portrait of a thoughtful man whose life isn’t turning out the way he had hoped as it is a broad, challenging look at how suicide affects us all.
The Grand Jury Award for Documentary Short Film went to Amy Nicholson’s delightful Pickle, a loving and side-splittingly funny look at a couple who can’t seem to stop adopting injured strays, including Pogo the paraplegic opossum and pickle, a fish that’s basically all head and tail—no body.
The festival also featured other such gems as The Babushkas of Chernobyl, Holly Morris and Anne Bogart’s multiple-award-winning and delightfully funny look at a community of aging Ukrainian women who, against all advice, returned to their villages around Chernobyl shortly after the 1986 disaster, and Romeo Is Bleeding, Jason Zeldes’s look at how an inspiring poet speaks, writes and teaches his way towards making Richmond, CA a less violent place to live. Sara Fishko’s The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith is a mostly archival film about famed photo-journalist Gene Smith and the New York jazz legends that jammed in his Flower District building all day and night from 1957 to 1965. Anotehr highlight was The House is Innocent, Nicholas Coles’ hysterical short portrait of a wonderfully macabre Sacramento couple who bought, renovated and moved into the notorious F Street home, in which nine people had been murdered in the 1980s.
This year’s special events included two “An Evening With” presentations. One was with Jay and Mark Duplass’s first feature The Puffy Chair, followed by a lengthy Q&A with actor/writer/director/producer Mark Duplass (hosted by…well, me):
Mark Duplass and Mark Rabinowitz (photo by John Ingoglia)
The other encompassed a screening of Terrence Malick’s 1973 classic Badlands, followed by a Q&A with star Sissy Spacek:
Sissy Spacek (photo by David Martinez)
In the end, the only way to describe the overall atmosphere at the festival is joyful. It attracts a devoted coterie of local and not-so-local attendees and has the added benefit of the attached Eden Bar, the automatic place to gather and discuss previous and upcoming films, get some top notch grub (or top shelf hooch), or dance the night away under the magnificent oaks at the adjacent tiki bar.
But of course, Enzian has outgrown its single screen (the festival also plays at the nearby Regal Winter Park Village multiplex), its kitchen is over-worked and smaller films that might not fill the 230 seats are effectively not bookable. As such, the organization is undergoing an ambitious but necessary redesign and expansion campaign, which you can check out here. They’re 74% of the way to their goal—with the love they deserve, it’s surprising they haven’t already eclipsed it.
Mark Rabinowitz is a Louisville-based freelance writer, publicist, film producer and contributor to Paste. He is the co-founder of Indiewire.com and his beef stew makes grown people cry with joy. You can follow him on Twitter.