Arts & Culture Blog
A Look Back at the Monterey Bay Film Festival and an MIA Q&A
September 21, 2012
The three-day Monterey Bay Film Festival, which ran Sept. 7-9, was the fifth year of the event, and so earned it the distinction as the longest running locally produced film festival. The Monterey Bay Chapter of the United Nations Association's International Film Festival gets due respect for returning to Monterey year after year with a cache of valuable and informative documentaries—this November will be its 13th—but it's a touring festival, curated elsewhere.
The MBFF is put on by the Monterey Bay Film Society, both co-founded by CSUMB's Teledramatic Arts and Technology media production specialist Chris Carpenter and its chair, Enid Baxter Blader (who is also my sweetheart), and enlists about five TAT instructors and staff, and students to put on the festival. One big component of it—the one that started it and the remains at the heart—is the teen film festival, made up of short works by CSUMB students and underserved young people from all over the county. And in that way it differs, too, from the usual film festival fare: young people of color are actors, editors, grips, writers and directors, but in this rarified world, they are not minorities.
If these young people keep working in the filmmaking industry, they may one day grow into the stature of filmmaker that MBFF attracted for this year's festival.
Terence Nance, an NYU grad, is an artist/filmmaker/musician whose first feature, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, premiered at Sundance's New Frontier and then showed up at MOMA's New Directors/New Films (former Seasider Rajendra Roy oversees that) among other coveted places. Director Gerardo Naranjo's films have screened at the film festivals of Cannes, Venice, Toronto, New York and London; his latest feature, Miss Bala, about the drug wars in Mexico, was his country's Academy Award submission for Best Foreign Language Film of 2012. Both came to the fest to help support the mission of mentoring young people who aren't normally visited by successful people who look like them.
Film students of CSUMB's Teledramatic Arts and Technology department got first crack at both filmmakers on Friday with a workshop each with Terence Nance (at 10am) and Gerardo Naranjo (at 2pm). For the public, the first look at either of the two director's films (and the directors themselves) came at Friday's evening screening of Nance's Oversimplification at the World Theater. Some of the audience members included longtime local activist Helen Rucker, man-on-a-bike-about-town Chris Essert, and the new interim president of CSUMB, Eduardo Ochoa. By the time the film started, about 120 more would arrive.
Ochoa, Blader and Nance went to the podium on the stage and greeted the audience. Ochoa was humble and gracious, Blader explained the mission and scope of the Monterey Bay Film Society's work, and Nance reminded the audience of the importance of giving voice to people who don't normally have a say.
Then they dimmed the lights and fired up the projector on Nance's film, a narrated, multi-faceted look at his own relationships (or attempts thereof) using all kinds of camera and editing manipulation, lots of different animation sequences and music. It was like a sustained indie art music video, refreshingly populated by young black people. During the Q&A that followed, one man said he intermingled what Nance's film was saying about relationships with memories of his own.
"That's what it's supposed to do," Nance said happily.
One woman asked what Nance did to make money while making the film.
"I didn't," he laughed. Then admitted that he had done three music videos last month.
An audience member asked if Nance had gotten permission to use a clip from Prince's Purple Rain that was in the film.
"I tried to get in contact with the Purple One," Nance said. "If you’ve seen Purple Rain, you’ll know that it’s a very personal scene. I can understand why he didn't want to give permission."
That gave the audience, many of them aspiring filmmakers, insight into the mechanics of film festivals: What screens isn’t necessarily the finished product and, said Nance, “Do your own film” to avoid expensive copyright and licensing issues.
The process of making Oversimplification took about 6 years, during which he grew tired of working on it. But he kept going.
“Finishing this film became [vital] to my credibility as a human being,” he said facetiously. “I had told so many people about it.”
He said he half-heartedly consulted a “priestess,” whose advice was to work fast on it. He did. He says he began working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 2 years.
“No one should do really do that,” he warned.
His next film, a narrative called So Young, So Pretty, So White, will examine skin bleaching products and its cultural and anthropological meanings in countries like Korea, India, the West Indies.
The next day, a sunny and wind-swept Saturday, both Naranjo and Nance both arrived at the screening room of CSUMB’s Teledramatic Arts and Technology building to screen a clip from each and to conduct a workshop for students and the public.
The Nance clip came from Oversimplification; Naranjo’s from his entry in the Mexican compilation film Revolucion, made up of shorts by 10 leading Mexican filmmakers (which the Monterey Bay Film Society screened last year at Lighthouse Cinemas for the festival).
Then the two filmmakers sat side by side in director’s chairs to talk and field questions.
Naranjo said that one of his “happiest” moments in filmmaking is when he can make exactly the film he intends through a low-budget, independent ethic, as opposed to a bigger production with “hundreds of people” riddling him with questions. The lesson seemed to be for the students to enjoy the smaller productions they are doing, instead of panging for the bigger budgets and headaches and compromises of major productions.
Asked about casting Stephanie Sigman as the lead beauty contestant aspirant in his film Miss Bala, and the racial implication, Naranjo said, “Miss Bala had to be indigenous, brown,” to show the stupidity of adopting “European” values.
His films are heavily political and social critiques. “The Avengers, those movies don’t exist to me.”
“Don’t you get curious?” asked Nance, who seemed eager to make inquiries about a filmmaker he said he greatly admired. “I saw Batman.”
Blader, lightly moderating, asked the filmmakers if they had any “nuggets” of advice for the young studentd.
“You tell them the bad news,” Naranjo said to Nance. And laughed.
“There are lots of jobs in film without being a writer or director,” Nance said. “Being a gaffer on Transformers is cool, and pays a lot of money. At the end of the day, you’re going to have to outwork everyone.”
“Commitment doesn’t allow weakness of character,” Naranjo began, somewhat cryptically. Then he got more clear. “Nobody gives a shit about your project but you. It’s lonely, hard work. Four years of shadows and suffering, a week of photos and parties, then four years of suffering again.”
Then there was cake. And picture taking. And young people talking one-on-one with two filmmakers who came here, for minimal cost for filmmakers of that caliber, just to talk to them. And, at 1pm, the Teen Film festival portion arrived across the parking lot at the World Theater. As expected, it drew the biggest crowd of the festival, with friends, family, students and faculty and staff showing up in abundance to support the young filmmakers.
The short pieces ranged from the goofy and funny (The Funk Down, directed by Salinas Public Library teens) to the inspiring (The Sound We See, by Echo Park Film Center students), from cool (Soledad Music Video, a music video of local band Mozzo Kush, shot by South County students) to somber (TAT student Jose Espinoza’s retelling of a faithful Salinas baker’s heroism and tragedy). Then it was the young people’s turn to take to the stage. They filed in and lined up in front of the enormous screen, shyly fielding questions and applause, festival badges hanging around their necks as if they had all received medals.
Later that night came the screening of Miss Bala and a Q&A with Naranjo (more on that soon), this time at the Museum of Monterey. The Festa Italia that had taken over the Custom House Plaza in front of the museum was shuttered, stacked, zipped up and locked down for the night, and the entire square taped off and patrolled by security guards. Inside the museum, TAT Community Outreach Coordinator Juan Ramirez, who had described Naranjo’s visit as “a dream,” spoke with the capacity audience who steadily trickled in, filling the Stanton Theater, about what the Mexican filmmaker and his films meant to him. Then they watched the film. Naranjo was back at the hotel working on a script, due to arrive afterwards for the Q&A.
But toward the end of the film, no Naranjo. As the film was ending, and festival staff began calling him to guide him to the museum (he had wanted to drive himself), no Naranjo. As time ticked by, various festival staff and volunteers began calling him, texting, and combing the streets of downtown Monterey to try to spot him, but no Naranjo. After the film’s closing credits, Ramirez, 26 years old, went before the screening audience and lead an open discussion about the film, trying to buy Naranjo more time. Then one searcher got this message from the visiting director: “I am hopelessly lost. GPS is not working. I am going back to hotel.”
The finale of the night was turning into a bad dream.
Ramirez kept talking, looking more and more dejected. Then Blader made an announcement to the audience: Naranjo is not coming, the audience is welcome to stay and wait for him, but otherwise thank you. And the audience reaction was swift. They hugged Ramirez, shook his hand, thanked him for a lively discussion, complimented his energy, and went home. There were no demands for refunds or angry words. There might have been more questions, but those were for Naranjo to answer. He would. Later.
The next day brought the close of the festival with a compilation of short films from the San Francisco DVD magazine Wholphin, a fresh offshoot of Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s publishing house. The program was modestly attended, tightly run, filled with fanciful film, and wrapped up with a lively Q&A with Wholphin co-founder Brent Hoff.
The festival had succeeded in bringing cutting edge filmmakers to the area to inspire the next crop of students, and gave the public easy access to artistic films they may not see elsewhere. The end.
Almost. In the days following Gerardo Naranjo’s MIA of the screening of his own film, he finally found the time to conduct a sort-of delayed Q&A. Student filmmakers sent in the questions they would have asked the revered director, and to his credit, Naranjo answered them.
Weekly: Hello Gerardo. How are you? Gerardo Naranjo: I am [working]. You are too. We have to earn the bread.
What was your impression of the workshops? For me, it's cool if, like church, when people become who they shall be. I see people interested. I don’t expect that from everybody. I prefer to be deep for a handful and superficial for a thousand. When I entered [the TAT building], I saw a lot of kids who were interested. I have no idea their aspirations. I was surprised at how much respect they give to the strange things I do.
Did you have a mentor when you were younger? I did, but in narrative form. When I began film school in Mexico, everybody would say it was impossible to make movies in Mexico since the old guys teaching us were not doing those films. They would advise us not to try to get into it. I believe it was a big inspiration. In university, it was my main motivation to show them I could do it.
Do you feel pressured or particularly determined to make films that only deal with Mexico or Mexican themes? No. It was certainly a choice between possibility and probability. I knew if I wanted to make a movie, I would have more resources in Mexico. Not that I wanted to make…for me the first film I made was 40 thousand dollars. In America it would be practically impossible. It was a strategy. Machiavellian. I wanted to do the films I love that deal with the world. The only way I would arrive there is if I started off very little.
Many are afraid to address the drug war in Mexico. Why was it important for you to address it? It was a strange personal decision. I was so scared to see the news. My loved ones in the streets, I would be scared for them. Out of fear I was determined to talk about it. Not bravery. I'm not tough at all. Fear for the people I love.
How has the response in Mexico been to Miss Bala? Mmm. 50 percent [are] encouraging, 50 percent would say I'm creating this reality, it didn't exist, that I was anti-Mexico. It was an exercise in diversity. The whole way the society in Mexico approaches government problems is really different. Educated people try to have a consciousness and be progressive, politicians are completely ignorant.
You rewrote the script, shot everything on video, then on film. What are some of your favorite scenes in the final version and why? I think there is one scene I really like. When [protagonist] Laura is in the club, surrounded by criminals after [gun] battle. Some are wounded and dying and she is there. And they are blind to the pain and she's the only one that has some sympathy. It encompasses what the movie is about. Certain people, criminals, have no respect for life. Other people are not used to violence and are very alien to the idea of people dying. When innocent people face this truth, it is a complete shock.
Have other genres of filmmaking interested you? Yeah, well, thousands. I would love…I'm a big follower of David Lynch. A true master of suspense. I'm a little sad he's not making films. I will never skip a Scorcese film. Never have. Darren Aronsofky is a great director. The energy he puts in. You can recognize his movie a mile away. I love the personality. There is a Hollywood way, the face of one person, the face of another, the face of another. When I find a director that has energy, and hiis own personality is inside the movie, I really admire [that].
What are you working on next? I'm doing now, something I never imagined I would do: A TV show, a pilot for FX, living in L.A. doing that. It hasn't been picked up. They are trying to sell it. It's called The Bridge. Certainly not soemethign I dreamed, but it's happening and I'm excited about it. After thtat, a movie about pirates in the sea. I want to work in American industry but I don’t want to be completely controlled. I try to co-produce, have some say in the way things are done. I believe the Hollywood system sometimes lacks courage. The American [film] industry is scared of strong stuff and I believe in making [stuff] stronger.
Anything else? I guess the common talk in the workshop is that it's a hard choice, a tough choice, not at all romantic. It's all about the hard work. I love talking to the kids about it. I got the sense the kids already knew the decision to join the industry. It's not something you do for fun. It dramatically transforms the way you live. I appreciated them inviting me. I had a fantastic time.