Good Lord, Not Another Artsy Film

I am Marc Vogl, a 30-something East Coast kid who came out to San Francisco in the 90s following a Richard Dreyfuss-in-Close Encounters kind of urge. I didn’t know what was luring me west or what I’d find when I got here, but I was powerless to resist. And, like the lemmings in Close Encounters, I was not alone. A critical mass of musicians, actors, comedians, and filmmakers moved here on the eve of the dot-com rollercoaster and felt like making our own entertainment. To that end we seized the means of production.

We rented theaters.
We bought funny wigs.
We borrowed cameras
We dated directors of photography (or tried to).

In a surprisingly short order a body of work was created, a school of like-minded artists was unwittingly formed, and a very silly first movie was in the can.

The film was about a piece of chocolate that flies through space. It was enigmatically titled Space Chocolate. The film was a commentary on an entire canon of anti-climactic space odysseys, a triumph of low-budget puppetry, and it starred a modified Toblerone traversing a galaxy of duvateen and Christmas lights to land in an old pizza box. Like a sandcastle made just before the tide rolls in, it seemed quite likely that no one would ever see this five-minute saga. And, in the grand tradition of people determined to do everything the hard way, the film’s directors, Brian L. Perkins and Paul Charney, and I founded the hi/lo Film Festival pretty much for the sole purpose of showing Space Chocolate.

Interest in the film festival picked up a lot faster than interest in our sweet-toothed inter-stellar adventure flick, and since that first festival in 1997, thousands of films have been submitted to us (over 500 this year). We’ve presented over 300 shorts, features, docs, videos, animations, experimentals, and indescribable concoctions at screenings around the country and before eager crowds in the Bay Area. Local publications like The San Francisco Bay Guardian now describe the festival as “four days of free-thinking creative combustion,” and Film Threat recently paid us the nicest complement I think we’ll ever get: “The hi/lo Film Festival has a program that stretches across all emotions…there is an eclectic selection here that personifies what being different is. And it’s worth it.” (Oh yeah, Space Chocolate ultimately played at a couple other places too, including an astronomy class at the University of Oklahoma.)

Bringing together films based on something as slippery as a “high concept” idea executed on a small budget, has been an education in the human imagination. I wish I could say that after watching nearly a decade’s worth of low-budget film submissions I’d seen it all, but I certainly haven’t. Yes, we’ve programmed documentaries about competitive table setting, noise musicians who do it all for Christ, and a guy who makes art out of dead rats and his mother’s dentures. But my conception of how many ways there are to live on this planet extends far beyond the annual crop of docs about individual nutballs and eccentric communities. My sense of the human experience is expanded by filmmakers who attach a camera lens to a microscope to make details on a corroded spoon look like a lunar surface; who convey dementia by rearranging a narrative about Alzheimer’s to reflect how a sufferer might tell the story; who painstakingly animate the imagined telephone conversations of rabbits and fish one film cell at a time; who place a tortilla and an apple in a room and let the cameras roll; who send digital hot dogs flying through the air while cranking up Foreigner; and who sit at home alone in their boxers dispensing dubious financial advice to their digital camera.

When navigating through tapes and disks of stories alternately surreal, mundane, dazzling, and totally unredeeming (yes, we get a lot of stinkers) the challenge is to pick out the work that starts with an original idea and ends up a faithfully executed expression of that initial inspiration. Sometimes a filmmaker sets out to tell a simple joke, to capture a single moment, to explain a particular tragedy, or to chronicle an entire life, but each hi/lo film places ideas and creativity over imitation and slickness and proves, as the hi/lo motto department is fond of saying, that when it comes to movie-making big imaginations are more important than fat wallets.

While anybody with a $500 video camera can call themselves a filmmaker, film is a wretchedly unforgiving medium, and making a film that succeeds on its own terms is very difficult. And, for better or worse, film is also the artistic medium the average Joe feels most qualified to critique. Most people may not be able to analyze a poem’s sensibility or expound upon a sculpture’s form, but everyone can tell you what they thought about the last movie they saw.

Looking around at the stunning number of film festivals in America it’s easy to conclude that all a festival organizer has to do is open up the doors and brace for the stampede of cinemaniacs. Indeed, all year long in the Bay Area fans are lining to see nearly 50 festivals that cater to 101 flavors of film: gay films, black films, Jewish films, Arab films, Latino films, Asian American films, silent films, films made with cell phones… the list seems endless. Even as I write this in my Mission District coffee shop someone has just handed me a promo flyer for his “slo-mo” video fest!

However, it’s not too hard to see that the entire community of film festivals (Sundance included) is a niche market and that our collective audience is actually not as big as we might think. I’d wager that more people saw Garfield—The Movie (2004 box office gross $75 million) than all the films at all the festivals in America last year.

It’s not that we’re after world domination, but since film festival programmers are pretty peripheral taste-makers it’s crucial that the films we program—and the way we present them—inspire our audience to want to take another chance on someone else’s festival next week. More than that we want to contribute to a culture of supporting grassroots and small-scale arts programming of every type.

At hi/lo we wrestle with the subject of growth all the time. “Bigger is not better” is the guiding principle of our “high concept/low-budget” approach to picking films. We strive to put films before audiences that illustrate how liberating a small budget can be and, by implication, how enormous budgets have a way of fucking up a lot of really good ideas for movies. This belief that film festivals, like a painting or a novel, should have an appropriate size is also the conceit that made Space Chocolate at once a Star Wars parody and something really original, too. It’s also at the root of why talented filmmakers don’t all go to Hollywood or Vancouver or wherever they made Garfield.

Sure, we want more people to see the films we program, and yes we want to be able to show more films. But unless Loews or AMC gives us the keys to every multiplex in the country our reach into the American mainstream will never be complete. Sometimes showing a few films at a few theaters for a few days feels as satisfying as bringing sand to the beach. But when we do get a packed house to see a killer documentary about San Francisco’s graffiti history (and the men’s bathroom at the movie theater is redolent with fresh tags at the end of the night), it feels like we’ve moved the chains forward just a little bit.

If everyone who makes great high-concept/low-budget films has a surplus of avenues to present their work, then conduits like our film festival wouldn’t be necessary. We could pack up. We would be done. But the world isn’t quite there yet. For all the growth and variety that has defined our festival over the past eight years, the raison d’etre of the hi/lo Film Festival remains steadfast and true: somewhere out there someone is making a really brilliant (some would doubtless say stupid) film, and the world will be a better place if people get a chance to see it.

The hi/lo Film Festival next screens June 10 at Automotive High School in Brooklyn as part of the Rooftop Film Series. For more information about the films shown in
the festival, or to submit yours to the next one, please visit: www.hilofilmfestival.com. And if you really want to see a piece of chocolate fly through the universe, check out www.killingmylobster.com

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