It could have been a disaster. The cardinal rules of good party throwing were broken. Anticipating a crowd of 300, the organizers of the Premiere Night Gala Screening Program of the first annual Make-A-Film Competition were not prepared for the nearly 500 folks who showed up. The caterer ran out of food early on, but the natives didn't start getting really restless until the liquid refreshments dried up. For a tense moment there, it looked as if the following morning's headlines might read, "Angry Filmmakers Sack WPBT Studio!"
But it didn't happen. Even after shelling out twenty bucks a head to attend -- no doubt lured by promises of "Fabulous Free Food" and "Open Bar" -- those present weren't of a mind to trash the place. They were there to see their films -- eighteen five-minute productions in all -- exhibited in a classy, communal, festival-like setting. Besides, no one was dressed for carnage.
So the premiere went off more or less as planned, culminating a first-of-its-kind event sponsored by the South Florida Screenwriters Guild and the Independent Feature Project/South. The object was to complete a five minute film (a video really) for under $50 in 45 days or less. Fifty-three individual participants paid fifteen dollars apiece (non-SFSG and non-IFP members had to first ante up annual dues in the $50-$75 range, but new members saw their fifteen dollar entry fee waived) for the privilege of being grouped with a bunch of strangers and unleashed upon the unsuspecting world to produce a 300-second magnum opus. Nineteen crews were formed; eighteen of them made it to the finish line. There were no tangible prizes for the winners, just a little exposure (some local TV shows, such as WLRN's Expressions and Selkirk Cable's The Reel Stuff have aired or will be airing the winning entries), the opportunity to work with a team of folks similarly afflicted with the desire to make films, and the chance to have the finished product judged by an illustrious panel of self-aggrandizing freeloaders such as yours truly.
Amazingly enough, we judges seemed to be in general agreement on the overall merits (or lack thereof) of most films. Except for my esteemed colleague Nat Chediak's wry asides and sporadic fits of laughter, we comported ourselves fairly well and managed, as a group, to pick winners that paralleled the popular favorites (as close as I could figure them based on audience applause).
Fight for Freedom, about 100 years of African Americans' struggle, from the battlefields of the Civil War to the mean streets of a modern urban metropolis, combined high production values and a decent narrative with the best acting in the competition to win first place. In the Child's Best Interest, the frightening tale of a young girl traumatized as much by the system designed to protect her as by the abusive parents from whose custody she has been removed, came in second. Third was my personal favorite, Jefferson, a campy spoof of both Citizen Kane and the life and times of President Clinton (Socks the cat is Rosebud). It was funnier and more original than most of the skits on Saturday Night Live, although that's probably not saying much nowadays.
The three films that were awarded honorable mention varied in subject matter from an elderly woman waiting in vain for her children to call on her on her birthday to a sarcastic faux promotional trailer for the city of Miami that juxtaposed images of homelessness and squalor with voice-over narration promoting the area's chic eateries and trendy nightclubs. The Link, a well-acted futuristic short about a lonely miner and the comely android he has procured to alleviate said loneliness, was the only film that I had rated in my top six that didn't make the group cut.
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There were plenty of turkeys, too. Rather than singling out any of the bottom tier for ridicule, let's just say it was particularly distressing to see how bad some of the acting and writing was. Audience members are to be commended for maintaining their composure throughout. (After one particularly daunting stretch, a film opened with a closeup of a housecat; one of my fellow panelists whispered that it was the closest thing to genuine emoting he'd witnessed.)
Interestingly, local original music was one of the highlights of the evening's fare. Magda Hiller, a spirited songstress with a wicked sense of humor and a mean set of pipes, lent the makers of No Shame her song "Foot In Mouth", which turned out to be the highlight of the film and had viewers tapping their toes and humming along through the opening and closing credits. And the incomparable Nil Lara and his classy, eclectic band, Beluga Blue, provided the live entertainment for the affair and won over more than a few new fans in the process.
All in all it was an auspicious debut for an event that, if you believe the promoters, is the only one of its kind in the country. It had a good beat and you could dance to it. Attendance was impressive, the filmmaking talent displayed ranged from promising to hopeless, and the music was great. Let's just hope that when they make the sequel (after this year's turnout, it's a lock) they order enough booze and eats, because I, for one, will be dressed for a rumble.