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Cinequest 18 Wraps

Discovery isn’t always a good thing. A pair of American indie films—the world premiere of Paul Leuer’s EDEN COURT and the San Francisco Bay Area debut of Charles Oliver’s TAKE—served as weak bookends for the 18th edition of the Cinequest Film Festival. Fortunately, there was much to celebrate between opening and closing nights during the festival’s 12-day run in downtown San Jose, California.

According to Cinequest executive director and co-founder Halfdan Hussey, approximately 80,000 movie lovers brought the festival’s attendance figures to a new high. Because festival-goers stood in line, socialized and strolled within the few blocks that connect the three Cinequest venues, they generated buzz on their favorite films like bees swarming around a hive. Some of the much-talked-about features and shorts won jury and audience awards, and others did not. But everyone enjoyed basking outdoors in the beautiful weather and venturing indoors to screen over 100 first-time, emerging film artists from 34 countries that span the alphabet from A to U—from Argentina to the United Kingdom and United States.

On March 1, Michael Keaton (BEETLEJUICE, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, BATMAN) received the first Maverick Spirit Award, charming the fans that filled the 1,100-seat California Theatre. The youngest of seven children from Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, Keaton claimed that reading books influenced his decision to become an actor. He remembered often closing his eyes and trying to imagine what it felt like to be a character in one of the stories set during the Civil War or in the Wild West. Even as a kid, he hated clean cowboys. Keaton “would do a Western in a heartbeat.” The accomplished horseman and avid fly fisherman spends much time in Montana. The wide-open spaces must be perfect for the former caped crusader who admitted that his claustrophobia was a challenge when wearing the Batman suit. “The key was Bruce Wayne, not Batman,” Keaton added. “He’s an interesting cat.” Keaton’s quirky, amiable sense of humor endeared him to the crowd.

The other Maverick Spirit Award recipients were screenwriter Michael Arndt (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE), straight-talking Bobby Moresco (Academy Award-winning co-writer/producer of CRASH and co-producer of MILLION DOLLAR BABY), and Bay Area actor and activist Danny Glover (THE COLOR PURPLE, LETHAL WEAPON series, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS).

Writer-director Alan Brown’s SUPERHEROES took the Cinequest top prize, the narrative feature Maverick Spirit Award. Starring Dash Mihok of THE THIN RED LINE and Spencer Treat Clark of MYSTIC RIVER, the sensitive drama deals with an Iraq War veteran scarred physically and emotionally by his military tour of duty (see separate Cinequest awards listing).

Similar to traditional film marketing, the titles garnering the most media attention had a hook or movie and television actors attached to them. Olivia Hussey (THREE PRIESTS), John Ratzenberger and Shelly Cole (THE VILLAGE BARBERSHOP), Christopher Masterson and Brooke Burns (THE ART OF TRAVEL), Enrico Colantoni, Michael Shulman and Brooke Nevin (SHERMAN’S WAY) and Dan Butler (KARL ROVE, I LOVE YOU) were some of the familiar faces at the festival.

But two of the most riveting and accomplished films were documentaries that did not need star power to fill the house or bring audiences to their feet in standing ovations: Kurt Kuenne’s DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER and Bill Rose’s THIS DUST OF WORDS. Both films deal with untimely deaths. The brutal murder of Kuenne’s life-long friend Dr. Andrew Bagby, allegedly by ex-girlfriend Shirley Turner, is a tale of unbearable loss—and shocking twists that rival the heightened drama of Greek tragedy. Kuenne set out on a personal quest to film interviews with everyone who knew and loved Andrew, and to discover more about the friend whose body was found on November 2001 in a park outside of Latrobe, Pennsylvania. The intent was to give the footage to Andrew’s son Zachary, who was born to Turner after she had fled the United States and was fending off extradition efforts while living in Newfoundland. Five years and 300-plus hours of footage in the making, Kuenne masterfully crafted a complex story about love, loss and the legal system. DEAR ZACHARY is a testament to friendship and a tribute to those who live in the face of unspeakable heartbreak—and try to affect change so others will not suffer the same fate.

Writer-director Bill Rose is a cinematic poet. With its lyrical rhythms and contemplative visuals, THIS DUST OF WORDS unfolds as an achingly beautiful documentary about Elizabeth Wiltsee, a brilliant Stanford University graduate and promising writer. The haunting 58-minute film is as much an ode to small-town America as an elegy for a sensitive soul who chose to live in the streets and go into the wild rather than find a traditional slot in society. The Palo Alto filmmaker (THE LOSS OF NAMELESS THINGS) again looks into the eyes of a creative artist who seemingly slips into an abyss. Instead of delving into the darkness of shattered dreams, Rose finds the solace and beauty of his subjects’ unconventional lives.

As Cinequest 18 came to an end, so did Jens Hussey’s final tour of duty as Director of Publicity. Presented with a watch for his 9 years of service, Hussey quipped, “It’s nice to get a prize for quitting. I don’t know how to take that.” He went on to joke that his transition from Cinequest public relations to becoming a shrink in Chicago probably won’t be all that different. “It’s been a lot of blood, sweat and tears but a lot of laughs.” Halfdan Hussey noted that his brother’s true legacy “is based on his warmth, his charm, his intelligence and his persistence.”

All the filmmakers in the house took to the expansive stage of the California Theatre for a round of applause and the awards announcement. Writer-director Charles Oliver introduced TAKE, his handsome but pedestrian drama starring Minnie Driver and Jeremy Renner. Oliver invited the audience to stay for Q&A after the screening, adding “but I won’t be offended, if you want to leave and get drunk next door.”

The closing night party at Motif was the last thing to discover at Cinequest 18.


--Susan Tavernetti
br>More on Cinequest blog on fest21.com

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Chatelin Bruno
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