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Summer Means Fun at Los Angeles Film Festival

By Sarah Jo Marks

Clockwise from top left: from Ondi Timoner's 'DIG.' From Liz Blazer's 'Backseat Bingo.' From Chris Kenneally and Danielle Franco's <em>Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating</em>. From Mike Wranovics' <em>Up for Grabs</em>. From Adam Feinstein's <em>Say You Love Me</em>. From Mike Wranovics' <em>Up for Grabs</em>

The 2004 edition of the Los Angeles Film Festival, held June 17-26, reveled in its midsummer spot in the calendar. With fun movies, outdoor activities and a unique LA-centric element, IFP/Los Angeles, which produces and presents the festival, really embraced its Southern California locale this year. And to top it off, festival-goers were talking up the docs. 

Rock School (Don Argott, dir./prod.; Sheena M. Joyce, prod.) was the first event on the radar. And it was no wonder. It was not so much the film but the subjects that had viewers truly captivated. Don Argott's at once troubling and inspiring piece followed a group of kids as they attend the less-than-charming Paul Green's school of rock in Philadelphia. Claiming to have no relation to the blockbuster Jack Black fiction film of the similar name, Argott and producer Sheena M. Joyce were just as stoked as the audience when it came time for the Q and A. The kids of Rock School were on hand after the screening to play a quick and unbelievable set at the 8000 Sunset Courtyard that included such classics as "Black Magic Woman" and "LA Woman." But the kids had to leave for their next gig—the premiere party, where they would perform again to their thrilled new fans.

People were also amped to see the much talked about docs Tarnation (Jonathan Caouette, dir.; Stephen Winter, prod.), DIG! (Ondi Timoner, dir./prod.) and Z Channel—A Magnificent Obsession (Xan Cassavetes, dir.; Rick Ross, Marshall Persinger, prods.). Tarnation earned the Target Documentary Award for Best Documentary Feature, which carries with it an unrestricted cash prize of $25,000 funded by Target Stores. This experimental doc premiered out of competition at Sundance in the Frontier category. 

Timoner distilled DIG! down from over 2,000 hours of material. What began as a passion project about ten up-and-coming bands became a tale of a complicated relationship between two bands—The Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. An exciting film filled with riveting footage, DIG! electrified the audience. 

Overnight (Mark Brian Smith, Tony Montana, dirs./prods.), however, had the audience laughing—and not really because the movie was funny. The film tells the story of Troy Duffy, an uncouth Westwood bartender and band member who writes a script and lands an instant deal with Miramax-almost overnight. The filmmakers behind Overnight were part of a brotherhood that included band members and a small entourage. When Smith and Montana decided they didn't even like Duffy any more, they kept filming him anyway as the deal unraveled and his personal train wreck ensued. They made a movie, but at the expense of their dignity.      

Some of the smaller films were truly the hidden gems. Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating (Chris Kenneally, Danielle Franco, dirs./prods.), Searching for the Wrong Eyed Jesus (Andrew Douglas, dir.; Martin Rosenbaum, prod.) and Another Road Home (Danae Elon, dir./prod.) all drew rousing audiences with their singular artistry. Crazy Legs beat the pants off some of the other films in competition in the "just plain entertaining" category. How can you not love a healthy, competitive eater with a personality that shines through even an entire bucket of raw oysters? Crazy Legs pulls all the stops and fulfills his lifelong dream of eating hot dogs in the annual Coney Island 4th of July Hot Dog Eating Contest. His friends and family (especially his mom) cheer him on as he eats his way through butter, oysters and of dogs! 

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus is a fantastic fairy tale of the American South and its music and culture. The film is so inventive in its use of fictive elements that it's hard to believe it's real.

Another Road Home was a pleasant surprise. In a world filled with docs about the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it was refreshing to see a film so personally engaged. Danae Elon, daughter of Israeli political author Amos Elon, exposes her life growing up in Jerusalem with a Palestinian caregiver. She seeks out the man that gave 20 years of his life to take care of her in order to support his own 11 children. 

The documentary short program was exceptional over all—each film a completely different topic, yet each flowing into the next effortlessly. The Best Documentary Short Film prize went to Say You Love Me by Adam Feinstein, which movingly explores the story of an HIV positive woman who is about to get married. Other shorts of note included the fascinating Twins (Martin Bell, dir.) and Backseat Bingo (Liz Blazer, dir.), a cleverly animated doc about seniors talking about sex and romance in their golden years.

The festival played so many docs that it would be impossible to see them all. I always joke that I could see 10 out of 12 of the competition films and the one I don't see will win the Audience Award. Well, it happened again. The Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature went to Mike Wranovics' Up for Grabs, which tells the story of the legal squabble that followed the battle for baseball superstar Barry Bonds' record-breaking 73rd home run ball.

It would also be unfair to not mention the big special screening of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 that the IFP managed to snag just two days before its theatrical release. Moore was not on hand for the sold-out event, but such luminaries as Samuel L Jackson and Neil Young were.

The 2004 LAFF was a success for documentaries, showcasing both acclaimed and little-known works from the major filmmakers in the field to local IFP up-and-comers and featuring classics like Dziga Vertov's 1929 silent film Man with a Movie Camera, which was shown outdoors with a live band, and the punk rock doc Another State of Mind (Adam Small, Peter Stuart, dirs./prods.). This summer proved to be a step in the right direction for the festival because it truly focused on the movies, the filmmakers and the audiences. And the fact that there were more parties than ever before only added to the festive and positive environment.

It's practically an exercise in futility to get people into movie theaters in the middle of June when the weather is perfect in Los Angeles, but the IFP managed to comb the LA area for willing movie watchers. Surf, sun and summer could not keep people away from the excellent selection of movies at this year's Los Angeles Film Festival.  


Sarah Jo Marks is currently producing two documentary projects. Contact her at