The Williamsburg Independent Film Festival
By CATHERINE HIGGINS-MOORE
On November 19 I walked four artfully grafittied blocks from my apartment, through biblical rain, past neighbourhood restaurants and construction sites boasting new high-rise apartments, to the sleek Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn. I was there for the opening night of the sixth annual Williamsburg Independent Film Festival – a festival that boasted entries of over 220 films, shorts and features, submitted by writers and directors in twenty-five countries. The aim is to "nurture and celebrate new and independent filmmakers in the mecca of hipster and progressive culture, Williamsburg Brooklyn”.
Relieved to be inside, and out of what New Yorkers simply refer to as “weather”, I took my seat in time to catch the festival's opening short, In Transit, directed by Justin Van Voorhis. In Transit tells the story of two “unique individuals” who meet on a “fateful day” in a bus station. It was disappointingly saccharine; the script inchoate, the acting of the sort that makes leads in films you’ve never heard of on Netflix look Oscar-worthy. In film number two, We Just Met, directed by Khawaja Muneeb Hassan, it distracted me that the Irishman whose “surprise visit to his NYC girlfriend results in being snubbed, then inadvertently involved with a conniving, thieving fun loving female” was played by an antipodean. I waited for this to be explained; to be a plot point. It wasn’t. I waited for the female lead, short film’s answer to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, to morph in to more. She didn’t.
Hassan’s stock characters and paint-by-numbers script did not engage me, but I was struck by how much money had obviously been poured in to making it; I am thinking in particular of a lengthy dance scene shot at Bethesda fountain in Central Park and involving a large troupe of dancers. Later, I talked to a young director at the festival who told me his $15,000 budget was donated by his parents. When I asked what they got from investing, aside from their son’s happiness, he told me that they both had “creative input. My dad was a producer”.
“And your mother?” I asked.
“She worked in craft services.”
The festival’s third offering was a welcome change of pace: an engaging film based on a true story. In Cameron Fife’s Buckeye, Donald Webber Jr. gives an outstanding performance as a homeless man in New York who saves his money for a plane ride to a warmer climate. For the first time in the evening, a film’s score added to its story rather than making it sound as if a DJ had started playing in a room next door. In a particularly well-observed moment, a man queues behind Webber’s character in a pizzeria, only to cover his mouth and nose with his scarf and exit without ordering. Buckeye was the opening event’s stand-out film, and Fife, who was in town to star in the Midtown Theatre Festival, is surely an actor/director to watch.
Gail Lerner’s Toygantic was the final film of the four opening shorts. A mockumentary exploring the history of a toy ocean liner from the 1960s, Toygantic was well told and poignant in parts. Lerner exploited the intimacy that comes of the ever-popular faux-documentary style, although since her film is twenty-seven minutes long, the joke eventually wore thin. It was surprising that Lerner, who used to work on a network comedy show, could not ramp up the humour that was always threatening to burst forward.
In the end, one has to wonder if having another festival like this is just a vanity project for its founders: it offers no funding or training to aid those filmmakers whose work it needs to exist. Given that Bushwick has widely been christened "the new Williamsburg", perhaps the Bushwick Film Festival, with its panel discussions and local sponsors, is the place to look next year for emerging filmmaking talent. And while the Wythe is a magnificent venue with an intimate screening room, if the aim is to foster and welcome the young artists of tomorrow, a more fitting space might be one where a glass of wine can be had for under ten dollars.