Toubassi and Lieberman, both UA graduates, have been energetic underground players in the downtown performing arts scene for the past several years. In 1994, the pair founded not-for-profit Upstairs Film as an offshoot of Upstairs Theater Company, a lamentably defunct small theater troupe that earned the respect of local critics and audiences alike for its tight productions featuring consistently high-quality acting and staging.
Their transfer to film has been a leap into the experimental, delivering a celluloid product that's rougher around the edges where the acting and writing are concerned, but which, nonetheless, has earned the Upstairs team a comfortable following.
The first Flash Frame sold out two screenings in 1997 and debuted Lieberman's talents with the fast-paced, stylized conversation piece "Open 'til Three"; and last year's Multi-Media Monday events at the Hotel Congress were consistently well-attended (aided in part by a stellar rotation of local and nationally touring bands), stretching into a three-month festival of independent film and video by students and artists from Arizona, California and Texas.
Since 1995, Upstairs Film has produced six short films and two documentaries, with 1997's "Number 13" currently in distribution on ShortTV, a Time Warner cable program airing to more than a million viewers nationwide.
The second Flash Frame is a mixed bag of new and not-so-new works, with budgets ranging from $2,500 to $10,000. But as past screenings attest, even when these low-budget labors of love leave something to be desired artistically, their broad-based scope of interest and execution remain an inspiration to anyone with an active or vicarious appreciation for the creative process. This weekend's six-fold program features two Arizona premieres, as well as the return of "Open 'til Three" and Toubassi's "Number 13."
"Harvest," a 20-minute cautionary tale written and directed by Toubassi, is the evening's centerpiece. A rough-cut on video revealed this calculated retelling of one chilling urban myth to be a promising work-in-progress. Its cameos of Congress personalities, set in an incongruously '70s style film, give it an air of strange fun. Local audiences will see the finished product before it heads off on the festival circuit.
"El Curandero," by Tucson native Caleb Smith, is also a premiere. The curandero of the title is a young drifter who forges an unusual bond with a Southern Arizona family. Shot mostly in Bisbee, this leisurely paced narrative is the most dramatic of the evening's offerings. "It takes its time," Toubassi said appreciatively in a phone interview from his home office in L.A. "It's very well-paced and picturesque, and lets the actors' performances really shine through."
Sharif Nakhleh, director of photography for "Harvest," directs his own piece in "Motel," a dark, gritty chronicle of a man and a cockroach that'd make Kafka smile. It's one of two black-and-white films in the lot.
Next up is the aforementioned "Open 'til Three," written and directed by Ari Lieberman, and filmed exclusively during the late-night hours at Dizzy G's diner in downtown Tucson. This camera-driven tale of a comedic cadre of 20-somethings in conversation features strong acting by a bevy of former UA theatre students.
Rounding out the program is Steven Judge's necrophilic fantasy "Mourning Lorraine," which plays with the lighter side of dark comedy; and "Number 13," a day in the life of a local Paletero (the Mexican equivalent of the Good Humor ice-cream man). Toubassi's subtly humorous storytelling again shines through with his retro camera work taking in an array of local personalities and scenes from downtown's Barrio Histórico.
All in all, it's a gathering of friends. Ari, Caleb and Sharif all took media arts classes together at the UA; Mike met Stephen at an audition, and later saw his "Mourning Lorraine" at a screening on the UA campus. He met Sharif on the set for Lieberman's "Open 'til Three." "I had to follow him around the set for a week while I was doing video doubles," Toubassi recalls. "We found a mutual admiration for each other's camera work, and he later accepted the task of being director of photography for 'Harvest'."
While he's only familiar with Smith's current film, Toubassi says he's known him "on and off for years in the local music and film scene," a pattern which continues in the L.A. area, where they both now live.
"We've simultaneously shared the long, solo filmmaker experience," Toubassi says of the group, whose oldest members are barely pushing the shady side of 30. "It's sort of a common bond."
All rely on income from other jobs to pay the bills and the film tab. Sharif works in the film department at a school in San Francisco. Ari is writing screenplays while working for a cellular phone company in Tucson. Caleb has been working as a production assistant and looking for acting work in L.A., and Stephen holds down a 9-to-5 job in Phoenix.
"I feel like finishing my film and doing Flash Frame is a full-time job," Toubassi says, "but I do temp work at record labels in L.A."
Toubassi is the main man behind the curtain for this showcase, which he calls "all great efforts from dedicated writers, directors, casts and crews." All were shot and produced locally, and will be screened on film as opposed to video.
"(Each film) is from Tucson," Toubassi emphasizes. "We all have a sense of the time and place, which affects the filmmaker as well as the end product. Tucson shaped these films in many ways. They were also made in Tucson, with the support, time and energy of people who live there."
"That's one of the best things about Tucson," he says of the local filmmaking scene. "All the resources are here; it's just a matter of tapping them and making them work for your film. If you start with a dedicated core and find the right people, then the rest -- actors, editors, cinematographers, musicians, painters -- will all follow. There are a lot of people who are willing to work on a project, and if they like it they'll put their best behind it. The community really supports film shoots: the Tucson Film Office is great with helping not only big budget, but indie stuff as well. You can pretty much find any location to shoot what you need, and it's without big-city red tape and permits. All Tucson needs is a good, inexpensive sound stage."
But film needs an audience, and unlike many of Tucson's artistic outlets, Toubassi says the indie film scene is strongly supported. "With so many people working on films, they understand what it means to come out and support the film scene, and they do. With the Screening Room and the Loft, Tucson pretty much has it covered from A to Z in independent film. It may take a little longer to get them, but rest assured they will come. And the Arizona International Film Festival is growing, getting better every year, and bringing film industry and a diverse group of filmmakers to the state."
Flash Frame, a semi-annual evening of short film, screens at 7 and 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, November 19 and 20, at The Screening Room, 127 E. Congress St. Tickets are $4 at the door. For information on Upstairs Film, call 622-1751. For information from the Screening Room, call 622-2262.
All four screenings will show the program in its entirety, and in the following order:
- "Number 13," 1997, 16mm color, 8 min.; directed by Michael Toubassi, produced by Melinda Ritter.
- Follow a day in the life of a local Paletero, as he makes his way through the barrio.
- "Mourning Lorraine," 1999, 16mm black-and-white, 15 min.; written and directed by Stephen Judge.
- She's everything he ever wanted. There's only one problem: she's 6 feet under.
- "Open 'til Three," 1997, 16mm color, 20 min.; written and directed by Ari Lieberman, produced by Carol Knorr.
- The customers get more than they ordered in this late-night diner.
- "Motel," 1998, 16mm black-and-white, 14 min.; directed by Sharif Nakhleh, cinematography by Andrew Charles Dunn.
- Is life really as bad as the cockroach thinks?
- "Harvest," 1999, 16mm color, 20 min.; written and directed by Michael Toubassi, cinematography by Sharif Nakhleh.
- "Harvest," starring Andy Tafoya and Amy Lehmann, is not just another boy-meets-girl tale in this contemporary urban myth.
- "El Curandero," 1999, 16mm color, 22 min.; written and directed by Caleb Smith.
- A reflection on creation, destruction and healing set in Southern Arizona.