Seventh-Inning Stretch 

The Memphis International Film Festival grows up.

Lisa Bobal, chairman of the Memphis Film Forum, has no reasons to complain. After raising the entry fee, a tool used as much to weed out less-than-serious entrants as to raise funds, there were more than 400 submissions for the Memphis Film Forum's seventh annual International Film Festival.

"We used to have to go out searching for new filmmakers, and now we've not only gotten more submissions, we've also gotten higher-quality films," Bobal says. "Quite frankly, when we first started, we used to screen films that weren't as good as some of the ones we're turning away today."

Even with 50-plus screenings of features, documentaries, short films, animation, and classics from around the world, the 2006 festival retains a decidedly Southern flavor. Acclaimed music documentarian Robert Mugge opens the festival on Thursday night with a sneak preview of his latest aural history, New Orleans Music in Exile. Amazing Grace, a rockumentary about Jeff Buckley, the angel-voiced indie-pop darling who spent his final days in Memphis, screens Friday. For more hometown flavor, the festival includes several documentaries: Altered by Elvis; Richard Johnston: Hill Country Troubadour, about Beale Street's diddly bow hero; and an evening of Afro-centric comedies selected by Reel Soul Memphis, which has planned an "unreal neo-soul event" for Saturday's after-party.

The 24-minute Dammi Il La scores bonus points for being both local and international. The screenplay for this Italian-language short was written by Memphis filmmaker Sarah Ledbetter.

"We are now at a point where we have to think about growing the festival," Bobal says, recounting the process of sorting through 400 submissions and the disappointment of turning away good films.

"We've been talking about hiring a full-time director for about a year now," she says. "We're looking at funding streams. But this is going to happen in the next few years, not the next few months." -- Chris Davis

Buckley Doc Remembers the One Who Got Away

Amazing Grace: Jeff Buckley is a documentary-as-love-letter about the talented singer-songwriter who died way too young at age 30 while he was in Memphis recording his fourth album. The film, by Laurie R. Trombley and Nyla Bialek Adams, frequently crosses into the corny as Buckley's mother, friends, bandmates, and musical peers speak of the dearly missed artist in painfully earnest platitudes. ("He came into this world a very old soul," says his mother.) The footage of Buckley, in performance and in interviews, also seems to be the very cliché of the romantically doomed artist. And yet there's no way not to get drawn in by Amazing Grace.

While Buckley achieved only modest commercial success before he died, there was something about his starved look and heartfelt approach to music that stirred emotions. When he died so unexpectedly, there had to be something to fill the void. That something are the more than two dozen tribute songs and covers, at least three books, a modern dance, a classical composition, paintings, and four documentaries, including this one.

The film, which shows Memphis as the sum of squalid shotgun shacks, Beale Street, and the Mississippi River, is nonetheless at its best when depicting this period of Buckley's life. There was all this excitement around Buckley being in town and then, suddenly, absolute bewilderment. One night in May 1997, he went for a swim in the Wolf River with his boots on. He was missing for six days when his body was spotted near the Beale Street Landing. -- Susan Ellis

Coming Home

Memphis writer Sarah Ledbetter heads home with a new movie in tow.

Memphis writer Sarah Ledbetter has spent the past few years abroad studying and making films in France, Italy, and Australia. Her most recent endeavor is the screenplay for Dammi il La (They Give to Me), an Italian-language film about a priest who befriends a tragic young man on a pilgrimage along the Camino di Santiago, as recounted years later to a woman with a few secrets of her own. It's also a meditation on the subjective and transformative qualities of storytelling.

Dammi il La premiered at the Fargo Film Festival where it won top honors in the short-film category. After leaving Memphis, Dammi il La will screen in Sarasota, and Ledbetter is still waiting to hear from Cannes and the Tribeca Film Festival. She is currently writing her first feature-length film but is ready to get behind the camera instead of just the keyboard. "The next time out, I'd like to direct," Ledbetter says. "It's hard for me not to direct."

Back in town to show off her new work, Ledbetter took time to talk with the Flyer.

Flyer: How does a Memphis writer wind up making a bittersweet Italian-language film?

Ledbetter: I met [the director] Matteo [Servente] at a filmmaking workshop in Paris in the summer of 2002. We worked well together, and when the workshop ended, we decided to stay in Paris and practice [making films] together. We continued film school together in Australia. I wrote the original screenplay in English, and Matteo and I translated it together.

Although the film is set in Italy, the dialogue is reminiscent of Tennessee Williams. How deeply are you influenced by Southern writing traditions?

They say you have to leave home to understand home. I was never more aware of Southern storytelling than when I was writing in Paris. I became interested in what happens to a story when someone is telling it and about the transformative nature of storytelling.

The film leans heavily on implication, and the relationships between the three characters are intentionally vague.

I think this has something to do with the short-film format. It's kind of like baking. You have to use just enough of the chemical element to make the bread rise because if you use too much it will be bitter. I get tickled by the variety of responses from people who say, "I get it."

What kind of responses do you get?

Some view Dammi il La as a love story, platonic or not. They see it as the story of a man grieving for a lost love. Others think it's about the conscience of a priest who fails to be a "guardian angel." I like that and don't want to fix these divergences. -- Chris Davis


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