After 14 years, you know you’re doing something right -- or wrong -- when your festival includes 273 films submitted after troubled first-person accounts and enduring word-of-mouth that conflate “Independent Film and Video” and “pay-to-play.” But it's just another day for the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, which opened last Friday and concludes today at the Village East Cinemas, screening every genre and style that fits in either a shorts program (entrance fee: $300) or features slot ($400).
“I think the only difference between us and everybody else is that this is just for independent filmmakers,” said Stuart Alson, NYIIFVF founder and executive producer. "Nobody else. We try to give anyone a chance. Anything that's OK to things that are fantastic.”
Thus the festival draws everyone from seasoned filmmakers (Abel Ferrara has a long history with the event, featuring his last three films there) to ambitious amateurs. Curtis Waller’s own documentary, Coffee Shopping in Amsterdam, a sort of comparison between U.S. drug-war culture and stoner Shangri-La shot on mini-DV and edited together into a 19-minute teaser, screened July 20. Hoping to expand the project into something longer, he’s applied to three festivals and has been accepted twice. He said he wasn’t too fazed when solicited to pay $5,000 for a booth, postcards and other marketing amenities at the opening-night party, though he did decline, preferring instead to handle publicity on his own.
“I’m doing a lot of self-promotion, but I guess they’re just looking to make their dollar wherever they can make it,” Waller told The Reeler in a phone interview before the festival. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m paying $300 to screen my movie, but at the same time I get to say my movie was in a festival in New York City.”
Gary Beeber’s Messenger, which follows New York bike courier Kamikaze and his infectious personality on their rounds through town, has gone to 18 festivals so far, taking home the best short documentary award at the 2006 Coney Island Film Festival and 2007 Staten Island Film Festival. “To be quite honest with you, they don’t have a great reputation,” Beeber said when asked about the NYIIFVF. “I think they were worse before. I was going to show Messenger last year, but I didn’t really like what they had to say last year. This year I looked at it as another venue and a way to market Kamikaze.”
Another added benefit was the press. Beeber and Kamikaze appeared in a TV interview Saturday morning before the film screened. He pointed out to The Reeler that we wouldn’t be talking if not for the festival.
An international festival veteran in attendance couldn’t agree more. “Nobody knows in this industry what will work," said Carlos Ameglio, director of the Uruguayan feature La Cáscara. "You go to Cannes and nothing happens. We went to Shanghai and there were all the Hollywood producers. So you never know.” The part-time commercial director was eager to present his quirky comedy in New York, but said he knew it was mainly friends and family for whom it was screening in its noon time slot. He'd lost count of the number of times he’s submitted something, instead giving off the calm of an experienced veteran who can tell that self-promotion is sometimes the best course of action. (In an e-mail sent earlier in the week, he admitted that Uruguayan cinema is barely shown at all in the world, and so it’s always interesting just to be screened.)
Festivals are indeed a tricky business, where even acceptance doesn’t guarantee an audience. With rare exceptions, Alson and company program any submissions whose checks clear; the trade-off this week was that every film but one, Popwhore: A New American Dream, had just a single screening slot. This is one reason for its struggling reputation among filmmakers, some of whom don't even recognize NYIIFVF as a legitimate festival; others include the upsells for booths and a notoriety for screening snafus. The opening weekend alone, Coffee Shopping screened with faulty sound for five minutes before a volunteer raced into the projection booth. “I thought it might have been a good idea if they had reviewed it themselves, but maybe they didn’t have time," said Waller, who said he sent his mini-DV tape in June. "Other than that, I was cool with it.”
The next short, XXX Marriage, surprised most in the audience -- especially the few children who saw first-hand how adult film stars handle their work and love life. (Spoiler: They have sex. A lot.) Of the 56 audience members settled in for the 6 p.m. screening -- delayed for 15 minutes due to the previous shorts program running long -- 49 left during Marriage, including that film’s director, Mark Schoen. Waller and the others followed during the third film. After the lights came up, one viewer quizzically asked another, “Wasn’t this the 8 p.m. show?”
Messenger, meanwhile, looked bleached-out and squashed into a compressed aspect ratio, with inconsistent sound quality. “The projection quality wasn’t really good,” Beeber said. “I’ve seen it on mini-DV before, and it looks a hell of a lot better.” According to Tom Amici, who encoded Messenger to DVD, the copy provided was to be screened in a fullscreen 1.33:1 ratio; the projectionist screened it in widescreen 1.85:1.
“It seems like they don’t look to make sure it’s OK ahead of time," Amici told me. "They put everything [1.85:1] to make it look like a film like the filmmakers intended, and the ones who do put it in anamorphic letterboxing, they squish it down even more.”
I returned to the theater Sunday to address the problems with Alson. After an introduction, I was asked if my questions were positive. After I inquired about the screening mishaps, Alson walked away and repeated that he would only answer positive questions. Asked if this meant no comment, Alson replied that it did. The Reeler tried once more, requesting his thoughts on the festival so far. Alson declined again unless the questions were positive, then walked into a screening in progress, which had been briefly delayed.
It brought to mind one of Ameglio's observations from a few days prior. “Even [a festival] like this one, you have to really understand everyone will have a really different opinion,” he told me. “Someone will think its crap. Someone will love it. With the festivals, you will never know.”
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