INDIE GRITS: DIY Filmmaking
The Indie Grits Festival, in its sixth year at Columbia, South Carolina’s Nickelodeon Theatre, sold almost fifty-three hundred tickets for more than fifty films in twenty-four programs over eleven days in April. That’s a lot of indie spirit and a lot of DIY filmmaker persistence.
The jury-awarded Top Grit winner, for best entry overall, was Andrew Beck Grace’s Eating Alabama, an elegiac chronicle of trying to live for a year eating nothing but locally produced food. Grandson, great-grandson, etc. of Alabama farmers, Grace grew up in the ’burbs. He, his wife, and their friends try to put Food Inc. and Michael Pollan-esque lessons into practice by eating locally, but they find that even wholesome rural groceries stock almost entirely from out of state if not out of nation. To come up with a decent, well-rounded fridge and pantry, they have to drive many hundreds of miles—probably not a net environmental gain given the carbon footprint.
Soon, though, Grace and his wife have dug up their tidy lawn and planted crops in their yard—a weirdly subversive-feeling act, Grace notes. They’ve befriended some like-minded local farmers, a few, like them, young gastro-agro-adventurers who chat articulately as they pick and plant, separate wheat from chaff, or slaughter, bleed, and wash chickens. Grace even dons hunting gear (his pal jokes that he looks like a Nicaraguan soldier in it) and, shivering, waits perched in an elevated hunting blind—high-powered rifle in hand—for a deer.
In a parallel narrative, we hear from Grace’s grandfather, who grew up on a farm but has lived in the exurbs for decades. An amateur photographer, he’s taken wonderful shots of the farm and hometown of his youth and of the rolling hills behind his house. He inspires Grace to seek the elusive farms of yesteryear. But it’s not just that Grace and his generation have grown alienated from farm life, he discovers. Farm life itself has largely disappeared, with agribusinesses reaping huge monoculture farms of proprietary, pesticide-friendly seeds cultivated with great, if soulless, efficiency. Grace dreams of a mass movement of young people drifting back to the land, but that uplifting vision, at the end of his melancholy but beautiful odyssey, seems, sadly, a little implausible, like Tolstoy in Tuscaloosa
Also wistful but visionary is The Dragons of Jim Green, by Randy Salo, which won the audience-awarded People’s Grit award. Salo travels back to rural South Carolina from New York to visit his grandfather, Jim, a widower cluttering his disorderly house and untended yard with diagrams, models, pictures, charts, and little archeological pits. He has, you see, for decades been researching the alien-lizard people who populated this territory, he believes, tens of millions of years ago. A former state geology department employee, Green was also a Marine in the Solomon Islands in World War II. His alien precursors, he has set out to prove with increasing intensity since his wife died of Alzheimer’s, had submarines, bordellos, and bandstands and such—a bit like GIs in the 1940s, perhaps.
Salo has a variety of scientists, including a microbiologist he brings down from New York, listen to and observe his granddad as open-mindedly as possible. They conclude that Green is a genial gentleman with some scientific and pseudo-scientific vocabulary who has slowly but surely lost his grip on at least much of reality, retreating into a parallel sci-fi universe of his own constant invention and embellishment. Salo, who spent much of his childhood with his grandpa, slowly absorbs the sad, twisted beauty of having been a solo boy audience for, and participant in, this old man’s odd fantasies. The New York scientist interprets Jim’s peculiar mythical realm, complete with epic poetry, as outsider art spurred, maybe, by post-traumatic combat stress. That sounds about right, and Salo is left to contemplate the nightmarish flipside of an old, bewildering, beautiful dreamer, whose world will disappear with his approaching demise.
Salo plays this all effectively straight—he is the serious, sympathetic, impartial observer—and he provides a variably textured musical score that enhances both the otherworldly and the earthly sides of Jim’s raucous mental terrain. It’s a sympathetic and memorably disturbing experience.
Tchoupitoulas, a straight-on vérité voyage by Bill and Turner Ross, won the festival’s “Big Grit” award, granted by the jury to the best feature. Three brothers cross by ferry into New Orleans’s French Quarter for a night of wide-eyed observation. (The film’s title is from a Big Easy street name.) They see street musicians, parade floats, cops, and drunks and druggies and drag queens. Sometimes they only get to look through windows into establishments we enter for a longer visit, hearing a saucy-talking shucker at an upscale oyster bar, or strippers in their dressing room singing old songs like bored, giggly high-school girls. We watch the performances of rappers and burlesque dancers and big bands and blues acts. At one point a pretty flute player dressed as an angel explains why playing the recorder in school is so helpful in learning to play other wind instruments. As the boys look on in wonder, she plays gossamer notes in her gossamer costume in the hot New Orleans night. It’s a tender and mystical meeting.
The boys miss the ferry back home and spend a tense, exhausted, wandering night in a ghost city. When even the French Quarter is dead and dawn approaches, you know it’s way past your bedtime. Interspersed are little snippets of the youngest brother talking about a girl he likes, his dreams for the future, his fear of big kids, and so on. When he talks we hear carousel bells and see the unfocused hexagonals of lights shifting ever out of view. By the time the boys head home, we too are daunted by how big the world is—all its expectations and spectacles and threats. The strain feels a lot like childhood itself. With nary a Hollywood gimmick or convention, we’ve been transformed over an hour and a half of fly-on-the-wall presence into bewildered, overexcited, tired, dreamy kids.
Joe Schenkenberg’s Claymation short Wiggle Room won in the jury-awarded “Animated Grit” category. It’s a fun, colorfully imagined, vibrantly paced depiction of a hapless slug crawling into a vast yuppie kitchen when no one’s around. The pitiful fellow’s antagonists include some wily spices. I especially liked a menacing saltshaker that navigates countertops and wine racks like an X Games freestyle snowboarder.
Not part of Indie Grits, but definitely meriting mention in a column about DIY film, is Erik: Portrait of a Living Corpse, by Texas Christian University student filmmaker Ryan Bijan. If faculty advisers had any scruples about Bijan trying to reinterpret the Phantom of the Opera tale in full gothic-horror splendor and on a shoestring budget with a Sony Handcam, either they forgot to mention those qualms, or Bijan and his hardy band ignored them.
I confess the title had me hoping for a cross between Gaston Leroux’s original tale and The Evil Dead. I wasn’t expecting this, well, yes, somewhat derivative and traditional retelling, with a few too many BBC-imitation British accents and anachronistic bannisters and light switches. Yet the project’s sheer earnest, determined love of the story, and go-to-the-devil, Garland-Rooney let’s-put-on-a-show embrace of lavish costumes, moody lighting, and eerie original score sort of won me over. So did Bijan’s leading lady (and costume designer!), the beautiful and effecting Autumn Hyun, as the Phantom’s voice student and protégée, Christine.
Bijan has real potential. Hollywood talent hunters take note: If he chooses, he’ll someday be an excellent professional director, I’ll wager. But in the meantime, grab him up ASAP as your line producer. After all, according to the credits (and IMDB), he turned Beeville, Texas, without use of green screens and on a budget of $6,000, into nineteenth-century Paris—and lived to tell the tale.
Alexander C. Kafka will be writing monthly about films from, of, or about the South. If you have information about new or upcoming releases, please email him at email@example.com.