A Q&A with Executive Director Megan Cooper
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Last year, like most regional film lovers who attended FilmDayton’s festival, I eagerly awaited the opportunity to bask in the Dayton filmmaking vibe. Part of the organization’s call to arms is to support film “by Dayton and for Dayton.” Seemingly more than many other festivals around the world, the FilmDayton event speaks to, and for, its community. It is ours.
Here we are, a year later, and I have to admit that my critical perspective has changed a bit, but my concern has less to do with the regional rallying philosophy of the festival – which runs Aug. 24-26 – and more, much more about the state of film. I’m not hammering another nail in the coffin based on box office receipts or the quality of films or the tired arguments comparing Hollywood studio product versus the indie/art house narratives trickling into theaters – or more likely now airing on our televisions, computers, and various mobile devices thanks to Video On Demand. I’m simply a purist who longs to sit among an audience of likeminded dreamers and watch filmed narratives on the big screen.
Besides my regular weekly screening obligations, I hit the road, as often as possible to attend festivals, always on the hunt for opportunities to place myself in the position to provide advance coverage for upcoming releases and to get a head’s up on a rare and exotic title or two that might either sneak in under the radar or never actually screen here at all. The goal is always the same though; like a big game hunter, I’m hoping to capture a moving experience and prepare the audience for their own in-the-dark sighting.
Within the current exhibition model, it feels like the festival is fast becoming sometimes the only step for audiences before a film hits the video-on-demand and DVD markets. Which means that it is now imperative for film lovers to have access to a festival, that place where they can assure themselves of a chance to spot that elusive buzz-worthy title.
Seeking to commiserate, I shared my feelings during a recent sit-down I had with Megan Cooper, FilmDayton’s new executive director, on the eve of her time at the helm of the regional group’s festival. While finding immediate common ground, Cooper obviously has her sights (and those of FilmDayton) set on framing the future, and Dayton’s role in it.
Megan Cooper: Sure, audiences are getting disconnected from the big screen. That’s a huge generalization because people are still going to the movies, but we’ve all seen the numbers. There’s a disconnect. It’s a value add that we offer in a festival that is really the payback for the audience. A lot of these films have not screened and they would not have seen them otherwise, so audiences get to see them for the first time. And then, there’s the conversation with the filmmaker afterward. There’s this Q&A or this panel discussion. With Andy Garrison bringing “Trash Dance,” not only do you get to see the film, but you can ask him what it was like working on that and seeing all of those elements come together. I think that’s what you’re never going to necessarily get watching it On Demand. I mean there’s the commentary, but you won’t get that face-to-face interaction.
“Trash Dance” (Saturday, Aug. 25 at 5:15 p.m.), from local producer-director Garrison, spotlights choreographer Allison Orr, who finds beauty and grace in garbage trucks – and in the men and women who pick up our trash. This 65-minute documentary premiered at South by Southwest 2012 and tells Orr’s story of convincing city sanitation workers to collaborate in a unique dance performance. After months of rehearsal, two-dozen trash collectors and their trucks – along with thousands of spectators – turn out on an abandoned airport runway to make their garbage trucks “dance” and create an unforgettable spectacle in the process.
Starting out in Dayton, Garrison co-founded New Day Films, a media production and distribution group that made politically-minded independent films before he transitioned into freelancing as a D.P. and sound recordist. Garrison, currently based in Austin, Texas, is an award-winning director whose documentary feature, “Third Ward TX,” and his narrative, “The Wilgus Stories,” both premiered at SXSW and aired on PBS.
Garrison’s presence at this year’s fest – and his interactions with attendees – puts a face, not only on the film, but also on Dayton as a player in the film industry.
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The core theme of the festival is the same – to showcase the contributions of Dayton-based filmmakers, both here and abroad, while also continuing to build the local audience of film enthusiasts by offering the best films from other festivals, films that might not reach this market otherwise.
“We were really lucky this year,” Cooper points out, “that with both sides of that – the locally-connected films as well as the best of the fests – are all locally connected films.”
Local audiences should be familiar with producer Tyler Davidson thanks to last year’s critically acclaimed hit “Take Shelter,” which was filmed in Ohio and included Dayton-based cast and crew. This year, he has lent producing support to writer-director Craig Zobel’s second feature film, “Compliance” (Friday, Aug. 24 at 10:30 p.m.). Based on a true incident, “Compliance” tells the story of a young female fast-food employee accused of stealing a customer’s purse and the unorthodox “telephone investigation” that coerces the restaurant manager into humiliating the employee in the search for the truth. Zobel’s first feature, “Great World of Sound,” premiered at Sundance in 2007, and was selected as one of the Top Ten Independent Films of the Year by The National Board of Review and nominated for Best First Film and Best Supporting Actor in the 2008 Independent Spirit Awards. “Compliance” premiered at Sundance 2012.
Dayton’s own George Willeman, a film archivist with the National Film Registry will be here in support of “These Amazing Shadows” (Saturday, Aug. 25 at 2 p.m.), a captivating documentary that explores why specific films (550 to date) are selected for the registry. Willeman was interviewed along with Christopher Nolan, Rob Reiner, Zooey Deschanel, Debbie Reynolds, John Waters and many others. “These Amazing Shadows” recently aired on PBS.
Spicing things up, Springfield native Marisha Mukerjee returns with “Madrina Films Presents…The Best of Shorts” (Sunday, Aug. 26 at 1 p.m.), a curated selection of the best international shorts on the film circuit that explores the many facets of the “foreign” experience.
“The Promised Land”: Directed by Vanessa Knutsen. Mary, an illegal worker living in Israel, must decide whether to uproot her son from the only place he calls home, or risk being deported. (Winner, Best Short: 2012 Palm Springs Shorts Fest)
“Tsuyako”: Directed by Mitsuyo Miyazaki. In postwar Japan, Tsuyako, a factory work and mother, must decide between duty and love, her family and her freedom. (Winner Audience Award: 2011 Outfest)
“The City”: Directed by Topaz Adizes. A New York Muslim taxi driver and his passenger debate the changing landscape of American Identity post 9/11. (Sundance and Los Angeles Film Festival Selection 2009)
“Laredo, Texas”: Directed by Topaz Adizes. In Laredo, Texas the largest inland port city in the U.S., what should be a simple training day turns into something more when Sam suspects that Juan is an undocumented immigrant.
“Revolution”: Directed by Abdi Nazemian. A coming of age story about Jack, a 16-year-old Iranian boy growing up in 1989 Los Angeles. With the 1979 Iranian Revolution a distant memory, Jack learns how to stage his own much smaller revolution within the confines of his traditional family.
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My talk with Cooper returned to the idea of the evolution of film distribution and exhibition, beyond the festival, and the impact on local communities. Again, Cooper has her eyes on a larger, more practical framework.
Cooper: In terms of FilmDayton as a whole and not just the festival, that’s why we’re launching our own web series because it’s the direction of the industry. A lot of people have said, “FilmDayton brings all of these people together and you offer education, you offer networking, and you offer a festival, why aren’t you guys doing your own work?”
So, as an outgrowth of Film Connections (FilmDayton’s monthly meetings for regional filmmakers), we’re going to put together a production co-op and start taking pitches for ideas and launch a web series with a six-episode arc that will give everyone the experience of writing, producing and shooting and then how to deal with all of the elements involved with getting the final product out there in the market. This really is the way to go now. We’re giving our people the experience and we’re giving our city the experience in this process. The web series is going to be shot in the streets of the community, so people are going to see that.
If you’re going to go with a festival, it can’t just be about a bunch of screenings. What else are you providing, besides the screenings, that will make audiences want to come watch movies on the big screen? We’re backing it (that experience) up by saying, we love the big screen, but we are also aware of the industry and we’re willing to provide that small screen experience too. It’s a gift for the community.
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The festival will feature similar gifts, such as “Flick My Clip” (Friday, Aug. 24 at 8 p.m.), FilmDayton’s first foray into accepting submissions. Ryan Singer, a comedian from Kettering who moved to LA during the summer of 2011 and has received national recognition, started “Flick My Clip” as an attempt to unite the creative forces and minds of stand-up comedians and filmmakers in southwestern Ohio. Comedic shorts under five minutes highlight the talent of the writers, actors and directors working in the field. The local talent is the focus and the outside contributors are a unique way to get introduced to the creative minds working hard outside the local frame of comedic reference.
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The last word should belong to Cooper and the festival. FilmDayton 2012 marks the fourth year, and nearing the end of this growth stage, there are still a few last growing pains to consider. At the top of the list is funding.
Cooper: Everyone has to do more with less. It’s a terrible cliché but it’s just a fact of being. For our festival, especially since we’re bringing so many locals back home from other places in order to showcase their films, a lot of people are staying with friends and family and our volunteers are picking them up at the airport rather than renting cars. I don’t really want to grow (away) from that. Don’t get me wrong, over the next few years, we’re going to get to the point of establishing it, so that we can put filmmakers up in hotels more often and things like that, but right now, I think there’s something really cool that we demonstrate about our volunteer base and about the filmmakers who are willing to stay at that bed & breakfast that offered a free room or my old friends. It is a community festival.
For more information about the FilmDayton Festival, including the full schedule of events and ticketing details, go to www.filmdayton.com.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com
FILMS AT NEON MOVIES, 130 E. FIFTH STREET ($9 per showing)
FRIDAY, AUG. 24
8 p.m. Flick My Clip (Comedy Shorts)
10:30 p.m. Compliance
SATURDAY, AUG. 25
11 a.m. The Wonderland Express
2 p.m. These Amazing Shadows
5:15 p.m. Trash Dance
SUNDAY, AUG. 26
1 p.m. Madrina Films Presents the Best International Shorts
4 p.m. Redlegs
7:15 p.m. Tchoupitoulas
WORKSHOPS AT THINKTV, 110 S. JEFFERSON STREET ($9 per workshop)
SATURDAY, AUG. 25
2:30 p.m. Pitch Perfect
4:30 p.m. George Willeman Presents…
6:30 p.m. Emerging Fields: The Web Series
SUNDAY, AUG. 26
2:30 p.m. Music and Movies
5 p.m. Technology, Business and Video
SPECIAL EVENTS – DOWNTOWN DAYTON
FRIDAY, AUG. 24
5:30 p.m. Pitch It! ($5 – at the Black Box Improv Theatre, 520 E. Third Street in The Cannery)
SATUDAY, AUG. 25
8:30 p.m. FilmDayton Awards ($9 – at The Neon)
10 p.m. Filmmaker Meet and Greet Party ($5 – at Sa-Bai
SUNDAY, AUG. 26
Noon WYSO presents Community Voices ($5 – at the Black Box Improv Theatre)