The 11th On Location: Memphis International Film Festival takes place at Malco's Ridgeway Four theater for a four-day run this week. The schedule boasts local-interest debuts (Willy Bearden's One Came Home, Kentucker Audley's The Holy Land), high-profile award winners from the Oscars (The Cove), Sundance (Tibet in Song, which screens at 4 p.m. on Saturday), and Cannes (Dogtooth), and ex-pat filmmakers returning home (Ray Costa of opening-night film Hometown Glory and Lynne Sachs, whose double feature of experimental docs screen at 6 p.m. Saturday), among other highlights.
We take a closer look at some of the festival's best bets here.
Hometown Glory: new documentary takes loving look at '70s-era Germantown teen firefighters.
Hometown Glory, a film by Ray Costa of Los Angeles, chronicles a period in the 1970s when Germantown's volunteer fire department was staffed primarily by teenage boys from Germantown High School under the tutelage of a tough old fire chief who demanded excellence and punished bad behavior with a paddle he called the "board of education." It's a lovingly made documentary that feels like it's always auditioning to be made into a feature film. A handful of staged recreations even feels like they could be lost establishing shots from Dazed and Confused. The film's opening could stand on its own as a trailer for a film about young love. And firetrucks.
"Originally, I thought it should be a feature film like Remember the Titans," says Costa, who wrote, directed, financed, and occasionally appears in the film.
Hometown Glory was a labor of love for Costa, who graduated from Germantown High and participated as a volunteer fireman before moving to L.A., where he now works in the entertainment industry. "I was like the guy who orbited the moon but never got to walk on it," says Costa of his time as a firefighting student in Germantown. Although the filmmaker saw plenty of action, he was left to guard the home front when his friends dodged bullets and blazes putting out fires in Memphis during the 1978 firefighters' strike.
"For me, joining the fire department was basically the result of two things," Costa says. "First, you got out of school whenever there was a fire. But you have to remember, this was the 1970s. I was a product of the television shows that I watched and I loved the TV show Emergency. I wanted to do all the things I saw on that show."
Obviously, Costa is close to his subject matter, and Hometown Glory might have been better with direction by a less-involved party. Some of the stories told are less compelling than others, keeping the film from ever becoming as focused as it could be. Still, it's a potent combination of danger, hormones, terrible loss, and incredible commitment.
"Whenever I'm in town, I go visit the station to see old friends," Costa says. "And as soon as we're together, it's like nothing has changed." — Chris Davis
Hometown Glory opens the festival at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, April 22nd.
One Came Home: veteran Memphis filmmaker takes on a new challenge.
The festival-closing One Came Home is not your typical local debut feature. For starters, filmmaker Willy Bearden is not your typical fledgling filmmaker. Bearden is a veteran documentary filmmaker whose work — including films on Overton Park, the cotton industry, and the local garage-band scene of the '60s — is ubiquitous on Memphis public television and at local museums. Further, One Came Home, Bearden's first try at fictional filmmaking, is more ambitious and more stylistically classical than what has been the local film-scene norm.
"When I was sitting in the little dark room editing my last documentary, I had interviewed [a dozen or so professors] and I kept thinking, Damn, would you just say what I need you to say?" Bearden remembers. That's when he decided to try a form of filmmaking that would give him total control over the story he wanted to tell.
One Came Home, about a family who has lost a loved one in World War II and is later visited by a man who claims to have served with the deceased, is rooted in Bearden's own family history.
"My grandmother would look in the back of the American Legion magazine every month after [her son] was killed because it had page after page of these listings," Bearden says, describing the attempts to link those left behind with soldiers who could supply information about perished family members.
Bearden's grandmother started a correspondence with a war buddy of her deceased son, and Bearden and writing partner David Tankersly took this scenario and fictionalized it into the story of a con man trying to take advantage of a grieving family.
Set in Mississippi just after the war, One Came Home was filmed last summer using Davies Manor Plantation in Bartlett as a primary location.
"We kept saying, Could we make it any harder on ourselves?" Bearden says about making his first narrative feature a period piece. But with the Davies Manor location, the loan of vintage cars from a friend, and a thorough collaboration with costume designer Merriwether Nichols, Bearden thinks he was able to recreate the '40s time period on a budget, an assertion the film's impressive trailer backs up.
Though One Came Home is Bearden's first feature film, he set steep goals for himself and feels good about the results.
"I wanted to see if we could create something that's just a simple story, told beautifully," Bearden says. "I think we all had the mindset that we aren't competing with anybody in Memphis. We wanted to create something that would look like a national feature." — Chris Herrington
One Came Home closes the festival at 7 p.m., Sunday, April 25th.
The Holy Land: Kentucker Audley's next step.
Memphis filmmaker Kentucker Audley is debuting two new features this month. Open Five, his collaboration with Jump Back Jake singer Jake Rabinbach, debuted earlier this month at the Indie Grits Festival in South Carolina and then at the Atlanta Film Festival but will likely wait until this fall for a first local screening.
But The Holy Land, which Audley shot earlier with another local musician, Cole Weintraub of Girls of the Gravitron, has its official Memphis debut at On Location.
The film, which loosely follows a slightly fictionalized Weintraub traveling between Memphis and the titular Virginia town, comes across as something of a mumblecore Sherman's March. Audley admits to being a big fan of that highly personal '80s documentary, in which filmmaker Ross McElwee documented his own romantic life while traversing the modern landscape of the South but says he wasn't conscious of its direct influence.
What was intended was to strip back what Audley saw as the imbedded jokes and contrivances of his breakthrough debut, Team Picture, in favor of something even looser and more natural. Audley says the film was "a completely necessary step" in his own filmmaking development.
The Holy Land can be difficult for viewers unaccustomed to Audley's diffident, naturalistic style, but the film is not at all without the deadpan humor and small grace notes that have earned Audley film-scene fans around the country. — Chris Herrington
The Holy Land screens at 9:15 p.m., Friday, April 23rd.
Family Affair: a personal doc from Sundance.
Some documentarians like to share something they already know about with the audience, but it's the more rare nonfiction movie that has the filmmaker learning right along with everyone else, the film taking all passengers to unknown places. And, in the case of Chico David Colvard's Family Affair, it's all the more amazing since the subject of the film is Colvard's parents and siblings and stolen childhood.
Family Affair didn't, in fact, begin as a deliberate filmmaking choice. It began as a home video taken at an ostensibly typical Thanksgiving reunion. But Colvard sees his father, Elijah, for the first time in 15 years, and he's surprised when his sisters — Angelika, Paula, and Chiquita — warmly welcome their father.
It's a moment of confused amazement, because Elijah sexually abused his daughters for years before finally being put behind bars in 1978. Colvard wonders why his siblings are now acting cheerful and normal around their dad, and he spends the next five years in an attempt to understand it. He wants to "unpack" his sisters' reactions and his own place in this family.
Thus begins a terrifically compelling journey that will have Colvard interviewing his father about his actions, his mother, who abandoned the children and blamed them for what happened, and his sisters about their memories and the permanent effects of the abuse. It's a portrait of the victims as adults, still living in the world with their monsters.
Family Affair was an official selection at this year's Sundance Film Festival and has been picked up by Oprah Winfrey's new OWN television network. — Greg Akers
Family Affair screens at 7 p.m., Friday, April 23rd.
The Cove: Oscar-winning doc finally hits local screens.
Few documentaries boast the perfectly woven complexity of The Cove. Part thriller, part cultural inquiry, part investigative reporting, and part personal journey to undo worldwide "dolphin mania," the film covers considerable ground via rigorous documentation and keen editing.
Ric O'Barry, once the most famous dolphin trainer in the world for his role in the hit TV show Flipper, played a large part in the popularization of dolphins as human playthings. O'Barry has spent years trying to change that perception, fighting Sea World and similar parks and entreating them to release their captive cetaceans.
In recent years, however, his attention has focused on shutting down a ring of dolphin trading and hunting in Taiji, Japan. Here in this small fishing town, in a secluded inlet of a national park, thousands of dolphins are systematically captured each year; those not sold for a small fortune to dolphinariums all over the world are slaughtered, and their mercury-laden meat (not always accurately labeled) is sent to market.
The entire operation is conducted under an impossible shroud of secrecy, and the attempt to unveil the practices of these Japanese dolphin hunters is an equally impossible feat. The Cove is a thrilling documentation of eco-investigators coming up against institutionalized killing and corruption, in a town where nobody seems to play by the rules.
The Cove was this year's Academy Award winner for Best Documentary. — Hannah Sayle
The Cove screens at 1:30 p.m., Saturday, April 24th.
A celebrated oddity from overseas.
Giorgios Lanthimos' Dogtooth is a deadpan, sad-funny nature vs. nurture horror-comedy that owes debts to three curious creditors: Luis Bunuel, Michael Haneke, and experimental author Ben Marcus. Essentially a coming-of-age family drama with some grotesque physical and psychological inflections, the film focuses on a family whose calmly loony parents have isolated their one son and two daughters from nearly all human contact and fed them with lies and rumors about the world outside their compound walls. (The kids believe that housecats eat children and that the word "zombie" means "a small yellow flower.") Dogtooth won the 2009 Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard prize, which is annually given to new talent. And through its long, static observations of family members committing imponderable acts of love and violence, it certainly earns its share of "un"-words — uncompromising, unusual, unflinching, unexplainable. But anyone who mistakes this oddity for a masterpiece (or an allegory) is kidding themselves. — Addison Engelking
Dogtooth screens at 7:30 p.m., Friday, April 23rd.