Archive for April, 2017

FFF 2017 Day 5–How To Build Your Own Stradivarius Violin

April 28, 2017

Stefan Avalos, Moderated by FFF  Doc Selection Committee Member Christopher Ramsey, Gives the Audience a Behind the Scenes Look at His Exceptional Documentary

Despite the fact that there was a lot of positive buzz around the FFF for Strad Style for some reason, as I watched the trailer and read the preview information, it was not appealing to me at all–until Mrs. LanceAround and I saw it.

When the movie was over, Mrs LanceAround leaned over and said, “What an amazing film.”  I agreed. Moment by moment this well made film spun its web and drew the audience deeper and deeper into the life of its sole protagonist.

As I struggled with trying to figure out how I was going to approach my review of this film, I quickly realized this movie somehow, some way, rises above its individual components to become something truly special. It does so in a way that is difficult for me to describe–especially being careful not to reveal any spoilers.

The elements are simple:

A man in rural Ohio, Daniel Houck, a recluse who suffers from Bi-polar Disorder, attempts to recreate one of the world’s most famous violins–even though he has no formal training in violin making.

He manages to contact Razvan Stoica, a Romanian violin virtuoso who has been recognized across the world as the best violinist under the age of 30, and they begin communicating online.

An actual, local violin maker in Ohio offers a minimal amount of support and assistance, although Daniel appears to think he can accomplish his task without a lot of outside help.

Without steady income, poor and living alone in a house without much heat during the frigid Ohio winters, Daniel diligently works on his violin–when he does not get distracted by other things.

From there, the movie teeters between the unbelievable and the precipice. Does the virtuoso really want to have a relationship with this violin maker or is he just humoring him? Can Daniel really make a violin or is he just freakin crazy? Is there going to be a storybook ending or will this man who takes medicine for his mental disorder just wind up falling off a cliff?

Skillfully directed and superbly edited by documentarian Stefan Avalos, this movie is a gem. All of the above questions get answered as the tale winds it’s way to an unexpected conclusion. All of it engulfed by a soundtrack featuring beautiful violin music most of it played by Razvan Stoica himself.

Seek this film out. It’s a beauty.

FFF 2017 Day 5–Menasche–A Rare and Intimate Look Into the World of Hasidic Judaism

April 28, 2017

A Rare and Intimate Look Into Hasidism

If, like me, the sum total of your knowledge of Jewish culture stems from seeing movies like Fiddler on the Roof or A Serious Man prepare yourself to be immersed into a world of Hasidic Judasim unlike anything you’ve probably ever seen before. This film, Menasche, is a gem.

According to the program, parts of this movie were filmed in secret in the midst of the orthodox Hasidic culture in New York City. It’s also the first major film in Yiddish to be made in over 70 years.

It’s a very simple story that deals with a widowed father and his desire to raise his young son despite the Hasidic tradition that dictates the son must be raised in a family with two parents.

This isn’t a movie with a lot of action, fireworks or a happy ending. The story doesn’t follow a strictly traditional arc with a beginning, middle and end. It’s what I like to refer to as a “slice of life” movie that provides a window into a world we seldom see; a man tries to navigate his way through the traditions and requirements of his culture.

Extremely well filmed and crisply directed, this movie proceeds at a gentle pace that allows the moviegoers to gradually immerse themselves, along with the protagonist, into the trials and tribulations of a single father. His struggles, despite many cultural differences, are similar to issues faced by single parents everywhere. The acting was sublime and effective.

A poignant yet delightful film that is well worth a look.

FFF 2017 Day 4–Stevie Salas Shows Us The Indians Who Rocked the World

April 28, 2017

Stevie Salas & Christina Fon Rock the Audience During the Q & A

Mrs. LanceAround’s maternal side of the family came from rural Minihaha Springs, West Virginia. Her mother’s grandmother was a full blooded Native American. Like many people who lived in that part of the country at that time, this was a source of shame and embarrassment for Mrs. LanceAround’s family. Therefore, it was not talked about.

Rumble: The Indians That Rocked The World is a documentary that demonstrates just how much Native American influence there is in modern day rock and roll music. Ironically, the reason it’s not known is the same reason that Mrs. LanceAround’s family never spoke about her great grandmother’s heritage.

This fascinating documentary takes a look at some of the most popular songs of our era and demonstrates how they were directly influenced by Native American culture. Indeed, several prominent musicians may have been assumed to be black but were, in fact, Native Americans. These include such musical icons as Jimi Hendrix, Link Wray, Charley Patton, Mildred Bailey, Jesse Ed Davis, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Robbie Robertson, Randy Castillo and even movie Executive Producer and 1988 lead guitarist for Rod Steward, Stevie Salas, who was in attendance for this film.

The film provides side by side comparisons of old, indigenous tribal ceremonies compared to modern pop music where the rhythm and drumming is demonstratively identical.

One point of interest was an old photograph that showed three bathroom doors. One was labeled “white,” one was labeled “black,” and the middle one was labeled “Indian.” This kind of blatant prejudice is seldom exposed in our school systems.

This well made film will open your eyes to a piece of our American history that has been unspoken for far too long. After the film, Executive Producer and featured subject Stevie Salas spoke with the audience.

Stevie Salas Speaks About His Experiences as an Indigenous Musician and Making This Documentary
You know, if you look at my birth certificate, it says my mother’s white and my father’s white. If you ever saw a picture of my mother and my father you would laugh at that. They’re not even close to white. I’ve got nothing against being white. As a matter of fact, when I was playing rock and roll in the early days with Rod Stewart, I never felt like I looked Native. I felt like I fit right in with the rest of them.

Native American people don’t have a lot of role models to look up to. We can’t look up to Geronimo forever. We wanted to find some new ones. It sounds crazy, but it’s true. There was an unwritten history of influence going on.

We all thought Charley Patton was a black man.

Has anyone ever seen a photo–you always see ones in American history that say, “black bathroom, white bathroom”–I’ve never seen one that said, “Indian bathroom.” I’ve never seen one. They [my other producers] found one.

How we got so many big stars is most of these guys I knew and I grew up with. We all came up together. I was able to call people personally. If you’ve got to call an agent it never really works, it’s one in a million and it’s all bullsh**.

Being in the film wasn’t just about being an Indian. Every Indian just doesn’t get in the film. This was about Native American people who influenced pop music history.

I’m a guitar player, who wanted to be a rock star, who happened to be an Indian.

Tell all your friends–we’re going to go theatrical this summer and we want to do some good box office.

FFF 2017 Day 4–It’s All in Your Head–Confronting the Struggles of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and an Interview With Jennifer Brea

April 27, 2017

Jennifer Consults With a Moviegoer Outside the Enzian After the Film

Perhaps the bravest among us are those who stand up to fight, even when they can’t stand up. That’s the dilemma that faces many people inflicted with severest form of myalgic encephalomyelitis. One such person is Jennifer Brea. This is her story. This is her film. And it is one of the most powerful documentaries we’ve ever seen at the FFF. It’s incredible.

For a Monday night film, the Enzian was surprisingly full and there was a palatable buzz inside the theatre suggesting an anticipation for the film we are about to see.

I am surprised because the documentary, Unrest, is not the kind of film that normally generates such buzz. In fact, at the end of the film a member of the documentary selection committee will make a point to say the FFF usually does not show “Medical Docs.” But there was something about this movie that was attractive to them–something beyond the fact that the filmmaker, Jennifer Brea, was a local who graduated from Trinity Prep in Orlando.

Jennifer is a brilliant, Harvard educated woman who has traveled the world until one day she came down with a flu like virus. Suddenly, she found herself bed bound; often unable to sit, walk or even speak coherently. Confronted by a medical community that seemed too eager to insist her illness was, “all in your head,” Jennifer did what seemed most natural to an intelligent person in academia: she picked up a camera and started to compile as much data as she could about her condition.

It soon became obvious that she suffered from myalgic encephalomyelitis–A diagnosis that is often referred to by the name “chronic fatigue syndrome” although this name is considered a somewhat offensive description for such a debilitating illness that goes well beyond simple fatigue. According to the film, approximately 25% of people suffering from ME have symptoms so severe, they spend the majority of their time trapped in their bed. Even the slightest exertion can cause severe pain and exhaustion.

With no cure and very little research available, Jennifer managed to film her journey. Along the way, we are introduced to many others inflicted with this debilitating disease. The miracle of modern technology allows these patients who are bedridden to communicate with one another from their beds via the internet.

Together, this group and those that support and care for them, formed an organization called The #MillionsMissing. They explain that 20 million people worldwide are missing from their lives because of ME. In a powerful moment during the film, there are scenes from cities all over the world where the shoes from someone inflicted with ME are placed in prominent public spaces to represent those who could not be present to protest for themselves. And even when those with ME are able to attend a protest, they often need to lie down and/or endure a great amount of discomfort just from the effort of coming to the protest.

Perhaps nothing is more striking than the story of the Danish teenager who was forcibly removed from her parents’ home because the unenlightened doctor believed that the parents attentions to their daughter were the cause of her inability to rise from her bed. After many years being removed from her family with no visible improvement under the care of this physician (who has the aptly ironic name of Dr. Fink) the daughter was returned to her home after the government received many protests, testimonies and support from those who also deal with the ravages of ME.

At the end of the film, it was revealed that the number of patients with ME who commit suicide far outpaces those of the general population. And yet, the funding our country provides to those seeking  cure and treatment for ME is a minuscule fraction of the funding provided for many other maladies that affect far fewer people.

In a sad commentary of the inner workings of our society, the movie highlights speculation that funding and proper education for ME will never increase until drug manufacturers can figure out a way to monetize such treatment.

Perhaps the most powerful moment in the film was the revelation that Multiple Sclerosis used to be considered an “hysterical” and completely “psychosomatic” condition until the day that PET scans were invented and doctors were able to physically view the white plague on the brains of an MS patient. Even in our supposedly enlightened 21st century society, many people continue to consider ME something that is “all in your head” and caused by laziness, hypochondria or hysteria. The film has clips of famous comedians who would do routines about chronic fatigue syndrome describing it as the disease where a person wakes up and decides they just don’t want to go to work that day.

The resolve, the truth and the passion the documentary reveals about those inflicted with this dreadful disease is that, in fact, they want nothing more than the ability to get up and go to work.

Jennifer Brea, the main subject as well as the director, co-screenwriter and one of the producers of this excellent documentary was in attendance during the film and gave an insightful Q & A after the movie. It soon became evident that there were many people in attendance who have personal experience in dealing with this disease. A few shared their very moving stories.

Q & A with Jennifer Brea
Q: You obviously started taking a lot of movies of yourself, at what point did you realize, “I’m making a film.”

A: I’ve come to learn during this process that I was an artist without a medium. I was a writer for a long time. Then I lost the ability to write or read or think when this first happened to me. So I started recording these videos that you see in the film on my iphone. It was a way to process what I was going through and a way to understand and cope with that. It was really hard. It was really lonely. It was when I found that community online and I realized I wasn’t just battling with something alone; I was battling something that so many people go through–it was that and realizing just how little access I had to healthcare. I couldn’t go to a doctor or emergency room without the fear of being dismissed or abused and not being examined or taken seriously.  It was when I realized that larger social injustice at the heart of this that I wanted to make a film. I needed to believe the world was still humane and just. Simply the fact that nobody could see us; that people couldn’t see these stories, that we could bring them out into the light that things might change.

Q (From LA): At one point you say that people thought MS was hysterical until they invented the CAT scan and you saw the white spots. At another point in the movie you had someone who ran a woman through a bunch of tests and she came back and said because of this, this and this I can see you have ME. Does this mean we now have a diagnostic criteria or do we still have a ways to go on that?

JB: That’s a really perceptive question–and a complicated one.  There have been at least 6000 studies done. They’re not very widely read; but they’re there. There are a huge number of potential biomarkers. There are things we know that are consistently abnormal within patients with this condition: natural killer cell function, which is your body’s first line of defense against cancer and viral infections as well as all of these metabolic abnormalities that you find around energy metabolism. But the challenge is not only does it need to be abnormal in patients like me it has to be unique and it has to be cheap. A laboratory has to be able to find it and to scale it. I can go to a research lab and you can find all kinds of things that are abnormal with me. A general practitioner can spend all day running the tests he would run and he would never find anything. So there’s a gap between research and practice that’s really where the next step is. Researchers and clinicians need to find how to take what we know in the science and turn it into medical education and practical clinical care. They’re working on it. They’re working on cheap tests that could diagnose this accurately.

Q: Is part of this because it expresses itself mentally and may seem like confusion or depression? Are there mental symptoms?

JB: Well there are definitely mental symptoms and there are a lot of cognitive symptoms that are a core part of the disease. Some people are physically affected, some people are cognitively affected. At the beginning I was both. I could not lift my head off the pillow. I could not write more than a sentence of an email without passing out for an hour. It was because my brain would just hit a wall and I had a hard time with complex processing functions. I still do. I have a hard time filtering out sensory information. A lot of us look like kids with autism; we need to wear protective headgear and the light is hard and the stimulation is hard. Those are core features of the disease. In terms of depression, if you were someone who couldn’t go out or see friends or family or do anything that mattered to you for years I think that’s enough to make anybody sincerely depressed. I’m lucky. I never got depressed during this. It took an incredible amount of cognitive choice and daily stamina to stay alive. It’s really hard to live that way. It’s unimaginable to wake up every day in the same room and never know if you’re going to get out. For someone who’s mildly affected, they can run for a mile before they crash.

Q: I’ve been sick for 26 years [pauses in tears] I just want to reiterate the point that you made that the immunological studies–I had zero natural killer cells when I was tested and I had such a low CD4 count they told me I probably have aids. I wanted to mention that my apparent cause was a toxic mold environment when I was a teacher. Have there been a lot of people that you know who became ill after mold exposure?

JB: Yes, definitely. Thank you for sharing your story and for coming here. We don’t know what connects all of this. There’s many different triggers and you can have one trigger that causes many different diseases or many triggers that cause a common disease. I know that for a lot of people mold is a huge issue. I don’t know to what extent it caused my illness but I am extremely sensitive to mold. Some people have environmental exposures that cause this and some people have viral or bacterial infections that cause it. I had a friend that had chemotherapy for a brain tumor and it caused this. What happens to people who have their immune system compromised in this way is that you then have these other viruses that are in all of us and they start to reactivate and reek havoc and part of why I’m here today is because of drugs that a very small percentage of people have access to, including a new antiviral that if I didn’t have access to it within 48 hours I’d have been laid out permanently in that same place. My hope is that this will accelerate the research and give more people access to the kind of care that I’ve been so lucky to have.

Q (From LA): What is your goal? What would you like to see happen?

JB: I hope that people can recognize how serious the disease can be and get to know these patients that medicine and the outside world never see. The film focuses on the 25% of people that are home bound or bedridden. I really want for these patients that our communities and medical professionals recognize that we exist. It’s horrible that some of these citizens remain in the shadows and I’m hoping this helps to bring them to light and it starts to create real change.

Florida Film Festival (FFF) Preview 2017

April 19, 2017

Matthew Curtis and Mrs. LanceAround at Last Year’s Preview

Matthew Curtis Says This is a Great Year to Come to the FFF

Social Justice…Politics….Immigration are just some of the hot button topics that seem to pervade many of the films at this year’s film festival. We are at the preview for the 26th annual Florida Film Festival. Once again we’re speaking with Matthew Curtis, Programming Director for the FFF. The festival takes place starting this Friday the 21st of April and continues through 30 April 2017.

LA: Matthew…180 films this year…

MC: It’ll be 182!

LA: 182 out of how many possible selections?

MC: 2041, that’s a record number.

LA: And you’ve seen them all…

MC: I’ve seen every one except for an international showcase feature, called I Dream In Another Language which they were not able to get me a preview screening. But Valerie, our Marketing Manager, saw it at Sundance and loved it.  It’s a film set in Mexico about a linguist that goes down to study a forgotten language. The only two people that remember the language are two guys that hate each other and haven’t spoken in 50 years. It’s supposed to be absolutely great. Valerie is so passionate about it that [Programming Coordinator] Tim and I said, “Sure, let’s do it!” The film just got picked up by FilmRise, the same distributor that’s got Manifesto and they were willing to give it to us. I still want to see it. I’m hoping for a preview link soon. But I’ve seen everything else.

LA: When you say you’ve seen them all, is that all 182 or all 2041?

MC: [laughs] No, I’ve not seen all 2041, otherwise you wouldn’t be talking to me. No, I’ve seen about a third of the submissions. That’s why I have six different selection committees.

LA: How many people on each selection committee?

MC: Three

LA: Three people on each selection committee. You have a lot of categories for the films. Are the categories predetermined prior to the films being submitted?

Billy Crudup Appears on Friday the 28th.

MC: We know our American Independent Competition, there’s going to be Narrative Features, Doc Features and Doc Shorts and Live Action Shorts and Animated Shorts. We know we’re going to have International Features and International Shorts.  We know we’re going to have International Animation. There are some wild cards. The second Doc Shorts program is new this year as is the second International Shorts Program. Sometimes it’s a mixed bag of stuff, sometimes it’s all, you know, German Shorts or Italian Shorts or International Documentary Shorts. We do have some wild cards that change from year to year. But we know the basic structure. We know there’s going to be Music Films, Food Films, Midnight Movies…

LA: So do the selection committees know which category they’re going to be selecting for?

MC: Yes!

LA: If you have a certain number of categories and you have X number of films, what is the process by which a film gets chosen for the festival?

MC: We start looking at films in September. (Call for entries opens mid-August.) Committees start getting together in October.

LA: Does everyone in every committee see every film they could possibly select?

MC: Yes, unless it’s been killed already by the rest of the committee.

LA: And how does a committee member, or group of committee members, kill a film?

MC: At least two people see every film. Generally two to four people see every film. If two people see the film and think it’s horrible–there’s no way it’s going to move forward–then we just move on. So, minimum two people, maximum four or five.

LA: I thought you said the committees were three people?

MC: They are–three people without Tim and myself.

LA: The four or five includes you and Tim?

MC: Correct.

LA: How does a film achieve final approval?

MC: Oh, we have final selections meetings starting in mid-January before I leave for Sundance.

LA: Explain that meeting to me…It’s a group of who?

MC: We all get together…

LA: Who’s we?

MC: The entire committee and Tim and I. Based on ratings, we’ll have our top 30 or 40 based on ratings in that category. We’ll put them all up on the board in post-its…and…we’ll start arguing. We’ll put up for the festival what we’re unanimous about…which might be three or four out of the ten Features in competition…and the rest we’ll just fight over.

LA: Give me an example of three or four films that just barely squeaked into the festival…

MC: No, I’d rather not do that! I’m really proud of everything that’s in the festival. But some films can be unanimous…some films can be alternates. There are things we accepted for the festival that we’re not playing because we couldn’t get them. They pulled for somebody else or they were bought by a distributor and the distributor pulled them…so there’s a lot of factors that go into the programming of 182 films.

LA: So give me an example of three or four films that from the moment everyone saw them they were just included.

MC: Katie Says Goodbye. As soon as we saw that we were instantaneous this is absolutely going to be…it was even early in the process…this is going to be one of the best films we get. It’s in the Narrative Features Competition…Olivia Cooke, Mary Steenburgen, Jim Belushi, Christopher Abbott. We knew it was going to be one of the best films we were going to see. Strad Style in the Doc Feature competition, which went on the win the Audience Award and Grand Jury Award at Slamdance. I’d have to think about some of the other stuff. In the music section, once we saw Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World we knew that was a keeper. There’s no way…it was so well done…such great music…such an interesting topic that we haven’t seen before…we knew that, provided we could get it after Sundance, that it would make the festival.

LA: What you’re saying is…Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, Strad Style, and especially, Katie Says Goodbye are your favorite films in the whole festival!

MC: NO! That’s not what I’m saying at all…NO! What I’m saying is that, on first viewing by the committee, we were unanimous on how good they were.

LA: I will strike it from the record! Let it be known now and forever, Matthew Curtis will NEVER reveal what his favorite movies from the Florida Film Festival are because, as we all know, every movie is his favorite movie!

MC: NO! That’s not true either. I wouldn’t say that either. Let’s just say there’s an extraordinary amount of really good films at the festival this year. There’s a lot of things that are really challenging…envelope pushing…and we’re excited about that.

LA: What are the movies that are going to be the most talked about this year?

MC: The Cate Blanchett film, Manifesto.

LA: What makes that so special–That’s in the Spotlight?

MC: Yes, that’s in the Spotlight. Well, we’ve never seen anything like it before. She plays 13 different roles. The whole narrative comes from manifestos, writings and essays from 20th century thinkers; including futurists, dadaists, people like Jim Jarmusch, and it’s brilliant. It’s also very challenging and demanding for the audience.

LA: What film are you a little nervous about?

Really Interesting and Experimental Doc

MC: I’m not nervous about Manifesto, we’re only playing it once. I think it will have more walk outs than most of the other films in the festival. We’ll see. We’ll see. It’s just extremely challenging. There’s a film in the Doc Feature Competition, Rat Film, about inner city Baltimore that’s really interesting and it’s experimental–kind of a hybrid documentary that’s challenging and fascinating and really, really, interesting. The midnight stuff is crazy. That trailer we showed for Bad Black which is from Wakaliwood, Uganda. It’s like Mystery Science Theatre 3000. The film’s made for $200. It’s a school of filmmaking in Uganda where they recycle footage and use tons of green screen and it’s narrated like MST3K. It’s absolutely insane.

LA: What is it about this year’s film festival that is really unique or that you’re proud of or that will really stand out?

MC: I think this year’s festival might be a little more political than previous years; a lot more films dealing with human rights issues, social justice, it’s our most international festival ever.

LA: There seems to be a lot of films dealing with immigration issues.

MC: Yea, there’s immigration, refugee issues. We’ve got a lot of things that are really gonna blow people away. There’s more countries represented this year, 40 countries, than ever before. Last year I think we had maybe 32 countries represented.

LA: How long have you been with the FFF?

MC: Since the beginning–this is my 21st year as Programming Director. But I’ve been here all 26 years.

LA: 26 years ago, how many films were there, approximately, and how many were from other countries?

MC: Not a quarter of the program! What is interesting is even a lot of domestic films that are in competition are films that were shot in other countries. Like we have films in the American Independent Competition Shorts Program, one is shot in Venezuela, it’s a kidnapping thriller, One’s shot in Germany, there’s another film, Red Apples, that takes place at an Armenian wedding–there are even films that are “technically” domestic films (because they’re USA production money) or made in USA grad schools or film schools, but they’re shot overseas. So I do think there’s more of an international flavor than ever before.

LA: Didn’t one of the films have what looked like an American film and it looked like a lot of Muslim characters and they were speaking Farsi?

MC: It’s called A Stray and it features one of the actors from Captain Phillips

LA: The one who was nominated for an Academy Award?

MC: No, the other guy (Barkhad Abdirahman) he’s coming…the actor’s coming. It’s set in the Somalia refugee community in Minneapolis–as if, like, everybody knew that! It’s a Muslim community. A young man is basically thrown out of his house. He’s homeless. And he ends up befriending a stray dog; how their friendship helps him get through it. That’s in Somali and English both.

LA: What makes a film considered Domestic or International?

MC: Where the production money comes from–it’s where the majority of the production money originates from.

LA: Okay, and in conclusion, give us an update the expansion planning for the Enzian, a project you refer to as “Enzian Forever”.

MC: We just cleared a parking hurdle–which is great! We’re like four and three quarter million raised out of the original budget of six million. But it’s been a couple years now so that’s probably gone up. I think we’re still a couple years away, but we’re moving forward. Things are positive. Hiring David Schillhammer as the new Executive Director, he’s been very successful in the arts as head of the Philharmonic for 16 years. David is very well liked and respected. I think that was an excellent move.

LA: There you have it, ladies and gentlemen, the update on this year’s 26th annual Florida Film Festival with Festival Programming Director, Matthew Curtis. It’s going to be fabulous. If you are going, please leave a comment and let us know which films you are seeing and why. Or, write your own review or synopsis of the film you just saw. Let’s join the conversation about our favorite Film Festival.