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A First Fest Finds Its Footing: The 2003 Independent Film Festival of Boston

News bulletin: The 1st annual Independent Film Festival of Boston was not held in Boston. Instead, this celebration of gritty, low-budget cinema took place in the nearby cities of Somerville and Cambridge, appropriately avoiding the big brand-name multiplexes that lie within the city limits.

The surrounding towns are home to most of the real heart-and-soul art anyway. And there was a healthy smattering of it – features, documentaries and shorts, about a dozen of each – playing in the area’s most venerable, independently minded theaters: the Somerville Theater, in always-hip Davis Square, and the Brattle Theater, in once-hip, now-all-Abercrombie & Fitch Harvard Square.

The upstart festival enjoyed a high-energy opening night with the East Coast premiere of Dummy, a left-of-center romantic comedy starring Adrien Brody as a meek loner with his hand inside a ventriloquist dummy, and his head up his own butt. Equal parts tender and dangerous, director Greg Pritikin’s film was a smash opener as evidenced by the appreciative response of the packed house (including old-timer Robert Vaughn(!), sitting in the back). After the screening, co-star Illeana Douglas, producer Richard Temtchine and Pritikin handled an eager audience Q&A, in which Douglas told tales about stars Brody, Ron Leibman and Jessica Walter, and Pritikin answered questions with the air of a brilliant snot-nose.

The evening’s electricity began prior to even the first frame: Outside the theater a small but noisy group staged a protest regarding four projectionists wanting to go union. The details remained cloudy the whole weekend – and the size of the vocal gang waned quickly – but it gave the new festival a hip spunk that made it feel more important than it ever meant to be. Douglas was even verbally abused on her way in the theater, and made quick fun of the incident during the Q&A.

Full slates for the rest of the weekend offered a range of intriguing titles including: Melvin Goes to Dinner, the feature debut comedy from Bob Odenkirk (who, with David Cross, makes up the brilliant Mr. Show) and winner of the festival’s Audience Award for best narrative feature; the New England premiere of director Bernard Rose’s take on Tolstoy, ivans xtc, a three-time Independent Spirit Award nominee and the festival’s Grand Jury Award winner for best feature; and Academy Award-winning (and festival award winner) Thoth, filmmaker Sarah Kernochan’s chronicle of New York City’s oddest – and most complicated – street performer.

If that trio of films represents the ‘bigger bucks’ of the independent world, the rest of the IFFB was mostly about pocket change. Promising filmmaker Sam Neave shot his Dogme-like relationship whirlwind Cry Funny Happy on the video cheap, relying on courageous performances from actors that had been rehearsing for months. Nineteen-year-old Joshua Rofe set a sort of land-speed record by casting his New Jersey drama The Gray in Between just five months after completing the script and then shooting the film in 17 days. And speaking of youth, Chaille Stovall was just 13 when he took a small video crew to trace the path of a Tibetan family delivering their young child to a monastery, in the interesting but sloppy docu short Little Monk. Stovall’s inquisitive nature (he does his own voiceovers and appears on camera) runs from admirable to awkward, but when he boldly attempted a Q&A after his second screening of the weekend, his precocious, aggressive nature streamed through. When a young teenager brags about having final cut with HBO, and asks the polite audience to ‘close their eyes’ to better picture his next project, it’s a little unsettling for everyone.

The IFFB’s audience tended to be young at most screenings (not as young as Stovall, of course), and it would appear that festival coordinators were aware of their demo – at a third site, they attempted two midnight shows. The first was the super-low-budget, near-silent thriller Soft For Digging, made by videogame screenwriter JT Petty for around $6,000; the second was Brian Flemming’s Nothing So Strange, a faux documentary about the assassination of Bill Gates (perfect for a conspiracy-loving midnight crowd).

The most impressive aspect of this upstart festival was the crowd size: After the longest, most treacherous winter in recent memory, the Boston area enjoyed its first real spring-like weather during the fest’s weekend – yet, most screenings were still crowded, with over one-quarter being complete sellouts. I hope the folks behind the larger (and less focused) Boston Film Festival were taking notes, because these guys did it right.

Festival Award Winners

Grand Jury Awards
Best Narrative Feature: ivans xtc
Best Documentary: Speedo – Jesse Moss’s look at a demolition derby hero
Best Short: Thoth

Audience Awards
Narrative: Melvin Goes To Dinner
Documentary: 7th Street — Josh Pais’ view of a unique New York neighborhood
Short: Have You Seen This Man — A documentary about eclectic NYC artist Geoff Lupo and his sale flyers (‘Cracker for Sale – 35 cents’)

Special Jury Awards
Narrative: Soft For Digging
Documentary: The King of Sixth Street — Charles Burmeister’s homage to Austin funk musician Gerry Van King
Short: Met State — Bryan Papciak’s artistic peek at an abandoned mental asylum

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