Since Colorado’s Telluride Independent Film Festival has come and gone and with Sundance still months away, the indie film spotlight is cast on none other than New Haven. Running this weekend from Sept. 19 to 21, the eighth annual New Haven Film Festival is offering up a varied program of more than eighty films, including four by local filmmakers and several other flicks made by Yale alumni.
Since its establishment in 1995, the event’s reputation has been growing fast, and this year it has attracted several famous names. Many filmmakers with entries in the festival will attend the screenings and stay afterwards for the parties. This is a draw for many Yalies.
“I’m interested in meeting the filmmakers, especially the younger ones,” David Zax ’06 said.
Among these filmmakers is Greg Pak ’99. A Rhodes Scholar, Pak will be screening his latest film “Robot Stories,” which explores the complicated relationship between humans and the lifelike machines they create. The film has recently won the Best Narrative Feature Grand Prize at the Rhode Island International Film Festival.
Frederick Wiseman LAW ’54 will also be making an appearance. The law professor-turned-documentary filmmaker is best known for his first documentary “Titicut Follies,” which was shot at the Massachusetts Hospital for the Criminally Insane. The film’s depiction of the brutal conditions that inmates endured later led to sweeping reforms.
Wiseman, who has made more than 30 films, many of which have aired on public television and have garnered numerous awards, will be showing his classic documentary “High School.” The film explores the abuse of power that exists behind the walls of Philadelphia’s Northeast High School, and it examines how the relationships between teachers, administrators and parents greatly influence the students.
“Frederick Wiseman is an institution among documentary filmmakers in this country,” said Dudley Andrew, a professor in the Film Studies Program. “And ‘High School’ is one of his great films.”
Along with Wiseman’s documentary, several other films are aimed at youth, and many focus their lens on life in high school.
One such film is “OT: Our Town,” a documentary that follows a group of students and their two devoted drama teachers as they put on a production of the famous Thornton Wilder play “Our Town.” In the film, Grovers Corners is brought to Dominguez High in Compton, Calif., “the home of gangsta rap and gangstas.” A play has not been put on in the school for 20 years, and the group has little to work with. Lacking the luxury of a stage, they must block off a rectangle on the cafeteria floor with tape. Though poor and brimming with disadvantaged youth, the school does boast an A-list basketball team — a team so good that players are drafted for the Chicago Bulls right after graduation.
Aside from documenting the stressful month of rehearsal that leads up to opening night, “OT” also follows the students as they learn their lines, discover the meaning of the play, and get to know each other. The camera follows them into their bedrooms, meets their families, and participates in their lives.
“OT” is heavy-handed at times and often sad, as the students, in one-on-one interviews, discuss teen pregnancies, AWOL fathers, and suicide, issues that plague them daily. The camera even unexpectedly captures a drive-by shooting.
In a town where “you can’t go no higher, and you can’t go no lower,” the students are surprisingly upbeat and talented. They pull off the show with charm and humor. Look for a hilarious kissing scene between the actors who play George and Emily.
Backed by an upbeat hip-hop soundtrack, “OT” is fun to watch, mainly because the kids are so earnest and likeable. The power of theater is felt at the end of the film, when the actor portraying George announces, “sometimes I think I’m never going to rise above this shit, but now, f—, I could be President.”
The nightmares of school days are also explored in the festival’s short films, with more humor and less serious subject matter.
Check out “The Vest,” a 10-minute revenge flick that will satisfy anyone who has suffered the painful consequences of wearing handmade clothing to school.
The film is narrated by Sara (Skye McCole Bartusiak), a third-grader who is forced to wear to school a vest sewn by her mother. The vest alone, in all its tackiness, makes the film worth seeing. Much to her own surprise, after Sara is ostracized because of her wardrobe, she lashes out by stabbing her rude classmate in the leg with a pencil.
The film is based on a short story.
“My friend Stephanie Hubbard showed me a collection of short stories that she had written for a writing class. The true story of her experience with a vest her mother made for her was among them, and I told that it would make a good short film,” director Paul Gutrecht said in an e-mail.
Though sadistic and violent, the lines are delivered with fantastic deadpan humor, and Bartusiak, who demonstrates some incredible acting for a girl her age, easily steals the show.
“Skye was nine going on 10 when we shot this,” Gutrecht said. “I would explain a shot to her, and then we would conclude the conversation with, ‘OK, shall we rehearse it once?’ Her reply always would be, ‘No, let’s shoot it.’ I’d look at the [director of photography], he’d look at me, we’d look at the first [assistant director], and then we’d say, ‘OK, let’s shoot it!'”
The festival is also screening feature films cast with familiar screen faces. Check out “Justice,” a film about Drew (Erik Palladino of “ER” fame), a comic book writer who, after losing his close friend in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, no longer wants to write the same old comic book stories. Instead, he starts up a new comic book based on a hero named Justice — a regular guy who fights crime. Directed by Evan Oppenheimer, the film follows Drew on his hunt through the streets of New York for a real-life person who captures the spirit of Justice. He finds the match in Tre, an imposing, ripped African-American with a flair for pickup basketball. Too bad that Tre, a substitute teacher who deems comic books as “too violent,” isn’t keen on being involved with the project.
Other familiar faces make appearances in the film, including Ajay Naidu — Samir from “Office Space” — as Mohammed, an Indian immigrant who runs a breakfast stand.
The festival will also be showing “The Animation Show,” a collection of animated shorts from around the world. The screening was programmed by Mike Judge (“Beavis and Butthead,” “King of the Hill,” “Office Space”).
Along with these screenings, the festival will also present the 2003 Connecticut Filmmaker of the Year award to recognize an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to filmmaking, either on camera or behind the scenes.
Screenings will be held at four locations, including The Little Theatre (1 Lincoln St.), the Whitney Humanities Center, the British Art Center, and York Square Cinema. For a complete festival schedule or for pass and ticket information, visit www.filmfest.org or call 203-776-6789.