Independent film in Tucson is a lot like sex in a medium-old marriage: We get it pretty regularly, often up in the Loft, but lots of the zing is missing from the proceedings. The Arizona International Film Festival, then, is like the crazy once-a-year swingers' convention at the Ramada: Sure, the setting's maybe not so ritzy, and there's an awful lot of scary options, but with so many choices, you're bound to find something exciting and new!
That's right, folks, the 10th Arizona International Film Festival rolls into town on April 19, bringing 10 frenzied days' worth of features crafted from the blood, sweat, celluloid and DV of scores of little-known but passionate and occasionally talented filmmakers. Hosted yet again by the Screening Room (127 E. Congress St.)--longtime purveyor of foreign, local, cultish and other hard-to-find but often rewarding films--the festival is the year's best chance for Tucsonans to peruse the diversity and sheer volume of film that usually--and often unjustly--slips by unnoticed in the shadow of Hollywood's huge blockbuster-by-focus-group McMovies.
Things you will not encounter at the 10th AZIFF include soaring Diane Warren-penned, Aerosmith-sung power-ballad theme songs, Jerry Bruckheimer and, probably, the glowing stamp of approval of Joel Siegel. However, the features, documentaries, videos, animations and shorts that comprise the festival's offerings are frequently crafted with a devotion and, yes, a personal passion that far outstrips the level of artistic commitment demonstrated by the average studio-backed filmmaker. As with any collection of art there'll be some stinkers, but separating the cinematic wheat from the chaff is half the fun of these kitchen-sink type festivals.
The Arizona International Film Festival is composed of 12 programs, including the Premiere Showcase, which includes the premiere screenings, with filmmaker introductions, of many and varied sorts of international and independent features, plus a showcase for the Reel Frontier Film and Video competition. Despite other programs presenting past AZIFF films and one featuring an exclusive focus on Chicano/a cinema, the Premiere and the Reel Frontier programs look to be the top draws.
The Reel Frontier program has seen tremendous growth, with a 70-percent increase in submissions to the contest this year--likely spurred by the growing economy and popularity of digital video, I'll betcha--with altogether 90 works named finalists in six categories. Finalists include 10 foreign films from seven different countries, as well as 14 films from our own fair Grand Canyon State. The Reel Frontier boasts categories for short form, animated and experimental works. This is pretty much the only time during the year when these kinds of films make their way into the Old Pueblo, so true cinephiles should stand up and take notice.
Among the shorter live-action Reel Frontier entries: Mike Reiter's A Cause for Alarm, a revenge fantasy undertaken by a man driven to madness by car alarms ("urban crickets," as Scoutmaster Doyle used to say); Dirty Laundry, Christina Ibarra's tale of a young laundress' sexual awakening; and The Red Scorpion, a beautiful, strange and hypercompressed film that plays like a wry, half-remembered version of the strangest action movie you've ever seen.
There is a bunch of long-form features opening this weekend, and here are three good ones.
In the feature documentary category is Felix Gehme and Robert Brewster's sad and lucid Voices of the Sierra Tarahumara. An isolated tribe in Mexico's Sierra Madre range, the Tarahumara, and their environment, have remained virtually unchanged for a thousand years, but now the World Bank, logging interests and drug cartels are dividing the land up out from under them. Gehme and Brewster use the Tarahumara's superhuman running contests--Tarahumara have foot races lasting days and covering several hundred miles over mountainous terrain--as an eloquent metaphor for the ephemeral nature of the tribe's cloistered, delicate lifestyle, and for its absurd power struggles with the seemingly unconquerable foes of bureaucracy and narcotics. Oddly, the film is narrated by noted substance enthusiast Peter Coyote.
From the narrative feature division of Reel Frontier comes Passing Stones, Roger Majkowski's comedy centering on family, drugs, money and the unknowability of God. Passing Stones concerns a 30-year-old, faithful Catholic paperboy who must rely on the help of his cretinous brothers, one a paint-huffing ne'er-do-well and the other an unhinged--and perfectly played--tough-love advocate, to befriend an extravagantly dysfunctional Long Island family and recover half a million dollars in long-lost money. Sort of like if a Polish David Lynch used Bill Nye the Science Guy's camera to shoot a comedy about exhumation and doctor-prescribed crack smoking, the film is unpredictable, a little sick, and frequently very funny.
Another narrative finalist is Vlas Parlapanides' Everything for a Reason, a chronicle of the interlinking stories of several post-collegiate, upper-middle-class New Jersey residents learning to live as Greek-Americans and love as adults. Oh, and the protagonist is a struggling screenwriter. And everyone's beautiful. But it's not as insufferable as one might think: The leads have believable, if not pyrotechnic, chemistry, and a few key supporting performances keep things percolating. The script is uneven, at its best moments recalling a less cerebral version of Whit Stillman's Barcelona, but the remarkable thing here is the cinematography: The film is shot and paced in a gorgeous, warm Mediterranean style, the filmic manifestation of the transplanted but grounding ethnic identity that informs the entire film.
Sure, it's risky to spend money on an unproven film. But it's also lots of fun to discover new jewels of developing or underappreciated talent.
You can find Arizona International Film Festival schedules, programs and scads of other information at www.azstarnet.com/~azmac/, or by calling 62-FILMS.