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Films Not Playing At Your Local Theater (Yet)

LOREM CASSLOREM CASS 

Friday, November 16-------Although every Friday sees a glut of film openings making their way to film theaters, the truth is that a large number of worthy films never find traditional theatrical distribution. That is one of the reasons that the brave new worlds of internet downloads and other non-traditional distribution methods hold such promise. However, until these new methodologies take hold in such a way that they can generate the same or similar revenue, theatrical distribution remains the gold standard of connecting films with audiences (even though the system definitely does have its limitations and severe economic restrictions).

To prime the pump, the Museum of Modern Art  has collaborated with the Independent Feature Project (IFP) and its quarterly publication Filmmaker Magazine, to present the second annual Best Film Not Playing At A Theater Near You series. Five American independent feature films, a heady mix of fiction and documentary, will unspool at the Museum starting today and running through Monday at the Roy and Niuta Titus 2 Theater. TAll five films have made waves on the festival circuit, but have yet to be picked up for theatrical dsitgribution. In addition, the films are nominees in the category “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You” for the 17th annual Gotham Awards, which will take place on November 27th. The films were nominated in this category by MoMA, IFP, and Filmmaker Magazine judges. 

The program begins tonight with OFF THE GRID: LIFE ON THE MESA, directed by brother-and-sister team Jermey and Randy Stulberg. The documentary chronicles an unusual rural commune, where a group of outcast live out their version of the American dream on a patch of barren land in the desert of New Mexico. Without electricity or modern conveniences, the lifestyle would be difficult for most pampered Americans, but fits in perfectly for the "drop outs" who want to be left alone by government, religion and the powers that be to live their own way off the land they love so dearly. The film premiered in competition at last year's Slamdance Film Festival, and has been seen at over 20 other pit stops on the festival circuit, including Miami, Martha's Vineyard, Ann Arbor, Orlando, Sarasota, Silverdocs, Real to Reel, Ojai, Denver and Raindance (UK) and Viennale (Austria). It has picked up a slew of jury and audience awards at various film festivals, but so far, the distribution pickup has been elusive. With its appeal to non-traditionalists, this is definitely a film that could benefit from aggressive social networking using the internet to reach a far-flunged audience of non-comformists and ecological-minded people. For more info on thi intriguing film, visit the website: http://www.myspace.com/offthegridmovie 

Also screening on Friday evening is the intense family drama AUGUST THE FIRST, written and directed by Lanre Olabisi. The film mines a powerful tradition of interpersonal relationships, in which old family tensions resurface and a family is turn apart inthe process. When a son invites his estranged father in Nigeria back to the United States for his graduation party, it sets off a time bomb of resentment, yearning and powerful push/pull family dynamics. First-time feature director Olabisi shot the film in his mother's suburban home, accentuating the disparity of the family's middle class existence with the values of the estranged father. The film premiered at the South By Southwest Film Festival, and has been making the rounds to such film festival events as AFI/Dallas, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Minneapolis, San Franciso and Milwaukee, as well as a slot at this summer's Karlovy Vary Film in the Czech Republic. The film won the Audience Award at New York's Urbanworld Film Festival. With so few African-American films being released these days that are not outrageous comedies (thank you Tyler Perry) or gangsta violent flicks, it is refreshing to see a film with a humanistic core that is specific to its African-American milieu. That has to be a message that the film's target audience can respond to (that's 30 million potential tickets, enterprising distributors.....do the math). Film's website: http://www.augustthefirst.com

The other documentary screening later this weekend is MISSISSIPPI CHICKEN, directed and photographed by John Fiege. A scathing portrait of how chicken, America's favorite meat, is processed, it is enough to turn even Colonel Sanders into a vegetarian. In another important aspect that comments on the illegal immigrant debate, the US poultry industry, largely located in the American South, is one of the largest industries that regularly recruits undocumented Latin American workers to work in the plants.  Communities of immigrants now dot the landscape, but remain susceptible to exploitation and abuse byemployers, landlords, neighbors, and the police. Filmed in Super 8mm, the saturated color provides a textured glimpse of lives most U.S. citizens know little of. The film premiered at the Miami International Film Festival, and has found success playing at festival venues with a strong Latino base, including Austin, New York Providence and others. This is a film that deserves to be seen otuside of the traditional Latino Festival circuit, and adds immeasurably to an understandiing of how illegals contribute to the American economy but do not have the basic protective rights of ordinary citizens. Website: http://www.mississippichicken.com

Two intriguing dramatic films round out the series. FROWNLAND, written and directed by Ronald Bronstein, captures a snapshot of the desperate life of Keith Sontag, a painfully awkward "troll from under the bridge" who spends his days selling coupons door-to-door and his evenings trapped in a squalid apartment in a hellish quarter of New York City. In this bold and bracing character study, the outsider attempts to find some measure of self-respect as he confronts an uncaring and contemptuous big city. The film harkens back to a decidedly less glamorous style of independent filmmaking, influenced by the documentary tradition of cinema verite, which attempts to capture the simple everyday realities of its leading characters. The film premiered at the South By Southwest Film Festival and will be seen at more film festivals in the coming months.

LOREN CASS, written and directed by Chris Fuller, is set against the racial unrest in St. Petersburg, Florida in the mid 1990s. In this striking debut feature, a trio of disaffected, angry, and frequently bored teens yearn for change but mostly just drift and hook up in lonely diners and nocturnal parking lots. Shot on location in the "dirty, dirty town by a dirty, dirty sea", the film hauntingly evokes a state of aimless frustration and barely suppressed rage. As a chronicle of young white working class resentment, the film is harrowing in its depth of feeling and its uneasy balance of an explosion about to trigger. The film has had a strong career at overseas film festivals, including Locarno, Vienna, Helsinki, Mexico City, Gijon and Lubljiana. The film has been praised on its US festival circuit run, and should be catnip for a distributor who knows how to effectively tap into the urban youth market, of all races. Website: http://www.lorencass.com

The hope is that this maximum exposure at one of New York's most prized film venues, and the competition at the Gotham Awards next week, should raise the profile of the films concerned, and give intrepid distributors another chance to catch their films while they are still hot. One of the most deadening sobriquets that any aspiring project can attain is the perjorative "festival film".....in other words, a film that has no career beyond the festival circuit. While some entrepenurial filmmakers have figured out a way of making money doing just this, and others use the circuit as a way of stimulating awareness for eventual DVD or internet download opportunities, it is important that quality work as exemplified in this series simply does not fall into the cracks or get lost in a never-never land of continuous festival exposure without any "pay off". Fate remain harsh for these uncompromising films, which all have ambition with few assets, but do have a demonstrated track record of appealing to those festival audiences who have been lucky enough to catch them. Distributors, wake up and smell the coffee (there's quality to be harnessed and money to be made).

Sandy Mandelberger, Film New York Editor

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