The star of the Savannah Film Festival is the city itself, thanks to stunning historic districts and defining squares, shaded by towering oaks festooned with Spanish moss.
Savannah (which took top ranking on our 2017 Best Small Cities and Towns to Live and Work as a Moviemaker list) feels like a movie set, which it often is—think Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Forrest Gump and scores of other films and television shows.
Running October 22-29, the 2016 festival narrowly escaped the wrath of Hurricane Matthew, which brushed past just two weeks before the festival. Evacuation orders and curfews highlighted the level of concern. Fortunately, organizers were able to breath easy as Savannah dodged the worst of the storm; a few toppled oaks and withered Spanish moss piled on sidewalks were the only signs of the near hit.
The festival, in its 19th year, is built by, for and around the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). The school’s logo dominates the façade of the Trustees Theater, the central venue. This is a festival uniquely tied to a university, one that is aggressively growing a film program. Blue-shirted SCAD students were everywhere—keeping lines moving, manning barriers, taking tickets, packing film how-to sessions with visiting pros, and networking.
On the Screen
The festival audience’s clear favorite, and a tough ticket to get, was La La Land, which generated the strongest positive reaction to a film that I’ve seen at festival. Director Damien Chazelle was on hand to acknowledge the standing ovation and to discuss the rigors of getting his musical made. He described the difficult pitch: a musical, jazz and a bittersweet ending. It was a tough sell. The film, not in competition, is a stunning follow-up to Chazelle’s Whiplash. The hype coming out of the film festival circuit is warranted.
Another tough ticket, and non-competition film, was director Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, an unconventional biopic that sees the JFK assassination through Jackie Kennedy’s eyes. Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy is exquisitely crafted.
Other highlights included Like Cotton Twines, winner of the best feature award. Director Leila Djansi’s film, set in Ghana, is a harrowing account of a young girl’s journey into sexual slavery. It’s a tough story rooted in current events.
A personal favorite was director Rob Spera’s The Sweet Life, an off-kilter road film about Chicago strangers who stumble through a journey to the Golden Gate Bridge with plans of suicide. Spera’s intelligent direction gave the actors the space to develop quietly engaging characters. Spera said that after the second day of shooting, the script changed dramatically, with its original witty, barbed dialogue replaced with a lower key approach. Changing mid-race “was terrifying, but it was the right decision,” he explained. The result: a smart film worth seeking out.
Strong Documentary Programming
The festival featured a particularly strong lineup of documentaries, many of which have made waves on the circuit and elsewhere this year.
For the O.J. obsessed, director Ezra Edelman’s exhaustive documentary OJ: Made in America(which premiered at Sundance earlier this year, and was released to acclaim by ESPN) was screened in its entirety one day from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Edelman followed the marathon screening with a thoughtful discussion of the undertaking. It’s impossible to conceive of anything left out regarding O.J. Simpson.
A “Docs to Watch” panel featured an all-star doc line-up: Kief Davidson, Richard Ladkani, Ezra Edelman, Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, Adam Irving, Barbara Kopple, Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg, Keith Maitland, Andrew Rossi, Clay Tweel and Roger Ross Williams
Weiner, another Sundance entry directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, provided an uncomfortably close view of a marital/professional train wreck as Anthony Weiner’s mayoral campaign disintegrates upon the appearance of Carlos Danger, his alter ego. And director Kevin Maitland’s Tower offered a daring, animated look at the 1966 University of Texas shootings.
Another solid effort was director Eddie Rosentein’s documentary The Freedom to Marry, which looks at the civil rights effort to create marriage equality. The film earned the festival’s award for Best Documentary.
Virtual Reality Buzz
The festival’s biggest buzz surrounded its Virtual Reality showcase, a collection of VR shorts that included a musical, “Say it With Music,” produced by SCAD students and faculty. The showcase was moved to a larger space because of its popularity. Creating what was billed as the world’s first VR musical required mounting 12 cameras on a custom-designed mounting system that looked more like a Mars probe than a camera mount. The project was a figure-it-out-as-you-go tech effort; it included a surround audio track that moved relative to the position of the viewers point of view.
The showcase displayed the impressive technical achievement of the filmmakers. The question remains, though, how VR will be integrated into filmmaking. Can the VR experience translate into coherent, long-form storytelling?
Experiencing Virtual Reality titles at Savannah Film Festival’s VR Showcase. Photograph by Dylan Wilson
As one would imagine at an art school film festival, the after-parties were held in intriguing surroundings. The opening night party featured 10-foot-high bags of (foam) popcorn and giant-sized Adirondack chairs. The theme of the first night’s party appeared to be popcorn and bourbon (fair enough!).
The parties featured a congregation of SCAD student filmmakers, faculty, film-loving locals and featured filmmakers. Bright and engaging SCAD students made the most of their opportunities to make connections.
A highlight of the reception following director Ben Younger’s Bleed for This was the appearance of the subject of the feature film—Vinny “the Pazmanian Devil” Pazienza, who brought a taste of Providence to the gracious South. Playing the role of the Pazmanian Devil was Miles Teller, who was also in attendance and received the festival’s Vanguard Award.
Thankfully, the obligatory red carpet was understated, with Teller and Molly Shannon being the focus for celebrity-watchers.
A Growing Georgia Industry
The festival highlighted the economic impact of Georgia’s aggressive film incentive program, one that offers an enticing level of transferable tax credits. Ranking only behind California and New York in film production, there’s a lot of filming being done in Georgia—including a number of television shows, such as The Walking Dead and Underground. Illustrating the infrastructure that has emerged in Georgia, one informative panel featured a small army of Georgia attorneys, accountants and HR specialists who shared some helpful dos and don’ts with aspiring filmmakers.
I was given a tour of SCAD’s filmmaking facilities, which are housed in two venues, one sometimes rented out to film production companies. From green-screen soundstages to Foley studios, and a set for a student-produced sitcom, the state-of-the-art facilities are jaw dropping, as the SCAD faculty, students and visiting filmmakers frequently noted.
A Gracious Festival
In the end, the festival is an engaging opportunity for aspiring filmmakers to rub elbows with industry leaders. For visiting filmmakers and film enthusiasts, the Savannah Film Festival is a gracious event.
As one filmmaker told me, “This festival really takes care of its guests. It’s why I wanted to come back.”
With long lines snaking around the two primary theaters, there is obviously a lot of local interest, and the student element helps keep the energy up, contributing to a memorable week of film going.
Of course, the between-screening strolls through the lovely streets—and to-go cups at the city’s numerous water holes—seal the deal. MM
The 2016 Savannah Film Festival ran October 22-29, 2016 in Savannah, Georgia. All images photographed by Cindy Ord, courtesy of Getty Images for SCAD. Top image photographed by Dylan Wilson.