Our Town: Almost Legend

Jonathan Winters in Certifiably Jonathan, screening at TFF

The Tacoma Film Festival delivers an eye-opening movie going experience that can’t be found at the multiplex.

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie won’t be prowling the red carpet at the third annual Tacoma Film Festival, October 2 – 9. But you will see plenty of local stars: independent filmmakers and discriminating South Sound moviegoers.

The red-hot center of the festival is the Grand Cinema, Tacoma’s only art house, which draws an estimated annual audience of one hundred thousand (not bad for a city of two hundred thousand). Films will also play at Tacoma Art Museum and the School of the Arts. All told, the festival will screen roughly forty-five independent films that would otherwise never find an audience here.

Anyone with a film on DVD can submit it for consideration, but Grand Cinema director Philip Cowan has also been out scouting winning films from festivals around the nation, including Austin’s renowned South by Southwest fest. Besides screening unsung and hipper-than-hip movies, TFF offers audiences a chance to learn how films are made in ways no DVD extras menu can ever match. Last year, one-third of the filmmakers in the festival appeared after the screenings to take questions from the audience. Festivalgoers are still talking about the Q&A with Ray Hill, the ACLU award–winning activist who flew in from Texas where he hosts a radio show for prison inmates.

“I’m big on the talk-backs with filmmakers,” says Cowan. He cites the TFF 2007 Best Documentary winner Spitfire 944, featuring Lacey war hero John Blyth, who survived fifty-one solo missions in World War II. The filmmakers discovered footage of Blyth’s Spitfire crash-landing that even he had never seen — and they were there at the Grand, with Blyth, talking about their movie. “For me, it really personalized the film,” says Cowan. “People asked questions of the pilot, but they also wanted to know how the filmmakers went about making the movie.”

TFF gives filmmakers invaluable insight into how audiences connect with their work. Nancy Bourne Haley, coproducer/codirector of Finding Thea, about Norwegian immigrant and pioneer Thea Foss, was “jazzed” by the festival audience. “I learned that it worked — people were intrigued, they cared, they wanted to know more.” The film won TFF’s first Best Local Film award in 2006, sold out all of its screenings and was broadcast on PBS. Now Haley is headed to Oslo, hoping to get it on Norwegian TV.

And there are more TFF success stories: local cinematographer Scott L. Gribble sent his feature film, Legally Desi, to the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival. Clearly, there are plenty of places for hardworking Tacoma filmmakers to go. But what do we have to offer them here at home?

When I started as the managing director at the Grand Cinema in 2004, showing films like Finding Thea or Spitfire 944 was not even a possibility. Every movie we played came from one of just seven Hollywood distributors. We didn’t even have a DVD player to show independent films.

When filmmakers asked if they could shoot a scene at the Grand for Tootie Pie, adapted from Tacoma writer Rosalind Bell’s story about two friends growing up in the segregated 1960s  South, I agreed on one condition: that we premiere the film at the Grand. We spent a small fortune renting a digital projector, but the film’s warm reception was worth it.
Later, we received a grant and bought a projector. And we made screening independent and local films a priority. We squeezed short films between screenings of commercial releases and opened early for Saturday morning screenings. We also launched two major projects: the 72-Hour Film Competition in 2005 and the first Tacoma Film Festival in 2006. Both are still going strong.

Sharing the fruits of the painstaking filmmaking process with an audience is especially exhilarating for emerging filmmakers. I particularly remember the reaction of Emmett Casey, who had just graduated from the Tacoma School of the Arts. He made a forty-five-minute film called Pixilation of Sight about two high school art students. After it was successfully screened in the inaugural Tacoma Film Festival, I asked Casey to autograph the movie poster for display in the lobby. His hand trembled as he held the Sharpie.

This is exactly what a good film festival should offer: an opportunity to see movies you otherwise couldn’t see that are interesting, unique, and — whenever possible — locally made. The benefits for filmmakers are incalculable: without the chance to connect with local audiences and share their work, where would films like Finding Thea or Tootie Pie be?

I’ll tell you where we’d all be without art-house cinema and the energy and access to independent movies provided by festivals like TFF: watching Brad and Angelina. And yearning for so much more.