Film Festivals: The IFP Market’s Silver Anniversary

A painter who hijacks billboards for subversive messages against corporate advertising; a man trying to convert his car to run on French fry oil; a boxing cutman who loses his touch; a homeless African American man struggling to find an apartment and reclaim his dignity; a dying Hollywood producer who bribes his son into filming his death; a woman uniting with her estranged family to reveal a tragic secret.

These stories and hundreds more were brought to the 25th annual IFP Market in New York this past September. A broad range of rough cuts, trailers, film shorts, excerpts, scripts, and pitches from both first-time filmmakers and Sundance winners were presented as part of the recently redefined market of less projects and, ideally, more opportunities.

While market attendance was down this year—which was most notably marked by the reduced industry presence at the Angelika Film Center screenings—the market still created a flurry of activity. The most obvious benefit for attendees was the networking opportunities. The complimentary suds and socializing at the Puck Building each evening after the panels, and the festival-like late-night party circuit proved filmmakers were hot to share their wares and mingle with each other, or even the occasional actor.

Documentaries made a strong showing this year with several unique stories, including Pedro Carvajal’s POPaganda: The Art & Subversion of Ron English, which is a hilarious, engaging piece about painter Ron English’s very illegal mission to take over billboards by putting up his own typically anti-corporate messages. For example, labeling McDonalds golden arches with the words “Phat Food,” or covering a cigarette company’s logo with the word “breathe.” Carvajal also incorporated a performance into one of his more provocative, if less hilarious, takeovers. After replacing a billboard with an illustration of a giant coat hanger, a woman climbs up in front of the board, disrobes, takes out her own wire coat hanger, and graphically demonstrates in shock-value proportions what would happen if abortion became illegal, collapsing after splattering fake blood everywhere.

Two other strong docs at the market explore the injustice that can result in the enforcement of the country’s drugs laws. Cassandra Herrman and Kelly Whalen’s Tulia, Texas covers the controversy surrounding forty six residents (thirty nine of which were black) arrested in 1999 and sentenced on a false drug charge. Jed Riffe’s Waiting To Inhale: Doctors, Patients and the Law follows a group of marijuana growers as they battle the DEA to legalize medical marijuana for sick patients.

In these times of media conglomeration and manipulation, Rory O’Connor’s The Brokaw Hoax investigates a very strange incident involving NBC’s coverage of the Panama Invasion. After losing contact with its crew in Panama, NBC placed a call to a man in Indiana and told him to talk on the air with Tom Brokaw and pretend to be a businessman stuck in a Panama hotel. The documentary at first seems to be a hoax itself—it seems the story would have been covered before now. To that end, the filmmaker, who was no doubt aware of how his claim would come across, had a voice analyst at the screening confirm the identity of NBC’s fake witness.

Environmental concerns were on the minds of other doc makers. Roberta Grossman’s Turtle Wars follows Native American activists trying to protect their land from oil drilling, mining, and toxic waste dumping. Daniel Gold and Judith Helfand’s latest doc, Melting Planet, examines the effects of global warming. With beautiful camerawork and quirky storytelling (much like their 2002 Sundance winner Blue Vinyl), Gold and Helfand present a smart and informed documentary that features both elements of humor and important environmental themes—desperate ski resort workers in Park City, Utah attempt to make snow during an April-like January winter; a man and his buddies trying to create bio-fuel out of French fry grease in their garage; and Alaskan villagers being forced to relocate their entire town as it literally drops into the ocean because of melting ice’s erosive effects. The filmmakers were at the screenings and, conscious of the fact that their production was contributing to the ozone problem with all the flying and driving required to complete the film, handed out complimentary, energy efficient light bulbs.

In the narrative category, two projects dealing with issues of death and the family appeared promising. Garrett Bennett’s A Relative Thing is about scattered siblings who return home to face the horror of cancer in the family; and Christopher Jaymes’s In Memory of My Father focuses on a dysfunctional Hollywood producer who pays his son to film his imminent death. As the family gathers to witness the event, it becomes clear that the father isn’t the only socially inept one of the bunch. Both A Relative Thing and In Memory of My Father include solid, professional production and competent acting, but were somewhat of a challenge for the viewer. Their complex narratives and multiple characters made it difficult to grasp the nuances within the material.

Of the unfinished projects at the market, the ones that seemed to best represent what their finished result would look like were rough cuts or cohesive sections of film, as opposed to several disconnected scenes that required an introduction and explanation from the filmmaker to let the audience know what they were about to see. This, of course, brings up the question of how useful it is to extend a public forum to films that are nowhere near completion. It is, perhaps, a bit unwise for filmmakers to show only bits and pieces of a film so far in advance of its finishing point.

Obviously, there are projects that need to seek additional funding, but distributors and festivals attend the screenings as well, so these public screenings of partial projects could possibly do more harm than good. This year, there were several films at IFP where it was strikingly evident that more work would benefit the project. And, as many distributors will tell you, you only get one shot to show them your film, so make it a good one.

While docs attracted most of the attention at this year’s market, there were also some very polished, beautifully shot shorts, some of which had already been making the rounds on the festival circuit throughout the year. Yon Motskin’s The Cutman is about an elderly man whose job it is to patch up boxers during fights. After a crucial error in the ring, he struggles to hold onto his job while trying to improve a failing relationship with his son. Kevin Shaw, who was a 2003 finalist for the Gordon Parks Emerging African American Filmmaker Award, mainlined his strong and well-acted short Jeremiah Strong, about a homeless man trying to put his life back together.

After a week of screenings, panels, and parties, market attendees gathered at a downtown nightclub to celebrate the winners. Rosie Perez hosted a very large, rowdy crowd, and awards of more than $130,000 in cash and services were given to six filmmakers. In the Emerging Narrative Category, Benno Schoberth received $85,000 in goods and services for his work in progress, Shelter. Tanya Steele received a $10,000 cash award for her screenplay The Parachute Factory, while Annemarie Jacir was honored with a $5,000 cash award for her short film Like Twenty Impossibles. Gretchen Berland and Mike Majoros received a $10,000 cash award for their documentary, Rolling, and this year’s Gordon Parks Awards went to Alison McDonald for her screenplay Headshrinker, and to Seith Mann for his short film five deep breaths.

About :

James Israel is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker. He also provided information services for AIVF, and edited AIVF’s newsletter, SPLICE!