Digging In 

Memphis Digital Arts Co-operative holds its second film festival.

Judy's in the bedroom, inventing situations.

Bob is on the street today, scouting up locations.

They've enlisted all their family.

They've enlisted all their friends.

It helped save their relationship, and made it work again.

-- "Found a Job," The Talking Heads

In "Found a Job," from the Talking Heads' 1978 album More Songs about Buildings and Food, David Byrne envisioned a typical couple going through the motions of a typical couch-potato night --trying to fix the reception on their television and bemoaning the fact that there was nothing on worth watching -- and offered up a radical solution: Make your own movies.

In 1978, it was certainly a do-able scenario but not quite so easy. A quarter-century later, with the rise of digital video technology democratizing film production in rapid and unforeseen ways, Byrne's call to arms feels like prophecy, a vision that finds fruition in an event like this week's second Memphis Digital Arts Co-operative Film Festival, dubbed "Digital Democracy" in a nod to the DIY spirit of the newish art it celebrates.

With more than 60 films from both local and national independent filmmakers spread over five days (September 3rd through 7th) and three Cooper-Young locations (two in the MeDiA Co-op's host First Congregational Church and another in the nearby Memphis Drum Shop), "Digital Democracy" aims to be a testament to this brave new world -- one where filmmaking isn't just the bicoastal province of big studios but an art available to anyone who can afford a camera, and, as a result, an art not just responsive to mass audiences but to local audiences as well.

This notion of film as a local art scene --every bit as tied to a community as a music or theater scene --is reflected in the work of Rob Nilsson (profiled in last week's Flyer), an independent-film pioneer who is one of the festival's featured filmmakers this year, and the rest of this year's lineup.

The festival's other featured filmmaker is Todd Verow, a New York-based video-maker whose flamboyant work --dedicated to "the glamor of fucked-up-ness" --has drawn favorable comparisons to the '60s/'70s films of Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey. (Verow's films are also reminiscent of the "transgressive" cinema of another underground New York filmmaker, Richard Kern, perhaps best known for his association with Sonic Youth and Lydia Lunch.) Like Warhol, Verow (along with his partner, writer/producer Jim Dwyer) populates his films with a loyal stable of performers dubbed his "superstars."

Verow will be screening two of his films at the MeDiA Co-op festival --Up Against a Star (6:45 p.m., Friday, Congo 1) and Once & Future Queen (9:15 p.m., Friday, at the Memphis Drum Shop) --and will be giving a free workshop on "making cinema on the cheap" Saturday from noon to 1 p.m. at nearby coffee shop Java Cabana.

Once & Future Queen blurs the line between documentary and fiction by following the day-to-day struggles of gutter-punk frontperson Anti-Matter (played by Verow "superstar" Philly, who will also be appearing at the festival), a borderline-genderless, larger-than-life figure who seems like a character from a Lou Reed or Van Morrison song (think "Madame George"). By day, Anti-Matter drifts from one destructive, exploitative relationship to another; by night, she sings for the punk band Eager Meat and provides soundbites such as "I just want to be drunk, stoned, and fucking on stage" and "I've lived on the street and the street has lived on me."

For Verow, Philly is an object of fascination -- an authentic character in the tradition of Warhol's Joe Dallesandro or John Waters' Divine. Once & Future Queen is not easy viewing, but it's not a freak show either. Anti-Matter (or Philly herself) may at first be a shock, but her humanity shines through, and the film itself forces viewers to confront their own reactions, to investigate their own notions of what constitutes "attractive" and what demands pity.

Up Against a Star is a self-portrait of sorts, a documentary made by Verow about his own method and place in the DV revolution. In it, we meet many of his "superstars," see behind-the-scenes footage of many of his films, and get a sense of his views on independent film (where "indie" went bad, Verow says, is "when the question changed from 'How do I make my movie?' to 'How do I sell my movie?'"). The film also contains footage from a CBS 48 Hours segment on Verow, which labels him "the Spielberg of film's new digital age."

Other nonlocal highlights include The Un-American Film Festival (10 p.m., Thursday, Congo 1), a two-hour compilation of politically oriented short films and trailers. The compilation's essential opening short is a viciously irreverent montage of TV news clips, its hip-hop-influenced editing both rhythmic and rich in juxtaposition (including cutting between a Bush speech and the banjo picker from Deliverance). Also interesting is the documentary Our House (5:15 p.m., Friday, Drum Shop), about the struggle of three developmentally disabled adults.

The festival includes a wide range of shorts and features from local filmmakers, many of whom will assemble for a free workshop on the local film scene Saturday from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. at Java Cabana.

Local film fans should be sure to check out the compelling, offbeat, and often bravely personal short films of Ben Siler, who screened several shorts at last year's festival. Particularly engaging is a three-minute film called Joy Ode, a playful little Godardian essay in which a friend hums the title tune and the filmmaker intercuts a montage of himself engaged in solitary activities that apparently give him joy --popping bubble wrap, eating mint-chocolate-chip ice cream, surfing for porn, reading comics, etc. I was also quite fond of Sara, in which a big white teddy bear is a stand-in for an ex-girlfriend. Siler's films are spread out over several shorts programs.

Also invigorating are a couple of music videos -- of Sleater-Kinney's "Get Up" and Ani DiFranco's "Untouchable Face" --produced by a group of kids from White Station High School under the moniker Do You Know Where Your Children Are? Productions (screening as part of a shorts program 7 p.m., Thursday, Congo 1).

The festival will include several local features, such as Dog Me: Potluck (7:30 p.m., Friday, Congo 2), from local sportscaster M. David Lee III; the courtroom-centered General Sessions (4:45 p.m., Friday, Congo 1); and the music documentary The WLOK Story (6:30 p.m., Saturday, Congo 2).

The festival's awards ceremony, in which four $400 filmmaker grants will be given, will happen Saturday night at the 1st Congo Theater after the end of the screenings. A selection of festival highlights will be rescreened Sunday in the same space, starting at 1 p.m. For a full schedule, see the festival Web site at Mediaco-op.org.

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