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RiverRun Film Festival ready to roll

Last week’s RiverRun launch party, held Monday at Hanesbrand Theatre in downtown Winston-Salem, marked both an introduction and a farewell.

Allen Joines, the mayor of Winston-Salem for as long as the festival has been in town, noted that “it’s a little bit of a bittersweet time,” as the launch party marked the final public appearance of Andrew Rodgers as the festival’s executive director. He was recently named executive director of the Denver Film Society.

“Andrew helped teach the city how to appreciate movies and the art of moviemaking, and the impact of this festival,” said Joines.

Rodgers was presented with a framed logo of the festival signed by staff members and an award of his own. He gratefully offered his thanks to the staff, volunteers, sponsors and donors. “You all made the job easy.”

The RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem will screen 166 films in 2016, consisting of 76 features and 90 shorts, encompassing 44 countries.

According to RiverRun program manager and interim director Mary Dossinger, there were 1,550 submissions to this year’s festival – a new high.

Speaking at the NC Filmmakers Press Luncheon last Monday morning, following a morning screening of the 2016 RiverRun clip reel and prior to screening director Daniel Spiller’s documentary short Winston’s Ghost, (one of several shorts filmed in the Tarheel State, this one in Winston-Salem), Dossinger said she and the RiverRun team are “thrilled by the incredible wealth of films we had from North Carolina. We’ve kind of covered the festival with North Carolina filmmakers this year.”

Indeed, the 2016 festival boasts two programs of short films made in Winston- Salem.

At the launch party, the clip reel was again screened following remarks made by Tonya Deem, the chair of RiverRun’s board of directors; Joines; Jim Sparrow, executive director of the Arts Council of Winston- Salem/Forsyth County; and Dossinger.

All lauded the ongoing efforts of staff, volunteers, sponsors and donors. “It takes a lot of work,” Deem said, “and they have stepped up in new ways and taken on new responsibilities. To say the least, we would not be here were it not for them.”

Both Joines and Sparrow spoke about the positive economic impact the festival has on the city and how it has brought new attention to the City of Arts and Innovation. When touting the attractions of Winston-Salem, RiverRun’s always at the top of the list, they said.

Among the other notables in attendance were Winston- Salem native and award-winning playwright-turned-filmmaker Angus MacLachlan, who has just wrapped his latest feature. (“When do I get to see it?” I asked, then answered my own question: “When it’s finished” – to which MacLachlan nodded with a laugh: “That’s exactly right!”)

Rebecca Clark, of the Piedmont Triad Film Commission, was also on hand, lamenting the loss of North Carolina’s tax incentives for filmmaking but nonetheless upbeat about prospects for the future. She too is a long-time proponent of the River- Run festival and the attention it brings to the region.

The festival will open April 7 with two opening night films: Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the new comedy from director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows), starring Sam Neill and Julian Dennison; and the self-explanatory documentary feature Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, directed by Oscar nominees Rachel Garley and Heidi Ewing, who received the Emerging Master award at last year’s festival.

The centerpiece screening, sponsored by Wake Forest University, is the documentary Maya Angelou: And Now I Rise, directed by Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack. “She had such a remarkable life,” Dossinger said of Angelou, who died in 2014, “and this film captures every little bit of it.”

The closing-night film is Whit Stillman’s Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship, which reunites Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny from his 1998 comedy The Last Days of Disco.

Among the filmmakers making their first visit to RiverRun this year is Michael Sparaga, director of the documentary feature The Missing Ingredient, which follows the efforts of a Manhattan restaurateur who, in a last-ditch effort to save his establishment from financial ruin, decides to adorn the interior with the iconic “zebra” wallpaper made famous by the long-gone Upper East Side restaurant Gino’s – which irks some observers.

Yes, it’s about wallpaper. And, yes, it’s a feature.

According to Sparaga, “my film goes beyond examining the fallout from this decision to ask some big questions, specifically: What makes a restaurant an institution, and is it something that can be manufactured, or even copied?

“I know the idea of a documentary about a restaurateur copying another restaurant’s wallpaper sounds a little … well, stuffy,” he admits, “but this is a film that entertains. It’s about family and struggle. The world premiere last November at the prestigious DOC NYC Film Festival sold out a month in advance and was a huge hit with audiences. And although it’s a ‘New York’ story, it was just as big a hit at the Santa Barbara Film Festival last month.”

The Missing Ingredient marks Sparaga’s second directorial feature, having helmed the 2008 documentary Maple Flavour Films, which examined the Englishlanguage film industry in contemporary Canada.

This will be the North Carolina premiere of The Missing Ingredient, and Sparaga will be in attendance to introduce each screening (April 8 at Hanesbrands Theatre, April 10 at UNCSA Gold Theatre) and host a question-and-answer period afterward.

“This is indeed my first time at River- Run,” he says. “(I’m) not sure when I first heard about the festival, but it’s been on my radar for years. I actually haven’t submitted to many festivals. I’m taking the quality-versus-quantity approach with this film and I’m happy to say it’s paying off in spades.”

Although Dale Pollock, RiverRun Emeritus Board Member, was visiting his daughter and son-in-law in Toronto and unable to attend the launch party, he shared his thoughts beforehand: “I don’t think there’s going to be any reduction in professionalism with Andrew leaving,” he said. “We have a fantastic staff, and RiverRun’s going to be better than ever.”

Upon his return this week, he marveled at the efficiency of the RiverRun team. “Honestly, Mary Dossinger and Mickey Flynn have such great control of the festival that I’ve had to do very little. It’s a tribute to their professionalism that this transition has not affected the festival whatsoever.” !

WANNA go?

The 18th annual RiverRun International Film Festival runs April 7-17, 2016 at venues throughout Winston-Salem. For a complete schedule of events and screenings, advance ticket and ticketpackage purchases, or for more information, call 336.721.1945 or visit the official RiverRun website: riverunfilm.com.

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