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Thoughts on a Forgotten Film festival: films, 5 nights, No theme. What are we doing? What do we expect to see?

by Richard Whittaker, Apr 2, 2007


 

 










Friday, May 17, 2024
Searching my records this morning, I discovered a note I'd made after that first meeting. The idea of having a film festival struck me out of the blue one August morning in 2004 as I was driving across the Bay Bridge to SF. It was outside of anything I'd ever have thought about. But suddenly, it seemed so obvious. The pieces were already there. All that remained was to put them together.
     By that time, I already had a relationship with the Berkeley Art Center and its long time director Robbin Henderson. The connection came from a phone call I'd made a year or two earlier: "Robbin? [yes] "This is Richard Whittaker. Do you have a few minutes?" 
"Maybe. What's this about?"
"Well, I thought you should about an art magazine that's being published in Berkeley. I mean, especially since you're the Berkeley Art Center."
"What it's called?"
"works & conversations - ever heard of it?"
Shd hadn't. Hardly anyone knew about it. I took a few copies over and she was impressed. My relationship with Robbin and BAC began that day.
     So almost immediately once I got home, I called Robbin. Somehow, it didn't surprise me when she said, "You know, I've thought about this. We should have a film festival, but the idea just hasn't goteen anywhere."
     According to my note, on Sept. 10, 2004 we had a meeting to discuss this idea. Present were Robbin Henderson, artist Dickson Schneider, writer/actor Kathleen Cramer and me. We sketched out some initial ideas: category for invited films? Yes. Maybe invite Berkeley's Les Blank? Yes. Film length, short? Yes, say 10 - 20 minutes. How to jury films? Admission fee? Awards? Yes, small ones. Meet again in one week.
     Ultimately, we decided the inauguration of the festival would take place from Oct. 20 and run through Oct. 30, 2005.

In my notes, I found this introduction to what must have been an interview with Dickson Schneider at the art center. "Robbin Henderson, director of the Berkeley Art Center, along with Dickson Schneider and myself put together the Berkeley International Small Film Festival. Its second year's program ended last month. Here are a few of our thoughts looking back on this year’s festival." Tonight Dickson and I talk a little about all this...

Dickson Schneider:  Each night of the festival I raised the idea that 40 million people making movies is going to change our relationship with the moving image, that something unexpected is going to happen when we entertain ourselves actively rather than passively. "Here, watch my movie and I’ll watch yours."
     We're a sophisticated audience now; as such we have expectations. And we are all movie critics. "I don’t know much but I know what I like." Does that really mean that "I like what I know"? Can we cherish new and unusual experiences, or do we link experience to memory?
     One of my students (Cal State East Bay) told me recently that he no longer had any idea what ‘good’ is. This was in a painting class. I thought what he said was profound, but he perhaps couldn’t stand the weight of his observation, and dropped out of school a week later. (He is a talented, intelligent young artist and I think/hope he will be OK). I, too, no longer know what "good" is. At the festival I think I just watched. I wasn’t looking for "good." Finally I was just looking to have an experience. I can decide about quality later. I can also think about which films stick in my mind.
     These short films, all films, present us with a distorted view of the world – a poetic fantasy, even the documentaries.  It seems remarkable to me how much we depend on this fantasy world to fuel our real lives. This is not a criticism; it’s an observation.

Richard Whittaker:  The films were wildly varied this year (September 6 through 10) just as they were last year. This time, however, we got fewer films that looked like music videos—a plus in my book. The overall quality of the work shown this year was better also. Among the best were two documentaries: one from Dischord Records about the Punk Music scene in Washington DC. The idealism and thoughtfulness of the founders of Dischord Records and of other punk musicians one meets in this film are made plainly visible. Finding these qualities as sort of "core values" may come as a surprise to anyone who has never met a punk rocker.
     The second documentary, by Elia Van Tuyl, covers the rescue of eleven Cambodian children from a life of scavenging through the huge Steung Meanchey dump outside of Phnom Penh. As Van Tuyl writes, this film introduces us to "Mech Sokha who spent his teenage years hiding in the jungles of Cambodia, parents dead at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Decades later, Sokha founded the Center for Children's Happiness, which he runs with his wife, Dany. First, CCH is an orphanage for over 80 children rescued from Steung Meanchey, and secondly, it is a school. Yet first, second, and third, it is a place of love and safety." Van Tuyl shot the film over several days. While it is a film impossible to watch without tears, it is not sentimental.
     Among other films I particularly enjoyed were Nadaland by John Hawk, a professor at Cal Arts, in which the poetic beauty of the desert balances quietly against the emptiness of contemporary life, and Eggs an "eggistential" cartoon boiling down the basic terror of life into an uncomfortably cheerful kitchen drama. There were several others, too: That Damn Kitchen Sink, Killer’s Kiss, Subtext, On Alzheimers, The Cone of the Known, Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Meter Maid’, Disappearing Over Night, Waiting at the Gates of Heaven—and I’m sure there are others I should list.
     At the conclusion of screening each evening, we invite open discussion among audience and film makers. These informal exchanges are an important part of the festival. One film— Dream Box, a meditation on shipping containers and the culture that they reflect, by Sonja Hinrichsen—proved controversial. Was it a tedious bore or a compelling visual work which obliged the viewer to ponder our culture’s material gluttony?
     Watching these short films has made it clear how elastic is one’s sense of time. In the best of cases, at the end of a 20-minute film, it’s hard to know whether an hour or more has passed. On the other hand, a ten minute film can seem to drag on forever.       
     The festival is still in the process of finding out what it is, and it’s still a relatively undiscovered pleasure. If you happen to make films yourself, consider sending a couple in for our third small film festival. All entries must be on DVD. Nothing over 20 minutes. You can check with the magazine or the Berkeley Art Center for the dates of next year’s festival.
[ I just revisited this and am searching for a recording.. rw -  5.17.2024 ]   
 

 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine    

 

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