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North Carolina Film Festivals Cultivate Community and Advocacy

Screen the Queen

Despite protests, a pandemic and economic stagnation, film is flourishing in North Carolina — at least if you go by the number of film festivals scheduled this year. Ranging from the Dirty Dancing Festival in Lake Lure to Surfalorus on the Outer Banks, Tarheel screenings will cater to a wide array of audiences — Black, queer, Latin-American and horror hound cineastes can each claim at least one festival as their own.

The North Carolina Film Office’s website lists at least 30 festivals planned for the remainder of 2020, with seven coming to the Charlotte area. Most are scheduled, or have been rescheduled due to COVID-19, for the fall. And why not? Autumn is traditionally a contemplative time suitable for ruminative and mind-expanding indie films.

There are as many goals for North Carolina film festivals as there are types of film fans. While all fests are showcases and award ceremonies, some like Made in the Carolinas focus on fostering the film industry by providing a gathering and celebration that encourages local filmmakers, particularly fledgling filmmakers.

Screening a film at Joedance. (Photo by Daniel Coston)

While all those elements are present in Joedance Film Festival, organizers for the festival, now in its 11th year, also emphasize the event’s charitable aspects, which were inspired by the young cancer patient who gave the fest its name.

Unlike the Charlotte-based festivals Joedance and Made in the Carolinas, the Cucalorus Film Festival makes its home in Wilmington, but the revered 25-year-old indie festival that boasted over 21,000 attendees last year has a Charlotte connection.

In June, Cucalorus and the NC Film Office announced the grant recipients of Filmed in NC 2020, a program launched five years ago to support productions by Black and Latin filmmakers. Of the five recipients of the funds, four are women, including Charlotte-based documentarian and activist Bree Newsome.

“I think Black people have to be in control of their own image because film is a powerful medium. We can’t just sit back and let other people define our existence.” – Spike Lee

In response to the tragic shootings at Charleston’s historic Emanuel AME Church in June 2015, Newsome clambered up a pole and ripped down a Confederate flag from the South Carolina Capitol grounds. Though initially reluctant to land in the national spotlight after her defiant actions, Newsome embraced her role in the movement to eradicate white supremacy. Her work-in-progress documentary that caught Cucalorus’ eye, They Tried to Bury Us, is a logical extension of her activism.

Long before her activism thrust her onto the national stage, Newsome was entranced with film, staging plays and making movies when she was in elementary school, she tells Queen City Nerve. After attending a summer program at the North Carolina School of the Arts, she decided to study cinema at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts where she earned a degree in film, television and radio.

Newsome has attended Cucalorus, one of North Carolina’s most popular film festivals, several times, and plans to go again this fall. Last year at the Cucalorus she learned about the Filmed in NC Fund and decided to apply. Newsome shared details of her project and a sample of edited footage she had already shot for her documentary. In June the fund awarded her $2,500 to use toward completing her film. Newsome is director, producer and writer of the project, aided by executive producer Jacqueline Olive.

They Tried to Bury Us takes its name from a quote by poet Dinos Christianopoulos, “What didn’t you do to bury me, but you forgot I was a seed.”

“[The quote] relates to the idea of resiliency and being able to overcome the oppressive forces working against you,” Newsome offers. “I’m examining with this film, how various people operating at a local level in Charlotte show determination and resilience in challenging a much larger system of power, money and influence.”

North Carolina film festivals
Bree Newsome (Photo by Jas Photo)

The documentary is a snapshot of now, she expounds, four years after the Charlotte Uprising, with residents continuing to grapple with the same structural racism, compounded by the pandemic and economic downturn.
Shooting cinema vérité style and combining that with archival footage, Newsome plans to document events through a series of interviews with residents, activists and elected officials.

As a filmmaker she’s had to adjust to COVID-19, taking extra safety precautions for interview subjects and crew, though she’s not sure yet how the pandemic will impact the way the story will be told on film.

“When I looked at life through the camera, I felt like I could finally see it.” – Katherine Howe

The Joedance Film Festival takes its name from founder and director Diane Restaino’s son, Joe, who passed away over a decade ago after battling cancer. Diane held the first Joedance Film Festival in 2010, screening two Sundance films at her Uptown Charlotte townhome and raising $950. By last December, the up-and-coming North Carolina film festival had raised $205,000 for pediatric cancer treatment and research efforts at Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte, including $35,000 in 2019, and the screening had evolved into a live event staged at Charlotte Ballet Academy.

“A live festival … is such a unique experience,” Chip White offers. “It’s great for filmmakers [and] you get to see an audience’s reaction.”

White’s second year with Joedance as festival director presented the toughest decision he, Restaino and festival manger Ben McCarthy had to make. Two months ago, they decided to turn Joedance into a virtual festival.

The festival, which runs Aug. 6-Aug. 8, will screen 18 professional short films, with six apiece scheduled for Thursday, Friday and Saturday night. Then on Saturday from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., the program offers seven student shorts.

The program draws from 79 submitted films this year. One strict criterion is that the films’ creators must have a strong connection to North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia or Tennessee. Four of the films were made by Charlotte-based filmmakers.

“Saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got a cousin that lives in Charlotte!’ is not quite strong enough,” White says about the requirements.

Crowd members at a past Joedance film screening. (Photo by Daniel Coston)

The fest director is happy with the current crop of films, praising the comedy Cherry for its vibrancy and amazing color palette. Yard Sale, directed by Monroe-based filmmakers Andrew Huggins and Donna Whitmore-Sexton, also garners White’s kudos. “I think they did a great job, almost making a musical out of this film,” he says.

A13-judge panel drawn from film professionals and movie buffs that White has met in the course of his career as an independent filmmaker chose the films.

As for his own work, White is currently finishing post production on his rock ‘n’ roll coming of age story Electric Jesus. It’s the tale of a 1980s Christian hair metal band that hits the road with dreams of opening for Stryper, the apex of Christian hair bands. White will also serve as a producer for the shot-in-Charlotte horror movie Heir of the Witch, to be filmed in July.

While the films are unique, and a virtual festival puts a fresh spin on cinematic presentation, White says he was drawn to Joedance because of its charity aspect.

“We hope [people] take away a new understanding of what the festival is about — why Diane started it and where the money [we] raise goes,” White maintains.

Restaino expounds on Joedance’s approach to charity by relating the history of the fest. Before he died at age 20, Joe Restaino told his mother he wanted her to raise money in Charlotte. Diane Restaino promised Joe that she would carry out his wishes, hitting every item on a bucket list he compiled that focused on cancers such as sarcomas, blastomas and brain tumors.

“[Joe] wanted us to fund a clinical trial for recurrent osteosarcoma which we’ve done,” Restaino says. “It’s still going on.”

In accordance with Joe’s wishes, Joedance has also set up an internship program at an oncology department at Levine Children’s Hospital, which is now in its fourth year. They are funding a first-line research technician at a new basic science lab at LCH, and have committed to three years of the tech’s salary.

Joedance has also funded summer internship programs for college students. The programs include data compilation on brain tumor patients for oncologists, an in-patient vs. out-patient treatment study and the Healios project, an educational piece that students put together for a liquid supplement that lessens the severity of mouth sores in cancer patients.

Overall, Restaino is happy that they’ve ticked off everything her son wanted.

“We never wavered on anything that we did,” she says. “We never changed our mission [or] direction. We stayed steady for going on 11 years. I think Joe would be pleased.”

Restaino says the doctors who have gone through the charity’s internship programs will take part in Joedance’s virtual festival, as will Dr. Javier Oesterheld, Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation Endowed Chair for Cancer and Blood Disorders at LCH. In his position as Chair at LCH, Oesterheld is Specialty Medical Director of Pediatric Hematology, Oncology, BMT and Palliative Care.

It’s all a part of making the online Joedance feel as much like the live-action Joedance from years past as possible, Restaino offers. The doctors’ statements, along with remarks by Restaino and film introductions by White will be streamed as part of the festival’s pre-roll, as a sort of online introduction and party before the films are screened. A musical performance from students at local arts education organization Arts+ will also be part of the festivities, as will pre-filmed Q&A sessions with the festival’s film directors.

“Sometimes, you just have to go in there and bowl people over with your sheer force of will.” – Jennifer Yuh Nelson

In 2009, friends Juli Emmons, Maggie Sargent and Haven Wagner began inquiring about interest in a grassroots group that would meet, create, and grow film in the Charlotte area. They called themselves the Charlotte Film Community, and after the first meeting drew over 130 people, they never looked back.

The group grew and changed their name to the Carolina Film Community as they welcomed filmmakers from North Carolina and South Carolina. Then, 11 years ago, they launched the Made in Carolinas Film Project.

“We were meeting together and getting in front of each other and we were having people coming in to talk about how they filmed, which were all great things,” Emmons remembers. “[But] we realized that we were not doing enough to force people to get out there and do it.”

Emmons recalls offering minuscule awards of $100 or so, just to show fledgling filmmakers that someone cared abut their development. CFC continued to push movie makers to hone their skills and try harder.

This year CFC is seeking new and original short films for their festival. All films will be reviewed by an independent panel. The top 20 professionally produced films, plus five student films, will be accepted into the final round of the contest and viewed at a red-carpet screening, which will be part of a hybrid, part-live, part-virtual event on September 15. After votes come in via cellphone, winners will receive a film can emblazoned with their name and their film’s title, along with a cash award.

Emmons says submissions can be emailed or delivered to her in person by the Aug. 4 deadline at Dilworth Neighborhood Grille, where CFC’s monthly meetings are held.

Emmons is particularly excited that CFC and Made in Carolinas will be accepting student films for the second consecutive year.

“I love the fact that they’re starting here,” she says. “Where will they be 10 years from now?”

One caveat for filmmakers is that the films must be shot between May 14 and August 4. The submissions’ beginning and end dates have had an interesting effect, says Emmons.

“All the films will be produced during the pandemic,” Emmons offers. “Anything they are creating; they’re doing it under quarantine orders. It will be very interesting to see what happens with that.”

Juli Emmons (Photo by Sean Beck)

Her observation raises an interesting question. Are independent films, with their tradition of smaller budgets, casts and crews, better suited to pandemic conditions? Are they better positioned than the major studios to flourish under quarantine?

“We’ve joked that all the independent filmmakers are going to be the ones who run [Hollywood],” Emmons says. “The studios don’t know what to do because they’re not able to make their films right now.”

Joedance’s Chip White considers a more dire effect the pandemic may have not ony on North Carolina film festivals but on the film industry in general.

“I just hope that there are films that people can submit next year [to Joedance] because a lot can happen,” he offers. “They may not be able to shoot anything.”

As COVID-19 infection rates rise and movie theaters stay shuttered, screening options may also dwindle, White maintains.

“In 2021 there are going to be less places open, and unless we can find a way to make things happen, there’s going to be a lack of content.”

If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” – Orson Welles

It may be that content will find a way because there will always be stories that need to be told. And those stories can be seen and heard in virtual venues that have already taken a strong foothold in the economy.

Experimental efforts aside, film is narrative, and story is how we order events to shape reality. For many now, our narrative is an onrush of information shorn of context, a distorted funhouse mirror reflection of people and events. And with the influence of social media algorithms and manipulation, it’s an increasingly insular reality.

At its best, film can break through and expose audiences to new truths. That message can be Spike Lee bringing previously marginalized viewpoints to the forefront in Do the Right Thing. But it can also be Leni Riefenstahl glorifying fascism in Triumph of the Will.

North Carolina film festivals, through charity, community and activism play an integral part in choosing and spreading those messages. So, what do Charlotte’s filmmakers and presenters hope their festivals and films will accomplish?

“We hope to get people more aware, and to find new supporters — people who understand our cause and will become Joedance fans for life,” says White.”

“I want to support film in the community and support the arts,” Emmons says. “I love the idea of being able to [bring] the film community together after all of the craziness that has happened in this bizarre year. I hope that we would all find this common place in film where we’re able to say it doesn’t matter if we have differences.”

Newsome is focused on her documentary project, a film that just may change the story society presently tells.

She hopes audiences walk away from They Tried to Bury Us feeling informed and inspired to get involved in grassroots-level advocacy. Newsome wants the documentary to reach people who are curious about human rights issues but haven’t gotten directly involved in grassroots movement building.

“This includes people whose familiarity with the recent history of social justice movements has been largely shaped by what they’ve seen in news reports or on social media and who aren’t aware of the larger landscape of the modern movement,” Newsome says. “It exists beyond iconic images, hashtags and moments that capture national attention.”

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