Phoenix Film Festival Recap: The indie spirit is alive and well

One of my favorite things about film festivals is that you never quite know what you’re going to get. The modern cinematic experience has largely been soured by early reviews and spoiler-filled trailers, but attending the Phoenix Film Festival is like stepping back into a time when all it took to sell you on a movie was a title and a two-sentence summary. While larger festivals like Sundance have in some ways become too commercialized, such wonder (and sometimes horror) in the face of mystery is still very much present here.

I didn’t expect to be so sobered (and educated) by Since: The Bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, a hair-raising documentary about a tragic plane bombing that haunted a generation. I didn’t expect to be so moved by The Man Who Knew Infinity, an impeccably acted biopic about Indian math whiz Srinivasa Ramanujan. I didn’t expect to have my mind so thoroughly twisted in knots by the sci-fi time travel wonder Displacement, or laugh so hard at The Meddler, a film that on paper seemed to be a more serious drama.

The tagline for the Phoenix Film Festival is “find your new favorite movie,” and, while that may be a bit dramatic, I appreciate and understand the spirit of such a phrase. You really can find anything at a place like this, even your new most hated movie. Both sides of the coin seemed to be present during screenings of Night of Something Strange, a schlocky horror film so disgusting it had even the staunchest gore hounds running for the exits (and the true-blue sickos singing its praises).

I, along with many others, certainly found some of my new favorite short films here. The best piece of advice I could give to a first-time festival-goer is see some short films. Sci-fi shorts, horror shorts, animated, live-action and documentary are all on display, and they’re some of the most creative (and sometimes downright bizarre) stuff you’ll ever see. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a theater audience laugh as hard as we did during the Spanish-language short “A King’s Betrayal,” which is narrated by a piñata horse as he makes his journey from store selection to ultimate grim purpose. It’s a similar concept to the upcoming Seth Roger-led animated film Sausage Party, which will have a hard time matching this.

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The Phoenix Film Festival is a great example of what makes festivals so much fun and so special.

The shorts programs also best illustrate my other favorite aspect of film festivals: the community. One of the highlights of the festival was getting to chat with director Peter Brambl about his awesome short film “The Mountain King.” It’s an impeccably crafted and loving homage to 70’s crime thrillers, telling an epic and generation-spanning story of loss and redemption in the span of 10 minutes. We discussed our shared love for this style of cinema and I told him how I’d love to see the short made into a feature, since there’s clearly enough material to do so. He agreed, and said it was likely going to happen.

I love getting in line for a movie and asking others, “what have you seen?” I sat next to a woman in a screening who had written her reactions to the films she had seen in her programs. She was a sci-fi fan and spent several minutes talking about what had stuck with her during the festival. I worked as a volunteer in theater operations, which gave me a lot of downtime in-between screenings. Talking to other volunteers about movies for hours was a rare opportunity for me to discuss one of my favorite subjects at length without getting disapproving glances or feeling like I’ve overstayed my welcome. I met friends who were always eager to discuss further.

That’s ultimately what makes festivals like the Phoenix Film Festival so rare, and so special. That shared passion, the ability to watch 4, 5, 6 movies in a row and still be excited about it, is infectious. That breathless anticipation during the opening credits, and either the slow build of satisfaction or the mounting dread of disappointment are something the audience shares together. We all go on the same journey, though we experience it in different ways.

I suppose the same can be said for life. In this microcosm of existence known as a film festival, the question is often the same: “what have you seen?” But in the answer lies the endless possibility of lifetimes.

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