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Culture and Community at the New Orleans Film Festival

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Culture and Community at the New Orleans Film Festival

With the New Orleans Film Festival, cinema is set against the backdrop of an already vibrant canvas. Running October 12-20, the festival, its home base in the new Ace Hotel, featured everything from Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea to web series, to works from NOLA-based artists and emerging directors, to talks with some of the most exciting talents in the business. Placing Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight as the first Friday night spotlight film was perfectly in line with this arena. The film, which has already received considerable Oscar buzz, follows a young black man through three chapters of his life. It reminds us that our shadows and our shades are what make us glorious. It was fitting for a city that also finds beauty in its “imperfections.” The screening’s line wrapped around the block, and the film took home the Audience Award for Spotlight: Narrative Film.

The fest also focused on more obscure stories. The “Cuban Shorts” block, part of the “Caribbean Cinema” section, featured amazing profiles of life in Cuba. One short in particular, Paloma, wove interviews as voiceovers with images of families, markets, meals, laughter—a vivid exploration of Havana. A quote attributed to José Martí, an influential figure in Latin American literature and a Cuban hero, stung my ears: “To be cultured is the only way to be free.”

New Orleans, like Havana, is a magical place, one that vacillates seamlessly between beauty and tragedy, mysticism and reality, past and present. The one thing that’s constant, though, is the culture. Looking back, after experiencing a variety of work and a spectrum of artistic (and human) interactions, it felt as if the cinema itself transcended just entertainment or enlightenment to become a lesson in humanity. Consuming the local culture felt like a freeing—the festival uniting its attendees through art and film.

Homegrown Work

The New Orleans Film Festival, for which I had been invited to serve on the Louisiana Shorts Jury, offers two complimentary nights of lodging to a representative from every movie programmed, as well as an all-access pass. I was surprised that even shorts had filmmakers in town. That’s the whole point of a festival—the ability to attach a face to a film and develop a relationship with the brains behind what you watch on screen. This small offering is among the many things responsible for the personable, supportive vibe of the event.

New Orleans is also home to Court 13, the team who brought us Beasts of the Southern Wild and are about to launch production on Wendy, a reimagination of the Peter Pan and Wendy tale. The collective found their footing in New Orleans, which in recent years has hosted film shoots for mainstream successes like Django Unchained and True Detective, earning its reputation as “Hollywood South.” Over the past year, though, much of the shooting has moved away from NOLA to ATL and surrounding southern cities with better tax breaks. According to an article in The Advocate this spring, “Industry officials are blaming a law passed a year ago by the state legislature and signed into law by Governor Bobby Jindal.” The measure “aimed to control ballooning costs for a generous incentive program that independent analysts say has not provided much bang for the buck.” Essentially, state lawmakers set a cap on the money that could be spent on film tax credits, and at this point the state owes more than two years’ worth of tax credits before any more movies can be shot in Louisiana.

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Given that New Orleans businesses and artists associated with film production have experienced a decline in work opportunities, it was wonderful to see the festival vigorously promoting their city’s work and the community at large. Take the NOLA-shot The Book of Love, which screened in IMAX the first Saturday night of the fest at the huge Entergy Giant Screen Theater. Directed by Bill Purple and scored by Justin Timberlake, the film stars Jason Sudeikis and Jessica Biel, the latter also serving as producer. More than 10 years in the making, the film follows Henry (Sudeikis) right after the death of his wife (Biel). Henry finds an unlikely companion in a homeless girl (Maisie Williams), who attempts to build a strange raft. The tricks are cheap, the score (c’mon, J.T.) sappy, but Sudeikis is surprisingly solid, demonstrating his capability beyond just comedy.

The festival had panels centered around the NOLA film community as well and presented a nice selection of locally made work. It was an honor to watch the films in competition along with my fellow jurors Erica Anderson (Seed&Spark) and Lisa Landi (Film School Shorts). Each film brimmed with Louisiana culture—a young girl and her grandfather in the swamps of Hunter and the delicately introspective portrayal of a young homeless woman in Immaculate. Watching them over the course of a few days pieces together a portrait of NOLA—each storyteller’s perspective varying in adoration, curiosity, anger, shade—and yet, all still wanting to showcase their city to a greater audience. Our Jury award went to These Wild Things, directed by Samantha Smith. Not only did her short reveal an intense understanding of human power and animalistic tension, but the ability to tell a two-character, one-location story with suspense. Smith says she isn’t in an immediate hurry to relocate her work outside NOLA to L.A. or NYC either, recognizing that she’s cultivating a viable film family in a supportive community.

Unsung Voices

Along with a shorts jury composed entirely of women in film, the festival’s attention to minority voices echoed in the event lineup as well. The Web Series screenings felt rooted in intention, in storytelling—particularly stories from and about marginalized voices. During the Q&A, when most all of the creators came on stage, it became apparent that the lineup was almost entirely LGBTQ in scope. It felt like an integration of these stories into our normal viewing experience.

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Highlights of the series included The Benefits of Gusbandry from Alicia J. Rose and Courtenay Hameister, Brothers from Emmett Jack Lundberg, and New Deep South: Instababy from Rosie Haber and Lauren Cioffi. Haber has been on my radar for a while, and I’ve seen her post about this series for months. It’s incredible. Released by The Front, the series deconstructs sexual and social notions in the South, the first episode following a young lesbian couple in Jackson, Miss. who want to have a child together. Their love is vital, their happiness perplexing. One is a cop, her youthful baby face juxtaposed with her weapons. The other has Instagram interactions with take-my-baby proposals. Haber and Cioffi capture the vulnerability, humor and truth in subjects who were strangers moments before they pulled out a camera. The result is intoxicating and a sure sign of a gift.

Brothers stands on its own as a unique and honest portrayal of being trans in New York. Creator Lundberg communicates the experience of dating on a raw level—the awkwardness and frankness around that specific experience is impressive. Just one episode leaves you with an interest for more, to know more deeply about what it means to be in this community, this culture, one that’s criminally under-portrayed in cinema and entertainment. During the Q&A, Lundberg announced that the series is now screening on Amazon. Thankfully, stories like this are becoming more accessible—they’re out there and they’re good.

The Benefits of Gusbandry wasn’t convincing at first. The scene: some birthday party filmed in an L.A. apartment—we’ve seen this before—people doing shots, nothing wildly exciting happening with the cinematography. But when River (Kurt Conroyd) shows up and asks our heroine Jackie (Brooke Totman) out, the story sucks you in. Plus Totman is straight-up comically delicious. She’s Kristen Wiig with a sprinkle of Leslie Mann when they’re both a little drunk, tired and horny. We know this woman and we love her, empathize with her. Totman and Conroyd’s chemistry is charming. Come to find out (surprise!) he’s gay. Husbandry + Gay= Gusbandry. The series is personal, it’s hilarious as hell, and it delves into the crevices of friendship. This is Will & Grace resurrected—I find it funnier.

The entire Web Series lineup was entertaining. It’s exciting to write about work that’s available to literally go watch right this second—no need for a festival in town, a private screening, a theatrical ticket, even a monthly subscription. These are voices—special, influential ones—that I was, and still am, thrilled to see programmed in a festival lineup.

Unique Lives

Not only did the New Orleans Film Festival give a platform to voices that still fight to be heard, they also gave close attention to unique cultural and social pockets. Walking around the city, the smells, the tastes, the sounds, the cohabitants of this singular gumbo of life envelope you. That’s exactly what makes NOLA eclectic, deeply infectious.

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The Louisiana Shorts series illustrated many unique lives—one of which was particularly effective. Our jury gave the Special Recognition Award to Jonah Stands Up, which went on to win the Audience Award. It centers on Jonah Bascle, a comedian and political activist. The young man’s mortality follows him around, literally, in animated personal illustrations of a Grim Reaper stalking him as he moves about in his wheelchair. Stories like this are tricky. They can get mushy and choose sympathy over story. The emotion in this short, though, from new filmmaker Hannah Engelson, is delicate, attentive and brimming with levity. While battling his disability, Bascle runs for public office, campaigning to draw attention to New Orleans’ lack of services for residents with disabilities. Before Jonah passed away from his disease, he continued to perform stand-up and gifted his introspective drawings on death and dreams to Engelson. Now more than ever, anything that reminds us that we, in fact, can do better, more, is important. For that provoking thought the film left me with, it deserves merit.

The “Caribbean Cinema” block was a festival stand-out. Many of the Cuban shorts dished up the flavor of the country and its people, stories that might otherwise go unnoticed, subjects with a ferocious appetite for life. In Paloma, from filmmaker Giovanni P. Autran, the camera moves with elegance and confidence, tracing the lines of lives that populate Havana. It’s as if we’re walking along the streets, consuming these subjects in intimate conversation. There’s a mother and her adorable son, glowing. She’s listing what she wants in a man: He’s handsome, kind—doesn’t cheat. She smokes her cigarette and looks out the balcony in a combination of wistful hope and the exhaustion of reality. Every person profiled is poetic, their words floating in voiceover on moving images of stew, playing cards—a man describes flying like a bird in a dream as he releases one from his hands up to the sky. The joy these people find, even amid deep hardship, is enrapturing—their lives rough, but rich.

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In Mercedes: Portrait of a Street Sweeper, directors Amie Williams and Meena Nanji offer an authentic exploration of their namesake subject. Mercedes shows us her home and how she does her hair. She’s lived in Cuba for 20 years and enjoys her job—she gets to make her home a better place for people. In an emotional plea, she asks God to look down on her community and make it a little easier—just a little. Nothing about this portrait is sappy. It’s painfully honest, beautifully simple and, within that seeming simplicity of a street sweeper, we see ourselves. We feel connected, despite our cultural differences.

Two other films of note were Are We Not Cats and My First Kiss and the People Involved. Of the former, filmmaker Xander Robin and his DP Matt Clegg, are very promising young artists. This is Robin’s first feature and one of the best indies to come out of this year’s festival circuit. It is about a girl who eats hair. Yes, she has a demon—one that’s caused her not only to eat all of her own hair, but also one that tempts her to eat that of her new lover. She’s a trichophage. Eli, played with quiet enthusiasm by newcomer Michael Patrick Nicholson, lives out of his truck and drives upstate in a freezing search for relevance, worth. He collides with Anya (Chelsea Lopez, also fantastic) and soon falls for her, despite her bizarre habit. Clegg’s visual language is striking, carrying us from snow-adorned woods to psychedelic parties and apartments. Colors mirror emotions and the music belies the impending doom of the situation. As insane as the story gets, it never loses its roots in reality—viewers realize that, indeed, we are all animals; some of us cats. We should be treated, dissected as such.

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In Luigi Campi’s My First Kiss and the People Involved, India Menuez (White Girl, Uncertain Terms) plays Sam, a young woman suffering from a mental disorder that leaves her silent and painfully shy. She’s living in a group home in the countryside, one whose charismatic residents stand in contrast to the dysfunction of the two adults that run the place. When Sam’s only friend, the woman who facilitates the group, leaves after a mysterious fight, she begins to unravel. Sam’s disorder is heartbreaking, but Menuez’s ability to still communicate her inner life is compelling. The movie looks right out of the 1970s. In the Q&A, Campi revealed they chose to shoot the film as if it were from Sam’s perspective—slightly off, slightly more magical, dated. I kept thinking of early episodes of Anne of Green Gables. The film gets trapped at times the same way Sam is trapped in her own mind—it can get a bit stuffy, detached. But as Campi’s first narrative feature, My First Kiss introduces us to an exciting new directorial voice—and one who isn’t afraid to tell difficult, different tales.

Appetites and Art

On Saturday, the festival threw a party in a massive warehouse. As I walked through the mud past a food truck, crawfish hot dog and chardonnay in hand, a row of strangers cheered beers while hugs and beads were traded. The warmth and welcome of the attendees was kinetic, especially in a space decorated with candles, black-and-white photos and busting at the seams with NOLA flavor. The next party was in Mardi Gras World—another huge warehouse where they store all the floats and colorful fake creatures from the parade. People danced, stood under the stars and looked out over the river.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in what’s on the screen, especially in a festival environment, and forget about what’s in front of you—what’s ephemeral. There was an appetite to consume the present—across the board—to consume great stories, new acquaintances, beer, shrimp, art, architecture—what we can call culture. In this case, when José Martí talked about freedom through culture, he was talking about living and doing so with appetite. It was when I returned to New York, thrown back into the fast lane of work, sleep, eat, repeat, that I understood what he meant. When we are imprisoned by all the things one can be in our modern world, it is through culture, and the experiencing of those different from our own—here displayed through and around film—that we return to ourselves. We’re hungry, animalistic and with an appetite to live. To be free.



Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.

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