On a sunny autumn day in Savannah, Georgia, in the year of our lord 2014, a resplendent theater built in 1921 projected a disreputable film made in 2004, and the audience wept. Not many film festivals could get away with a 10th anniversary screening of Nick Cassavetes’s notorious weepie, The Notebook, at least not without efforts at critical reclamation. (As far as this softie is concerned, all reclamations are welcome.) But no claims, assertions, or apologies were required at the Savannah Film Festival, where the 35mm print looked splendid projected within the Lucas Theater’s majestic proscenium, where 84-year-old legend Gena Rowlands was as disarming as ever during a post-screening Q&A, and where the “2014 MTV Movie Awards Best Kiss” winner sat snugly beside big-ticket mainstream fare like HBO’s The Normal Heart and Disney’s Big Hero 6.
It was refreshing to encounter a venerable festival seemingly uninterested in playing the gatekeeper, one that unfurls without any hint of self-consciousness about what’s cool, relevant, or avant-garde. Yet this absence of an edge or angle also made it difficult to know just what to make of the Savannah Film Festival. Yes, it’s a regional festival, and as such performs the dual function of bringing Hollywood glamour to the Peach State whilst exposing outsiders to local hospitality and culture. As was made clear throughout the week, part of what’s being exposed is the attractiveness and readiness of Savannah (and the surrounding region) as a playpen for film production—both in terms of shooting locations and postproduction facilities.
Speaking of facilities, what distinguishes Savannah from most regional festivals is its singular provenance as a baby of local art school SCAD, the Savannah College of Art and Design. Members of SCAD’s faculty and staff double as festival directors, programmers and coordinators, and screening venues such as the Lucas and the renovated, state-of-the-art, 1,200-seat Trustees Theater are official SCAD properties. The Trustees Theater (né the Weis Theater, built in 1946) is one of dozens of buildings that SCAD has repurposed for academic use, reviving the city’s historic old town into a thriving boho district. The festival functions as a world-class clarion call for SCAD, and for the changing face of Savannah, which, considering its casually but thoroughly historic atmosphere and dreamily stroll-worthy streets, need only be changed within reason. I’m just not sure if or how well it yet functions as a venue for vital cinema.
Over the course of the eight-day festival, daytime was roughly reserved for competition, short and student films, documentaries and panels, while nighttime was split between higher-profile prestige releases (Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, The Humbling), enjoyed by an older, patron-flavored crowd, and genre offerings from the After Dark Series (The Babadook, Horns, Creep), consumed by decidedly student-aged corps. In terms of anticipation and excitement, nothing in the festival could match these After Dark screenings, at which the impeccably maintained Lucas seemed to turn spookily decrepit and grimly shadowed after nightfall, and at which a form of communion was achieved between the haunted offerings inside the theater and the quasi-historical “ghost tour” culture peddled around the old town. The sidebar culminated with a screening of Nosferatu on Halloween night, with live accompaniment by the Silent Orchestra, and a population of students dressed in sincerely and ironically costumed finery.
Meanwhile around the corner at the Trustees, the thousand-strong crowd was treated to a series of Awards season hopefuls. Conspicuously absent from these post-dinner, old-fashioned, put-on-your-nice-shoes-and-go-to-the-movie-palace screenings, was any context for why these particular films were being shown. Pre-screening introductions were advertisements for the festival itself, as well as for the eminently worthy SCAD. On the five nights that I was present, I never heard an extolment of the virtues of whatever the audience was about to see, I never heard context given for whoever made the film or how (which, based on grumblings overhead at breakfast the next morning, would have benefited Dardennes-ignorant viewers of Two Days, One Night). It was effectively: “Now here’s a movie.” Maybe that didn’t seem off to anyone but me, but as an outsider trying to get a read on what the festival was about, and what sort of films/filmmakers/movements the festival might be looking to showcase, I found such presentations frustratingly, if not tellingly, vacant. Similarly, nightly tributes to the likes of Rowlands and “Rising Star” winners Analeigh Tipton and Asa Butterfield felt curiously rote, with very little offered as an argument for why these people, why now, and why they were the opening acts for films to which they had no relation.
Likely this would be less troublesome if the programming itself didn’t have a milquetoasty feel. In the competition portion of the lineup, narratives were epitomized by quirky light-touch indies like Alex Beh’s self-made Garden State gloss Warren, and Amira & Sam, which took home the top prize for its meet-awkward/meet-cute dramedic pairing of an Iraqi war veteran (Martin Starr) with a beautiful Iraqi refugee (Dina Shihabi). In the latter, an insider-trading subplot relies on too-broad characterizations, but thankfully the contradictions and imperfections of its Romeo and Juliet leads are absorbed rather than untangled, and their rapport plays as genuine.
The Irish Pub
On the doc side of the street, most of the competition films were formally standard, topic led, TV-ready affairs like Poverty, Inc. and Limited Partnership. And in the case of top winner Ice Warriors: USA Sled Hockey (yes, that’s actually the Dewey Decimal System–friendly title of this cozy underdog tale), a film with zero prior festival presence, a PBS premiere was only a few weeks away. My favorite in the program was a title that’s been knocking around the circuit for a while but benefited from such cookie-cutter company: Alex Fegan’s The Irish Pub. The premise is almost embarrassingly simple—we visit old-school pubs throughout Ireland and meet the colorful people who run and patronize them—but Fegan’s elegant execution (the camera sits on a tripod and people just talk) elevates the film above easy sentimentality or quirkiness, giving us a strong sense of who and what keeps these places alive.
The festival raised its game a bit with a documentary sidebar (inertly titled “Docs to Watch”) that brought together nine top titles from this year’s festival circuit, including eventual Oscar short-list features like Keep On Keepin’ On, Finding Vivian Maier, and Life Itself. None of the selections were exactly envelope-pushers—though Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado pull off some nifty overlays that give 2-D photographs three-dimensionality in The Salt of the Earth—but the program succeeded in nudging the festival into larger conversations about the craft and state of contemporary nonfiction, epitomized by a panel of eight visiting filmmakers that was moderated by Scott Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter.
Perhaps befitting a festival attached to an academic institution, there were treasures to be found among the student competition films (dominated by but not restricted to SCAD enrollees), from Pixar-worthy animated allegory Snow Boat to Joo Hyun Lee’s quietly assured, exactingly realized Sweet Corn. And among the pro shorts, Tim Guinee’s One Armed Man (adapted from a Horton Foote story) packs a ton of tension and class anger into 27 taut minutes, while there’s no way not to succumb to Eric Kissack’s The Gunfighter, which, thanks to an assist by Nick Offerman, is one of the best (and bawdiest) jokes about voiceover narration ever told.
One Armed Man
Walking out of the Trustees Theater on a late October night, overhearing packs of students debating the merits of Whiplash’s relentlessness, of older locals processing their feelings about Keira Knightley’s turn in The Imitation Game on their way to restaurants along the Savannah River, passing under the endless draperies of kudzu, it’s easy to see how Savannah could be among the most appealing stops on the festival circuit. Visiting filmmakers seemed utterly charmed and spoiled by the place, and by the chance to lecture and kibitz with a rapt student population. And the movies were well attended throughout, even if the vast interiors of the Trustees and Lucas theaters sometimes made it seem otherwise. All that remains is for the festival to engage more fully in the state of the art—especially on the level of creative and purposeful programming. As programmers from Missouri to Arkansas to Florida have shown, local interests don’t have to limit the vision or importance of regional film festivals. Nothing would be lost, and much would be gained, from being even more ambitious and creative in bringing home what’s vital in contemporary film, while showing off the potential of Savannah to a film community ever hungry for attention, affirmation, and inspiration.