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

by Mark Burger

Bill Pullman was charming and tall. Pam Grier was funny and foxy as ever.

And before the 10th annual RiverRun International Film Festival was half over, the executive director had gotten engaged and the festival cleared its overall financial goal of the festival. Whether one had anything 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 a significant impact on Winston-Salem, erstwhile City of the Arts.

In an interesting and ironic twist not unlike this year’s Academy Awards, in which none of the four acting awards went to Americans, the majority of the award-winning RiverRun films were for foreign films. Then again, it is the RiverRun International Film Festival.

The festival’s financial goal for the festival was in the neighborhood of $55,000, and although the exact totals won’t be known immediately, by Friday night that goal had been surpassed. Even the inclement weather later in the weekend couldn’t rain on the RiverRun parade.

And, of course, congratulations to executive director Andrew Rodgers, who popped the question to his lovely girlfriend Iana. (Amazingly, she said yes!)

When I asked if the wedding would take place in the Stevens Center and the reception 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 of dour look that says: “What do you think, smartass?”

(I think he’s a lucky fellow, actually.)

On a personal level, this year’s RiverRun was an awfully happy experience for me. Longtime LA Times film critic Kevin Thomas – a longtime pal of mine and of RiverRun’s board co-chair Dale Pollock – flew to Winston-Salem to serve as one of the jurors for narrative features. Truth be told, Dale Pollock and I might have had some input into Kevin’s selection, but the decision was ultimately the festival’s.

Some 50 years ago, Kevin graduated from Gettysburg College, and that was pretty much the last time he saw Marjorie Feldman, then Marjorie Latshaw, who graduated two years later. By the time she graduated, and between the surnames Latshaw and Feldman, Marge was Marge Burger, married some 18 years to Kevin’s classmate and fraternity brother, the late 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 Norfleet Neff (one of many aces in the festival’s deck), I was able to bring two of 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” we got was the room in a hotel that, for much of the festival, was booked solid. Then again, I provided the festival with DVDs for the clips’ retrospectives for both Pullman and Grier, and a little quid pro quo never hurt anybody.

A shame my stepfather couldn’t have come too (that would Robert Feldman, of the Brooklyn Feldmans), but he was away on business. Hopefully it won’t be another 50 years before they get together again!

Among the other wild reunions I was privy to occurred quite by accident while I was sitting with Kevin and my mother outside the Marriott Hotel in downtown Winston-Salem. Pam Grier happened to be walking by, and as soon as she recognized Kevin, the two embraced and Grier exuberantly told us how Kevin’s LA Times reviews helped to establish her early career, and how she hoped to quote some of them in her upcoming autobiography.

Kevin, who toiled at the Times for over 40 years – kicking ass all the way – isn’t one of those critics who takes credit for “discovering” new stars, but has told me on numerous occasions that as soon as he first saw Pam Grier on the screen, “there was absolutely no doubt she had ‘it'” – that indefinable combination of charisma, power and talent. In other words: star power.

Friday night’s Jabberwocky Ball at the Sawtooth Center, which marked YES! Weekly’s inaugural sponsorship of a RiverRun event, was a rousing and raucous success. Students from NCSA’s dance programs performed feats of magic, movement and merriment – and although the accompanying music tended to be on the deafening side, especially as the crowd began to disperse early Saturday morning (acoustics at the Sawtooth Center is a weird science all its own) – it was unquestionably the bash of the festival.

Of course, there were the movies – 95 of them, to be exact. Features, shorts, documentaries… a slew of independent films that you can be sure wouldn’t play here otherwise. And the audiences responded. It didn’t hurt the spirits at the Jabberwocky Ball when news got out that the festival had hit its overall goal in ticket sales for the festival by the time the first ball was juggled. (You had to be there.)

Sell-outs were not uncommon. In the 10 years I’ve attended performances at the Stevens Center, only twice have I seen the balcony open. This year’s opening-night film, Phoebe in Wonderland, made it three.

When Pullman announced, “I hereby open the RiverRun International Film Festival,” the roar from the crowd was a clear indication that the party was underway.

Phoebe writer/director Daniel Barnz, so youthful-looking that some people initially thought he was an NCSA filmmaking student, admitted he was blown away by the reception, which included a standing ovation when he and 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.

Having toiled on the project for 10 years – a year longer, he noted, than leading lady Elle Fanning has been alive – Barnz was determined to make it his feature directorial debut. Although the script had attracted a dream cast that included Pullman, Felicity Huffman, Patricia Clarkson and Campbell Scott, Barnz laughingly recalled how many times it was suggested he take the project to the Lifetime network by people (well, studio executives) who perceived it only in terms of the story’s pathos.

Not only did Barnz eventually secure the financing the make the film, but he had the luxury (despite a breakneck, 25-day shooting schedule) of producers who supported his vision. Phoebe in Wonderland is exactly how he wanted it.

“It’s a total dream come true,” he told me before the festival. “After ten years, to finally get my first movie made and then to open the festival there, it’s almost impossible to describe.”

There aren’t too many better notes on which to finish up… and that’s a wrap for RiverRun 10. And, to misquote Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, next year they 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”

Honorable Mentions, Short Films: Tanghi Argentini, Salim Baba and B for “Beekeeper” (the latter one of last year’s NCSA fourth-year student films, directed by NCSA graduate Thomas O’Keefe).

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