RiverRun film festival’s a perfect (or damn near close) 10 to Ma

by Mark Burger

Bill Pullman was charming and tall. Pam Grier was funny and foxy as ever. Andbefore the 10th annual RiverRun International Film Festival was halfover, the executive director had gotten engaged and the festivalcleared its overall financial goal of the festival. Whether one hadanything to do with the other is a question for clearer (or unclear)heads, but it was a certainty that the festival had once again made asignificant impact on Winston-Salem, erstwhile City of the Arts. Inan interesting and ironic twist not unlike this year’s Academy Awards,in which none of the four acting awards went to Americans, the majorityof the award-winning RiverRun films were for foreign films. Then again,it is the RiverRun International Film Festival. The festival’sfinancial goal for the festival was in the neighborhood of $55,000, andalthough the exact totals won’t be known immediately, by Friday nightthat goal had been surpassed. Even the inclement weather later in theweekend couldn’t rain on the RiverRun parade. And, of course,congratulations to executive director Andrew Rodgers, who popped thequestion to his lovely girlfriend Iana. (Amazingly, she said yes!) WhenI asked if the wedding would take place in the Stevens Center and thereception at the Sawtooth Center, I got the kind of dour look that I,as a film critic, have received many times in the past. The kind ofdour look that says: "What do you think, smartass?" (I think he’s a lucky fellow, actually.) Ona personal level, this year’s RiverRun was an awfully happy experiencefor me. Longtime LA Times film critic Kevin Thomas – a longtime pal ofmine and of RiverRun’s board co-chair Dale Pollock – flew toWinston-Salem to serve as one of the jurors for narrative features.Truth be told, Dale Pollock and I might have had some input intoKevin’s selection, but the decision was ultimately the festival’s. Some50 years ago, Kevin graduated from Gettysburg College, and that waspretty much the last time he saw Marjorie Feldman, then MarjorieLatshaw, who graduated two years later. By the time she graduated, andbetween the surnames Latshaw and Feldman, Marge was Marge Burger,married some 18 years to Kevin’s classmate and fraternity brother, thelate Charles Burger. I think by now you can see where this is going…. So,with a little help from the festival, and a nod to Margaret NorfleetNeff (one of many aces in the festival’s deck), I was able to bring twoof my favorite people in the world together again after all this time. Now,let me add that my mom paid for the flight and room. The only "in" wegot was the room in a hotel that, for much of the festival, was bookedsolid. Then again, I provided the festival with DVDs for the clips’retrospectives for both Pullman and Grier, and a little quid pro quonever hurt anybody. A shame my stepfather couldn’t have come too(that would Robert Feldman, of the Brooklyn Feldmans), but he was awayon business. Hopefully it won’t be another 50 years before they gettogether again! Among the other wild reunions I was privy tooccurred quite by accident while I was sitting with Kevin and my motheroutside the Marriott Hotel in downtown Winston-Salem. Pam Grierhappened to be walking by, and as soon as she recognized Kevin, the twoembraced and Grier exuberantly told us how Kevin’s LA Times reviewshelped to establish her early career, and how she hoped to quote someof them in her upcoming autobiography. Kevin, who toiled at theTimes for over 40 years – kicking ass all the way – isn’t one of thosecritics who takes credit for "discovering" new stars, but has told meon numerous occasions that as soon as he first saw Pam Grier on thescreen, "there was absolutely no doubt she had ‘it’" – that indefinablecombination of charisma, power and talent. In other words: star power. Fridaynight’s Jabberwocky Ball at the Sawtooth Center, which marked YES!Weekly’s inaugural sponsorship of a RiverRun event, was a rousing andraucous success. Students from NCSA’s dance programs performed feats ofmagic, movement and merriment – and although the accompanying musictended to be on the deafening side, especially as the crowd began todisperse early Saturday morning (acoustics at the Sawtooth Center is aweird science all its own) – it was unquestionably the bash of thefestival. Of course, there were the movies – 95 of them, to beexact. Features, shorts, documentaries… a slew of independent filmsthat you can be sure wouldn’t play here otherwise. And the audiencesresponded. It didn’t hurt the spirits at the Jabberwocky Ball when newsgot out that the festival had hit its overall goal in ticket sales forthe festival by the time the first ball was juggled. (You had to bethere.) Sell-outs were not uncommon. In the 10 years I’veattended performances at the Stevens Center, only twice have I seen thebalcony open. This year’s opening-night film, Phoebe in Wonderland,made it three. When Pullman announced, "I hereby open theRiverRun International Film Festival," the roar from the crowd was aclear indication that the party was underway. Phoebewriter/director Daniel Barnz, so youthful-looking that some peopleinitially thought he was an NCSA filmmaking student, admitted he wasblown away by the reception, which included a standing ovation when heand Pullman took the stage after the screening. As an independent filmmaker, "these films don’t exist without an audience to see them," Barnz told the crowd. Havingtoiled on the project for 10 years – a year longer, he noted, thanleading lady Elle Fanning has been alive – Barnz was determined to makeit his feature directorial debut. Although the script had attracted adream cast that included Pullman, Felicity Huffman, Patricia Clarksonand Campbell Scott, Barnz laughingly recalled how many times it wassuggested he take the project to the Lifetime network by people (well,studio executives) who perceived it only in terms of the story’s pathos. Notonly did Barnz eventually secure the financing the make the film, buthe had the luxury (despite a breakneck, 25-day shooting schedule) ofproducers who supported his vision. Phoebe in Wonderland is exactly howhe wanted it. "It’s a total dream come true," he told me beforethe festival. "After ten years, to finally get my first movie made andthen to open the festival there, it’s almost impossible to describe." Therearen’t too many better notes on which to finish up… and that’s a wrapfor RiverRun 10. And, to misquote Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, next yearthey go to 11. 2008 RIVERRUN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL AWARD WINNERS Best Narrative Feature: Edge of Heaven Best Actor: Razvan Vasilescu, California Dreamin’ (Endless) Best Actress: Hanna Schygulla, Edge of Heaven Best Screenplay: Edge of Heaven Best Cinematography, Narrative Feature: California Dreamin’ (Endless) Special Jury Prize: Cristian Nemescu, late director of California Dreamin’ (Endless) BB&T Audience Award, Narrative Feature: The Baker Best Documentary Feature: Up the Yangtze Best Cinematography, Documentary Feature: Up the Yangtze RiverRun Human Rights Award: Intimacy Special Jury Prize, Documentary Feature (Best Editing): The Champagne Spy BB&T Audience Award, Documentary Feature: Jump! Best Narrative Short: "Milan" Best Documentary Short: "Board Control" Best Animated Short: "I Met the Walrus" HonorableMentions, Short Films: Tanghi Argentini, Salim Baba and B for"Beekeeper" (the latter one of last year’s NCSA fourth-year studentfilms, directed by NCSA graduate Thomas O’Keefe).