Most independent film festivals have lost their independent vibe. Sure, lots of great films get screened at Sundance, but these days, the event is as industry-driven as Hollywood itself.
The Arizona International Film Festival, however, has stayed true to its independent roots.
"It's a really community-based festival designed to celebrate, not promote, independent films. There aren't going to be buyers and distributors," says Jonathan VanBallenberghe, one of the many featured filmmakers.
Festival director Giulio Scalinger says organizers don't go in search of bigger filmmakers, though sometimes, they come in for the festival anyway.
Tucson has been a great home for the festival, because the city has a thriving film community, says Scalinger. This wasn't always true: Upon moving here in 1985, he saw a need in Tucson, which had just gotten its own community radio and television stations. That's why he left the staff of the Sundance festival to help found the Arizona Media Arts Center, an umbrella organization now with many projects, including the film festival and the Screening Room, a theater that screens independent film year-round. "Now there is so much going on in Tucson, so many different film festivals. ... In a way, we sort of stoked the coals and got people excited," he says.
One film Scalinger's particularly excited about this year is VanBallenberghe's The Ostrich Testimonies, a documentary that chronicles the tribulations of rancher D.C. Cogburn, who tried to build the world's largest ostrich ranch near Picacho Peak. When two hot-air balloons took off directly behind Cogburn's ranch, 1,600 ostriches stampeded, thrashing themselves to death. Cogburn filed a negligence case; he lost.
"This is one individual, a rancher, fighting a huge insurance company with a no-pay policy. ... One person doesn't stand a chance against such a huge industry," says VanBallenberghe, who is excited the film will screen in Tucson. "The ostrich ranch is a real landmark around here. It's time that the real-life story behind that landmark is told to the public here."
Scalinger commends the film for being "so Arizona," noting the importance of locally made films to a community festival. Of the more than 80 films screening, 15 are from Arizona--but with films also representing 15 different countries, there is no Southwest theme.
While not themed, the festival does actively seek films for a number of annual programs, such as Cine Chicano, which comprises films documenting the Chicano/Latino experience. This year, the Cine Chicano program kicks off with John Bohm's Father G and the Homeboys, narrated by Martin Sheen.
As a teacher in Los Angeles, Bohm knew the ill effects that gang culture can have on youth long before he began shooting the documentary. Many of his students turned to gangs, often because their parents were themselves involved with gangs. One day, the school psychologist gave him Celeste Fremon's book G-Dog and the Homeboy, about the work Father Greg Boyle was doing with reforming gangbangers.
"His whole model is: Nothing stops a bullet like a job," says Bohm. Father Boyle founded Homeboy Industries in 1988, originally just a bakery where kids could sell pastries instead of drugs. Today, a whole umbrella organization places ex-gangbangers in legit work across the L.A. area.
"I knew my next film had to be about (Father Boyle), even though I knew nothing about documentaries," recalls Bohm. Undeterred, he pressed forward with filming.
Father Boyle insisted that, if the film were to be made, it must follow ex-gangbangers who had garnered some insight into why they'd ended up on the streets in the first place. He and Bohm wanted the film to serve as a vehicle to change perceptions about the underlying causes of gang activity and recruitment. "This is a really hopeful film on how one person has basically begun to change everyone's viewpoint across this country," says Bohm.
As part of the Arizona Media Arts Center's ongoing social education program, the festival has invited JoeyRay, one of the ex-gangbangers, to spend a day visiting the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center--not the kind of thing you'd expect from a film festival. It just goes to show that this film festival is more concerned with community than industry.
The Arizona International Film Festival will run from Thursday, April 17, through Sunday, April 27, at venues including the Screening Room, the Fox Tucson Theatre, the Crossroads 6 Grand Cinemas, Hotel Congress, the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center and La Placita Village. Festival passes range from $40 to $150; single tickets range from $6 to $8. Call 882-0204 or visit the Festival Web site for tickets, up-to-date schedules and further information.