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River Run International Film Festival

by Mark Burger

When the lights go down in the Stevens Center next Wednesday night, and the first frames of the romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer begin to flicker on the big screen, thus will begin the eightday RiverRun International Film Festival in the city of Winston- Salem. This marks the seventh festival in the City of the Arts since making its eastward journey from Brevard and the longest in its 11-year existence. Since coming to Winston-Salem, the RiverRun International Film Festival has been embraced like few other arts-related events in the city’s recent memory. The 11 th RiverRun International Film Festival boasts 100 films including features, shorts, documentaries and cartoons. Something for everyone. That’s the plan, anyway. Every festival’s success depends on attendance, but the question facing this year’s RiverRun festival is whether or not the economic downturn will affect people’s decision to attend. That said, tickets prices are comparable to those of mainstream, multiplex movies, and this year’s selection of films a diverse and eclectic mix. That many of these films, some of them awardwinners, won’t otherwise be shown here is also an incentive to attend. Ticket sales for the 2008 festival totaled just under $72,000, having increased significantly with each festival since the first one in 2003, in which ticket sales were approximately $15,500. The budget for this year’s festival was $368,860 — “a diet budget,” says Andrew Rodgers, executive director of the festival. Given the success of each film festival, it would hardly be uncommon to raise the budget the next year by 10-15 percent. But recognizing the early indicators of a nationwide economic tailspin, Rodgers played it safe and proposed an increase of about 3 percent. As it turned out, “we had to adjust it further,” he says. “It had to be lowered in most categories.” Such a decision might send shockwaves of worry among even the festival’s most passionate supporters, but Rodgers can be assured that RiverRun will not suffer any lasting damage due to the wavering economy.

“We’ve met our goal forsponsorship and individual donations, our grants were up, and we’vealready met our budget goals in [advance] ticket sales,” he says with acombination of pride and relief. “Barring any major, unforeseencatastrophe, we should be fine, and if we match what we did last yearin ticket sales, we’ll do great.” “Bear in mind: The generaltrend when the economy goes down is that movie attendance goes up,” hecontinues. “I don’t know what to expect, but I’m hoping that trendholds! I am confident we’re going to match what we did last year.” DalePollock, former dean of the School of Filmmaking at the UNC School ofthe Arts and a current faculty member, is widely credited with bringingRiverRun to Winston-Salem. He’s not as involved as he once was — he’sseen none of this year’s films, for example — but readily concedes thathe doesn’t need to be as involved, given how well Rodgers keeps thingsin hand, but remains an important member of the festival’s board andone of its most fervent cheerleaders. Like Rodgers, Pollockbelieves that the current economy won’t have too large an impact on itsfinancial success. “I have high hopes for this festival,” Pollock says.“We’ve kept our ticket prices low and very accessible. It’s a bargainin comparison with mainstream ticket prices. This is also one of ourmost diverse and interesting programs, and very representative ofinternational cinema.” Having seen none of this year’sselections thus far, Pollock admits he’s as eager to experience them asaudiences are. “There’s a lot I want to see,” he says. In addition to (500) Days of Summer, whichfeatures Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as star-crossedlovers and has been a big hit at festivals such as Sundance, RiverRun’sgot some heavy hitters in the line-up: • Robin Williams in World’s Greatest Dad (April 23), a black comedy from writer/ director Bobcat Goldthwait (one and the same), was also a success at Sundance. • Surveillance (April25 and 28): The second film by director Jennifer Chambers Lynch(daughter of David) is a darkly humorous suspense tale involving agroup of travelers waylaid by an encounter with a serial killer. BillPullman, the recipient of last year’s Master of Cinema award atRiverRun, heads an all-star cast that includes Julia Ormond, CheriOteri, Pell James, French Stewart and Michael Ironside. • The Burning Plain (April24 and 26): The award-winning feature directorial debut fromOscar-nominated screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (Babel), stars Oscarwinners Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger. • Garrison Keillor: The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes (April 27 and 28): Peter Rosen’s documentary looks at the career of broadcaster Garrison Keillor and his popular weekly show, The Prairie Home Companion. The April 27 screening will be followed by a Prairie Home-themed party,“Guy Noir’s Noisebox,” which will be held at 6 th & Vine indowntown Winston-Salem and will feature a live performance by PolecatCreek, which will be performing on Keillor’s radio show next month. • Il Divo (April23, 24 and 26): Writer/ director Paolo Sorrentino’s Italian-languagedrama chronicles the career of real-life prime minister GiulioAndreotti (played by Toni Servillo), who was elected to the ItalianParliament an unprecedented seven times since its formation in 1946,albeit with considerable controversy from time to time — includingaccusations that he worked in collusion with the Italian Mafia. Il Divo wonthe Jury Prize at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated forthe Palme d’Or (the Golden Palm), the top prize at Cannes. • Three Monkeys (April24, 25 and 26): Nuri Bilge Ceylan won the best director award at the2008 Cannes Film Festival for this suspenseful Turkish thriller thatalso earned a Palme d’Or nomination. • Goodbye Solo (April25 and 26): Winner of the FIPRESCI Prize from the Venice InternationalFilm Festival, the latest film from writer/director Ramin Bahranifocuses on the relationship between a cab driver (Souleymane Sy Savane)and an embittered old man (Red West) and was filmed entirely inWinston-Salem. Bahrani, who was born in Winston- Salem, willbe the festival’s first recipient of its Emerging Artist award, whichwill be presented this year instead of a Master of Cinema award. Restassured, the Master of Cinema award has not been retired, but this year“we wanted to present an award for somebody at the beginning of theircareer,” says Rodgers. Goodbye Solo is only one of several RiverRun selections this year with direct ties to the Piedmont Triad, including the shorts Casting Session (UNCSA School of Filmmaking) and Sapsucker (UNCG); the feature documentaries Rocaterrania (April 23, 25 and 26) and With These Hands: The Story of an American Furniture Factory (April25 and 26), which were made by Brett Ingram and Matthew Barrrespectively, both members of the UNCG faculty; and the sci-fi thrillerEyeborgs (April 27), which was filmed in Winston-Salem and will be screened as a work-in-progress. “RiverRunis an outstanding festival and we’re very proud to be a part of it,”says Richard Clabaugh, director/producer/cowriter of Eyeborgs. “For local filmmakers, it’s like winning an Academy Award.” “We’reextremely excited to be showing a movie that we’ve worked two years onto the audience that we think will most appreciate it,” added JohnRushton, also a producer of Eyeborgs and a principal actor inthe cast. “It’s been a real special time, being able to make a featurefilm with the talent here, in a place I’ve called home for a long time… and Eyeborgs is — in every way, shape and form — a hometown project.” “It feels great to return to RiverRun as an exhibiting filmmaker,” says Ingram, whose award-winning 2004 documentary Monster Road captivated RiverRun audiences. This year, he’s back with Rocaterrania, which explores the world (real and imaginary) of artist and North Carolina native Renaldo Kuhler.

“It’s a great festival and they really know how to treat filmmakers,” says Ingram. “RiverRunhas really come into its own over the past few years and now it hasestablished itself as a major festival with a wonderful reputation.From what I’ve seen [this year], there are a lot of great films, soaudiences are in for a treat.” One local filmmaker that is not a part of this year’s festival, however, is Out of Our Minds Animation Studios, which is

headquartered withinwalking distance of RiverRun’s offices and whose awardwinning animatedshorts were a mainstay of the early RiverRun festivals here inWinston-Salem. Out of Our Minds has been working for over two years on its first feature film, The Magistical, and has submitted it to various film festivals throughout the country — but not RiverRun, its hometown festival. The festival will once again pay homage to the Hollywood of yesteryear, with a special screening of John Ford’s 1936 classic The Prisoner of Shark Island (April25), with a post-screening discussion moderated by renowned film criticand Oscar-nominated screenwriter Jay Cocks (Gangs of New York and The Age of Innocence). The closing-night (April 29) film will be the 1928 silent comedy classic Speedy, which marked comedian Harold Lloyd’s final silent film and earned director Ted Wilde an Academy Award nomination. Thisyear again, the Alloy Orchestra will be providing live musicalaccompaniment. The success of RiverRun pleases its organizers andsupporters, but Rodgers is not one to take all the credit for himself. Hisfour years at RiverRun’s helm have been, he admits, both exhilaratingand challenging. He emphasizes the efforts of RiverRun’s staff andvolunteers, as well as its sponsors. All of the local core sponsors —Reynolds American, BB&T, the city of Winston-Salem, the ArtsCouncil of

Winston-Salem, the Millennium Fund and the UNC School of the Arts (an inkind sponsor) — have once again rolled with RiverRun. “It’sgiven us a stability,” Rodgers says, “and it’s given us the ability torun the festival. The challenges we’ve faced, they have given ustremendous support.” Feeling the economic pinch, some sponsorsweren’t able to come aboard this year, but that doesn’t mean they won’tbe back in the future. In many instances, Rodgers says, they would haveliked to be a sponsor again but simply weren’t able to. No hardfeelings, he confirms. “Nobody’s leaving us mad,” he says.Expanding the festival to eight days will, Rodgers and festivalsupporters hope, further solidify its reputation in the community and,perhaps just as importantly, in the worldwide film community. If itdoesn’t prove successful, they can always go back to a shorterschedule. “I can’t envision going longer than 10 days,”Rodgers says, “but I’d love for it to span two weekends.” This year’sfestival also sees the return of YES! Weekly as a premiersponsor, as well as the media sponsor for what will likely be thisyear’s biggest, baddest bash — the Friday Night Speakeasy party at theMillennium Center on Friday, April 24. The 100 films being shown at the2009 RiverRun International Film Festival represent 26 differentcountries around the bet it wins … I’d almost be shocked if it doesn’twin,” he says).. One of those who voted on last year’seligible films, however, was more than happy to recall the experience.Most people disdain jury duty. Not Kevin Thomas — at least not whenhe’s sitting in judgment of movies, anyway. A veteran of innumerable film festivals throughout his career, Thomas was for many years a film critic of the Los Angeles Times and is still a regular contributor. Hecame to RiverRun last year for the first time as a guest of thefestival and member of the jury. “First of all, the quality ofselections we were asked to vote on was very good,” says Thomas.“Secondly, the festival is very well organized, with a highfriendliness quotient. There’s an effective use of local facilities,both for the presentation of films and as gathering places for people.The whole ambience of Winston-Salem is charming and accessible, and allthese elements combine to make for a pretty spectacular film festival.” “We’ve become a viable entity,” Rodgers observes. “We know whatwe are and I think we do what we do pretty well. We’re not Cannes orBerlin or Sundance, but.…” Rodgers leans back in his chair andworld. “If that’s not ‘International’,” cracks Rodgers, “then I don’tknow what is!” That big 100 was distilled from almost a thousandselections representing 65 countries worldwide. Overall submissionswere down from last year, Rodgers admits, a likely casualty ofeconomics. Nevertheless, he points out, that also indicates thatRiverRun is likely getting a better quality of submissions overall.

Onecan ask audiences when the festival kicks off next week, but it wouldsurely kill the suspense to ask any of this year’s jurors what theythink are this year’s best films. For his part, Rodgers isn’t talkingeither — although he definitely has his favorites. He also has hissuspicions about what film will win this year’s audience award (“I’llbet it wins … I’d almost be shocked if it doesn’t win,” he says).. Oneof those who voted on last year’s eligible films, however, was morethan happy to recall the experience. Most people disdain jury duty. NotKevin Thomas — at least not when he’s sitting in judgment of movies,anyway. A veteran of innumerable film festivals throughout hiscareer, Thomas was for many years a film critic of the Los AngelesTimes and is still a regular contributor. He came to RiverRun last yearfor the first time as a guest of the festival and member of the jury. “Firstof all, the quality of selections we were asked to vote on was verygood,” says Thomas. “Secondly, the festival is very well organized,with a high friendliness quotient. There’s an effective use of localfacilities, both for the presentation of films and as gathering placesfor people. The whole ambience of Winston-Salem is charming andaccessible, and all these elements combine to make for a prettyspectacular film festival.” “We’ve become a viable entity,” Rodgersobserves. “We know what we are and I think we do what we dopretty well. We’re not Cannes or Berlin or Sundance, but.…” Rodgersleans back in his chair and pauses. Then he smiles. “I’m clearlybiased,” he says, “but I think it’s safe to say that we’re one of themost prestigious regional film festivals in the country.” Cut. Print. DirectorRamin Bahrani’s fourth film, Goodbye Solo, which is the first to be setand filmed in his native Winston-Salem, has won rave reviews fromcritics such as Roger Ebert and AO Scott. (courtesy photo)

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