Going inside the RiverRun Film Festival

by Mark Burger

It was the little film festival that might, the little film festival that should, the little film festival that could.

Last week marked the ninth annual RiverRun International Film Festival – the fifth since it made the trek eastward to Winston-Salem from Brevard and then Asheville, NC.

Nearly 100 films from 25 different countries were screened throughout the festival, which was expanded this year to five days.

Film festivals are one of the few places where filmmakers and film critics enjoy a symbiotic and sympathetic relationship. A critic who loves movies – some don’t, by the way – wants to discover new talent. Likewise, new talent wants to be discovered. The increased popularity of film festivals over the last two decades bears this out. Hardly a year goes by that some hot new filmmaker won’t emerge – or explode – from a film festival. Soderbergh, Tarantino, Kevin Smith. The list goes on and on.

Where would Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the founders of Miramax, be without film festivals? That’s essentially how Miramax made its name, both as producer, distributor and buyer of films.

The true stars of a film festival, be it a mammoth international one like Cannes or a growing regional one like RiverRun, are the filmmakers themselves.

I’ve not yet discovered the next Tarantino, but I have befriended a number of filmmakers thanks to film festivals. Yes, filmmakers and critics can remain friends. They just never, ever talk about movies. Actually, that’s about all I ever talk about – with everyone.

Covering a film festival can be great fun. It’s often tiring, and sometimes tiresome, but it’s never, ever dull.

When RiverRun came to Winston-Salem in 2003, I was more than ready.

I covered it first. I covered it best.

For those who disagree, I answer with one of my film-criticism credos: Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, no matter how wrong it may be.

I’m no moviemaker. I can’t act or direct. But at a film festival, I’m home. These are my people. I know what they do and I respect it, and the feeling is mutual… most of the time.

Since he came to Winston-Salem in 1998 as the dean of the School of Filmmaking at the NC School of the Arts, Dale Pollock had envisioned a film festival here.

I remember when Dale first talked about it.

“Nah,” I said, stubbing out a cigarette. “It’ll never work.”

Actually, having had such fun and success covering festivals before, I knew immediately it would be a great idea. For too many years, the city – and, to an extent, the surrounding county – had been starved for diverse, independent cinema.

The question was whether the community would embrace a film festival, one that by necessity had to start small but could conceivably expand with each year. Which is exactly what has happened, but no one was sure of that at the beginning. Unless you’ve got people in the seats, it doesn’t matter how much effort or how many films or filmmakers you bring.

What Pollock did was perhaps one better than establishing a festival from the ground up: He took an existing film festival, which had been held in Brevard and Asheville for a few years, and moved it east to Winston-Salem.

He brought it, and the people came. Just like Field of Dreams.

“Beyond my wildest dreams, and very gratifying,” is how Pollock describes his assessment of the festival’s success over its last five years.

This year the festival pre-sold more tickets than were sold during the entire 2003 festival. Ticket sales approached $50,000 – an almost 20 percent increase over last year’s take.

“The challenge is to continue to raise the bar,” executive director Andrew Rodgers told me before the festival, “and this year we’ve got an amazing selection, a really high caliber of films.”

This year the festival certainly lived up to the “international” part of its name, with a wide selection of features and shorts from abroad. Last year’s festival attracted almost 800 entries. This year’s garnered nearly 1,100, from which 95 were selected – 31 features and 64 shorts.

The big winners at the festival included For the Living and the Dead, which won Best Narrative Feature and Best Actor (Hannu-Pekka Bjorkman); and Son of Man, which won Best Director (Mark Donnford-May), Best Cinematography and a Special Jury Prize for Original Creative Vision (I deserve one of those, too).

Best Actress was Malgorzata Buczkowska for Ode to Joy, 1208 East of Bucharest won Best Screenplay, and Vanjana received a Special Jury Prize for Best Production Design.

The BB&T Audience Award – sponsored (you guessed it!) by BB&T but voted on by the audiences – went to Hal Hartley’s Fay Grim, for Best Narrative Feature, while the BB&T award for Best Documentary Feature went to The Rape of Europa.

I was mixed on Fay Grim (Parker Posey’s terrific, but Hartley runs hot and cold with me), but nearly every one I spoke to who saw The Rape of Europa said it was one of the festival’s best films.

Manufactured Landscapes won awards for Best Documentary Feature and Best Documentary Director (Jennifer Baichwal). A Special Jury Prize was awarded Florian Borchmeyer’s Cuba: The New Art of Making Ruins.

In the shorts category – and I should know about this one, because I was one of the jurors – Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon’s “The Blood of Yingzhou District” won Best Documentary Short. (It also won the Academy Award in the same category, so our jury is in good company.)

We also recognized Ken Wardrop’s marvelously pointless documentary short “Useless Dog” – which is exactly what it’s about – with a Special Jury Prize.

Animation was such a strong category this year that we adjudicated three awards: Alex Weil’s “One Rat Short” (an absolute delight) was pretty much a unanimous decision for Best Animated Short, with Joanna Quinn’s “Dreams & Desires: Family Ties” and Guilherme Marcondes’ “Tyger” receiving Special Jury Prizes.

The Best Narrative Short went to Zam Salim’s “Laid Off.” When I was asked to announce the winners at the awards ceremony Sunday, I couldn’t help but add, dripping with sarcasm, “Oh, the irony.”

It’s a long story….

In the four years since it relocated to Winston-Salem, the event has become an indelible part of the community’s fabric, turning the city into a smaller (and warmer) version of Sundance.

Rodgers has spent a good portion of the last year traveling to other film festivals and events to tout RiverRun.

“When we talk to people, they do know about us,” he said. “The festival has a name and a reputation.”

So do I, but it’s not quite as pristine as RiverRun’s.

This marks Rodgers’ second year as festival director, and he does a fine job of it. His enthusiasm never wanes. His tenacity rarely flags. He works very, very hard.

And I’m sorry for saying it, but he’s got it pretty good.

For one thing, he’s a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, who won the World Series last year. He even went to one of the games. (Every post-season Cardinals game he’s ever been to, he says, they’ve won. Big deal.)

He’s also got a beautiful girlfriend and a loving family who visit during the festival.

Gee, it sounds like “Mr. Rodgers’ Neighborhood”!

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Rodgers says. “Like I haven’t been hearing that since I was three years old.”

I’m just jealous. I root for the Philadelphia Phillies, who haven’t been in a playoff game in 13 years. The only post-season game I ever went to, they lost.

I’ve seen festivals go right and I’ve seen them go wrong. It can happen in an instant. When things are going wrong, everyone knows it – the audiences, the organizers, the press. It’s not an enjoyable experience, from any perspective.

If a film festival’s going right, however, nobody notices a damn thing.

It would be incorrect to say that RiverRun, or any other film festival, goes perfectly. But it certainly goes more smoothly than others I’ve attended.

Festivals, by their nature, do not go smoothly, and for a variety of reasons – weather, poor coverage, or even simple laziness. Some people wouldn’t cross the street for good entertainment. These are the same people, I’ve found, who complain the most that there’s nothing going on.

Oh, there’s plenty going on – if you have the inclination to look for it.

Friday’s Creative Chaos party at the Sawtooth Center is pretty nutty, with its Cirque du Soleil-type performers, pounding techno-music and visual razzle-dazzle. There’s face painting and, in one corner of the room, a place to relax and watch old Max Fleischer “Popeye” cartoons.

I have no interest in painting my face – Why tamper with perfection? – but I’m very entertained by the free samples of Frangelico (“the original hazelnut liqueur”). A few of these and I could probably find nice things to say about Hudson Hawk.

It’s during this time that the photographer for this story and I have our most intense discussion – whether or not to hijack the Frangelico truck parked outside the Sawtooth Center. Fortunately, cooler heads prevail.

It’s also gratifying personally to hear from so many people throughout the festival how much they love and miss my reviews in the Winston-Salem Journal – including a number of people still on staff there.

I’m deeply touched. Now, where’s that Frangelico?

One of the most electrifying screenings at this year’s festival was unquestionably Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s award-winning The Trials of Darryl Hunt, which premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.

For those area residents unfamiliar with the case, it centered around Darryl Hunt, a 19-year-old black man who was convicted – wrongly, as it turns out – for the murder of Winston-Salem Journal editor Deborah Sykes in 1984. Hunt spent nearly 20 years in prison until his conviction was finally overturned in 2003. The case was in the news as recently as February when Hunt was awarded $1.65 million to settle his claim against the city.

I attended the Sundance premiere of The Trials of Darryl Hunt last year and it went over big. The film doesn’t paint the most positive portrait of race relations or of police procedure, but hey – that’s how it happened. No one ever said the truth was pretty. Frequently, it’s just the opposite. The Trials of Darryl Hunt does have a happy ending. But it was a long time coming.

It was fascinating to see the movie at Sundance with an audience not familiar with the case. Seeing it in Winston-Salem, in a theater only a few miles from where Sykes was murdered, is comparable, I suppose, to watching JFK at the Texas Book Depository or seeing World Trade Center in midtown Manhattan. It is an overpowering experience.

A remarkably centered man, Hunt told me once that he could never have imagined a journey that would take him from maximum security to the Sundance Film Festival.

Although Hunt personally attended a special showing of the film for schoolchildren, he was unavailable to attend the Saturday screening, as he and his family were readying a trip abroad, but attorney Mark Rabil – himself a heroic character in his own right – was on hand to discuss the film, the case and a legal odyssey that began over 20 years ago and continues to have repercussions (both good and bad, but mostly good) throughout the community and the state.

Although a number of filmmakers attended this year’s festival, there was not a Master of Cinema award presented this time around.

“We didn’t want to give it to somebody just to give it to somebody,” Rodgers explained, revealing that there may be a subsequent RiverRun event later in the year, in which the Master of Cinema award could be presented to a filmmaker or actor.

Cliff Robertson received the award in 2005 and Ned Beatty in 2006. As down-to-earth a fellow as you could ever want to meet, Kentucky-born Ned Beatty has always been one of my favorite character actors. Beyond his acting, Robertson has always a hero of mine. It would take too long to explain why, but do an online search of the name “David Begelman” and you’ll get a good idea why I, and many other people, revere Cliff Robertson. (Or, if you’re “old school,” read the book Indecent Exposure, arguably one of the best books about the inner workings of Hollywood that I have ever read.)

Here were two great performers who, in many ways, were never afforded the sort of attention they deserved. But they got it at RiverRun, and I can attest to the fact that both were delighted by the friendly and warm welcomes afforded them here.

When it came time to assemble retrospectives of each man’s career, the festival turned to the one man(iac) in the area with the most extensive and eclectic selection of movies on DVD and VHS to provide the appropriate clips.

Only modesty and humility, two things I possess in abundance, prevent me from revealing myself to be that person.

I’ll always be proud to have been a part, in some way, of Robertson’s selection in 2005. (I had his phone number, for one thing.)

Animation was a larger component of the 2007 festival than in years before, a bit of local cross-promotion since Out of Our Minds, the animation studio based in Winston-Salem, is putting the finishing touches on its first animated feature film, The Magistical.

Out of Our Minds Animation Studios has been a part of RiverRun since the festival’s debut in Winston-Salem in 2003. The animated short “Dear Sweet Emma” was a big favorite with audiences, as was “Flyaway” in 2004. Both films have received numerous awards around the world, and their respective (and collective) success was a major factor in Out of Our Minds’ decision to go the feature route.

There was also a gallery exhibition of artwork from The Magistical, as Out of Our Minds begins to promote its maiden voyage into the waters of feature filmmaking. John Cernak, the founder (and principal “Mind”) of Out of Our Minds is never at a loss for a quip.

“I never think the challenge is doing things the first time,” he said with a laugh. “I think it’s the second time. That’s when you prove yourself.”

Out of Our Minds has certainly proven itself as a burgeoning power in animation, especially in our little corner of the world far, far away from Hollywood. If The Magistical hits, the corner may not be so little anymore.

On the basis of its reputation, stemming entirely from its award-winning short films, Out of Our Minds was able to assemble a world-class panel of animators for the festival, including representatives from Blue Sky Studios, Pixar Animation Studios, Rhythm & Hues Studios, Tippett Studio and Walt Disney Feature Animations, as well as some of the Out of Our Minds team.

“Good art is always timeless, be it Michelangelo’s David or a great animated film,” Cernak said, noting that 2007 marks the 70th anniversary of Disney’s feature animation debut, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. “That’s where it all started.”

Cernak was thrilled to bring together this panel for the festival this year.

“I am as much a fan,” he said with a smile. “That’s why I do what I do. I don’t do this for a living. I do this for a life, but I don’t do this for a living.”

As for The Magistical, Cernak promises it will have magic and music and that madness for which Out of Our Minds is renowned. Beyond that, he doesn’t want to say too much.

Cernak isn’t being evasive. The ultimate perception – and appreciation – rest in the eyes of the viewer, after all. Leave the audience to decide where its power and appeal lie.

There have been some shaky times for the festival. The year its major sponsor, Krispy Kreme Donuts, suffered financial setbacks, festival organizers had to add fundraising to their already long list of duties and responsibilities.

A public plea for support might have seemed a risky endeavor so early in the festival’s life, but it worked. People here did want RiverRun. It was a nerve-wracking time for Pollock & Co., but ultimately a rewarding one. They knew just how the people felt about their little festival.

Since then, they have tried to avoid banking too much on any single big sponsor and instead pursued a lot of the little ones. Reynolds American was the marquee sponsor this year, and this also marked the first year that the city of Winston-Salem was an official sponsor of the festival. “Finally!” Mayor Allen Joines joked at one event.

The mayor and his wife are big movie fans – I should know, because that’s all we talk about when I see them – and have been a constant presence at the festival since day one.

What’s more, they dig my reviews, so the mayor’s always got my vote! (Too bad he can’t run for mayor again.)

And still, I will never forget one festival moment for which Krispy Kreme was responsible: A mountain – truly a mountain – of doughnuts, drenched in honey, atop one of the serving tables. I think it’s safe to say that no one had ever seen anything quite like that before. I doubt if they ever will again, for that matter.

The 2007 RiverRun International Film Festival officially ended Monday, but organizers won’t have too much time to rest on their laurels. They’ll examine if anything went wrong and take the necessary steps to correct it; then they’ll begin work in earnest on next year’s festival.

As Rodgers told me Saturday, “We’ve already got our first submission for 2008.”

Had he watched it yet?

He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to.

And I think they’re out of Frangelico.

Mark Burger is an award-winning film critic who was an arts reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal from 1998 to 2006. He can currently be heard on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show weekday mornings on ROCK 92 FM. To comment on this article e-mail him at