I'm not even going to make a weak attempt at convincing anyone that I can be objective about the third Asheville Film Festival. I was involved in it up to my eyebrows -- and sometimes beyond.
I had no idea that by the middle of the week, I'd be answering phone calls from the city -- mostly from Sandra Travis or Melissa Porter -- by asking, "What's the crisis du jour?" But really, till you've been in the thick of something like this, it's impossible to imagine all that's apt to surface along the way -- ranging from DVDs that won't play to housing Barry Sandler's dog, Harvey, to flights that arrive more than two hours late.
But that was just the overture to the opera that was to come with the festival itself, and the quality of this year's films.
As I noted in an earlier article, this year's feature entries continued the pattern of getting better and better. Of course, that's to be expected as the overall significance of the Asheville Film Festival grows; still, this really was a daunting crop. I don't envy actor Robby Benson and Charlotte Observer movie critic Lawrence Toppman who had to decide on which one was best. The Indian entry, Devaki, took the prize, and it was a worthy choice. I'd have had trouble saying whether it or the runner-up, The Tenants (which proved that Snoop Dogg can actually act!), was the more deserving.
The job wasn't all that much easier for myself and Angela Shelton (whose Searching for Angela Shelton copped Best Documentary last year) to weigh the merits of the shorts, the student films and the animated entries. In fact, it may have been more difficult, because so much of the material -- especially the shorts -- was of such high caliber. Neither or us realized at the time that both the winning film, The Butler of Van Der Waal House, and the runner-up, The Sky Is Falling, were made by the same filmmaker, Adam Krepps! It came as no surprise, however, that Krepps was not there to receive his award: He was in Hollywood doing pre-production on his first feature. His is a name to watch for. Yes, he's that good.
Don Mancini (writer/director of Seed of Chucky) and Barry Sandler (writer/producer of the Ken Russell film Crimes of Passion) seemed to find it equally daunting sorting through the documentaries and concluding which of several truly worthwhile contenders should go home with the award, but in the end they opted for Donor. I haven't seen it, but Don and Barry tell me that it's powerful -- if not exactly pleasant -- filmmaking.
Of course, it wasn't just the choice of Devaki (the second time that a foreign-language film has taken the prize) that gave the festival an international flavor. There was also the presence of British filmmaker Ken Russell, who came to Asheville with his wife (and Asheville native), Lisi, to pick up the Lifetime Achievement Award. And I cannot think of anyone more deserving of the award -- something I doubt would find argument from anyone who attended the "Evening With Ken Russell" screening of Tommy, the Spotlight Awards dinner, or Ken's appearance at the Sunday-night screenings of Dance of the Seven Veils and Mahler.
It can be argued (and probably will be) that I'm prejudiced, since Ken was the subject of my first book, and I've known him for well over 20 years. Plus, yes, I was largely responsible for getting him here. But objectively, this is the man who brought such movies to the screen as Women in Love, The Music Lovers, The Devils, Tommy, Altered States and The Lair of the White Worm.
His films practically defined 1970s filmmaking, exploring the new freedoms afforded by the advent of the rating system in ways no one else dared. He's won awards, been feted at film festivals worldwide, and worked with such luminaries as Glenda Jackson, Alan Bates, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, Twiggy, Ann-Margret, Roger Daltrey, Elton John, Jack Nicholson, William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Anthony Perkins and Hugh Grant -- to name a few.
From beginning to end, Ken and Lisi Russell were pure delights -- and it was a treat to see Ken meet once again with his Crimes of Passion cohort Barry Sandler, and encounter Robby Benson's charming wife, Karla DeVito, whom Ken had been all set to cast in the title role of the film version of Evita before disagreements with producer Robert Stigwood caused him to quit the project. Personally, it was equally great for my wife, Shonsa, and me to get reacquainted with the man whose films had formed a kind of background for our earliest days together.
And the Russells were delighted with Asheville, too. Not only does Asheville resemble -- as Ken noted -- England's Lake District (without the lakes, of course) where so many of his films were shot, but it's a city that's proved itself time and again to be a place that embraces the artistic and unusual in film. We are, after all, the town that was still showing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou to enthusiastic audiences long after those movies had disappeared from all but a handful of U.S. cities. They're what I call "Asheville movies," and Ken Russell's work could well qualify for that term.
The festival's screening of Tommy attests to this. I've seen this movie literally hundreds of times and with all sorts of audiences, but I've never seen an audience respond as well as did this one. And I was not alone in this observation. At the awards ceremony, Ken remarked, "There was an atmosphere in the audience ... I'd never, ever experienced before -- of a sort of awakening, of a sort of absolute agreement and a sort of understanding of what was coming off the screen, from the music and the imagery. ... [Tommy] has got a lot of obviously fragmented, exciting moments, but as a theatrical experience of maybe a new kind of religion or brainwashing or the public being manipulated, it seemed to make an impact!"
After the screening, I said to Lisi, "Who knew Ken was going to sing along with the film and join in the applause when each new artist made his or her appearance?" Lisi responded with complete seriousness, "That has never happened before. I've never seen him react that way." She'd told me earlier that Ken only watches his films all the way through with audiences if it "feels right." This obviously more than just felt right. And in its own way, this is as much a testament to Asheville and Asheville audiences as it is to the film.
For me, the festival was a bit of a dream come true - bringing together respected filmmakers, friends and fans, both local and from afar -- and it will always be a treasured memory. So, too, will be the impact Ken and Lisi made on those they met here (and vice versa). The couple left Asheville with a lot of friends, but who knows, they may well be back. On the last night of the festival, Ken asked Neal Reed of the Fine Arts, "When are we going to do this again, so we can run the rest of my films?"
The three-year-old Asheville Film Festival has obviously come a long way, and it now stands at something like a crossroads. The festival has become something way beyond the boundaries of a local event. It's now national and international -- and that's as it should be (as Ken Russell himself once said, "Art knows no frontiers"). The challenge, then, is to take the festival higher and make it even better. And that. I think, is within our grasp.
But before we set our sights on next year, we should tip our caps to those who worked so hard to put on this event. A short list includes Sandra Travis, Kathi Petersen, Melissa Porter, David Mitchell, Katie Kasben, Mike Stewart, Jeff Fobes, Neal Reed, Marci Miller, the judges and those devoted volunteers.
And, especially, the audiences.