Pushing the Envelope 

Memphis International Film Festival shoots for the big time.

The Memphis Film Forum is making a few, relatively minor changes to its International Film Festival, which is now entering its fifth year. They are hoping these tiny changes yield a big payoff. If everything goes according to plan, the Memphis International Film Festival will become an Academy Awards-sanctioned festival in 2005 and a part of the Academy Awards nominating process.

Lisa Bobal, vice chairman of the Film Forum, says, "Not only will it attract more films in the future, it will help us attract better films and better filmmakers. Being associated with the Academy Awards helps a festival validity-wise. Having that kind of status is just great."

In order to qualify for the academy, a festival has to have run for five consecutive seasons. And it has to be competitive, presenting awards in the categories of best feature, best short, and best animated film.

"That's something that we've never done before," Bobal says, "but we've always wanted to give awards." In addition to the required awards, the Memphis International Film Festival will also be giving an award for best documentary. When Memphis International is affiliated with the Academy Awards, the festival's winners will automatically be eligible for consideration by the academy.

"You have to be non-genre-specific," Bobal adds, "and [Memphis International] is the only festival in town that qualifies. Indie Memphis is all about Southern film, the African-American Film Festival is about African-American film, and there's the gay and lesbian film festival. They all have a specific area that they focus on. In order to become a part of the Academy Awards nominating process, you have to be open to any kind of film."

This year's festival runs from Thursday, March 25th, through Sunday, March 28th, and features a number of local, national, and international selections.

The films selected to open this year's festival are the Academy Award-nominated short Most, a Czech-language film about a drawbridge worker who takes his son to work, and changes three lives in the process, and Screen Door Jesus by Memphis native Kirk Davis.

Two years ago, Screen Door Jesus might have been just another quirky Southern film, filled up to bursting with Bible-thumping, fundamentalist stereotypes. But with the ongoing furor over Mel Gibson's Passion and real world events like Dayton, Tennessee's recent attempt to ban gays Screen Door Jesus gains in resonance. If it's imperfect, it's timely. Set in the racially tense town of Bethlehem, Texas, on the eve of a miracle, Screen Door Jesus pits the cruel, self-interested actions of true believers against the loving words of Jesus. The parable of the Good Samaritan is revisited from a number of perspectives but with somewhat more tragic consequences. Nobody can be bothered to examine their lives, however. The town is too busy gawking at and bowing down to a supernatural vision of Jesus that appeared on Mother Harper's screen door one hot summer's day and ruining the poor woman's lawn in the process. When a young boy sees the screen door for what it is -- a great, meaningless distraction -- and tries to cut the image out with his knife, the crowd acts like it might tear him to pieces.

Memphis International will also be giving The Weather Underground, Sam Green and Bill Siegel's Academy Award-nominated documentary, its Memphis premiere. In response to American corruption, ongoing racism, and the war in Vietnam, 1960s radicals the Weather Underground ran a tiny war against the United States. They distributed propaganda and bombed targets they found emblematic of the "real" violence going on in the world.

Resisting Paradise is an arty documentary in every way imaginable. Superimposing image on top of image, on top of image, then bathing those images in saturated, ever-changing colors, Resisting Paradise is a beautifully made, if convoluted, look at southern France during the Nazi occupation.

A Darker Shade of Fair is a fascinating documentary about India's cultural fascination with fair skin. The age-old caste system is beginning to fade away, and women are even playing a more active role in Indian culture. But if you are lucky enough to be born with fair skin, your prospects are much brighter than if you are born dark. Multinational cosmetics companies now offer skin-lightening products that sell in spite of many negative side effects. It's a whole new way to look at racism.

When the Spirits Dance Mambo is an enlightening Cuban documentary about how Afro-Cuban's held onto their native rituals and music, first by masking it as Catholicism and later by hiding it from the Communists. It's a biography of West African drumbeats, held in exile in Cuba, unleashed in New York, and finally given to the world.

Muller Policia (Police Woman) is an odd, and oddly effective, noir from Portugal. When a young boy is imprisoned after doing some shady jobs for some shadier people, his mother decides to help him escape to Lisbon. It's not exactly a feel-good, mother/son road picture, as their escape turns tragic early on and only gets worse.

The Memphis International Film Festival has assembled nearly 30 films for this year's festival. There's a panel discussion on race and religion in filmmaking on Saturday afternoon at TheatreWorks and a party Saturday night at the Gibson Lounge. Screenings will be at the Malco Paradiso and at Studio on the Square. For a complete schedule of event times and locations, you can find the Memphis International Film Festival on the web at MemphisFilmForum.org.

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