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Humble Beginnings: The 2019 Cucalorus Film Festival


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Hello again, and welcome to my account of the 25th annual Cucalorus Film Festival. In this blog entry, I will talk about the films I saw and the experiences I had as a volunteer. I’m titling this entry “Humble Beginnings” because this was the first Cucalorus I was truly a part of.

 

In years before 2019, I had a head knowledge of Cucalorus and was mildly interested in attending, but never actually did. You can chalk it up to other responsibilities like for school and stuff, but a major reason was the fear surrounding not knowing anything about the films they were screening. I remember one year when I first scrolled through the selection, and I was telling myself, “I’ve never heard of any of these films.” Simply put, that is the worst possible way you can approach a film festival. “I have not heard of the film, therefore I will not give it a chance”—NOOOO! The discovery of the handcrafted artistic works of filmmakers is the entire point of a festival, right?

 

In film school, folks from Cucalorus came to my classes to talk about the event, and it was something about the way they talked about it where I really wanted to attend it this time. I think the presentation of Cucalorus coincides with my realization of how impactful festivals can be to films and the amount of attention they get from audiences. Two of those speakers were film directors Hannah Black and Megan Peterson, who talked about their experience with entering and winning a fundraising event hosted by the Duplass brothers so they could shoot a film called Drought, and it was their enthusiastic presentation about Cucalorus and indie filmmaking that sold me on attending the festival. But how was I going to attend it?

 

My dad helped me out! He did catering during the production of Drought, and he catered events for Cucalorus in the lead-up to the festival. His volunteering allowed him to earn a free pass to the festival, and he gave that free pass to me. But there were obstacles to my attendance despite the free pass. I was in a terrible car accident a month before the festival, and that festival left me without my own transportation until around Thanksgiving. Not to mention I was already a shut-in and an internet addict who preferred to stay inside my apartment and devote myself to my schoolwork (the semester was eighteen hours) and my online hobbies. The trouble is, I was hardly doing anything aside from that, and not engaging with other people is a dangerous way to live your life. In the parking lot of the apartment complex, my dad was asking me why I wasn’t going and telling me about what he did to earn the free pass. And the day after, I curbed my social anxieties and attended the festival!

 

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Before I get into the experience, I will first set the scene by telling you where Cucalorus screens its films. Most films are screened in Thalian Hall, which is a cultural building and performing arts venue that has been a part of Wilmington, NC since the late 1850s. Today, Thalian Hall regularly screens indies and documentaries in the main theater as part of its cinematheque program.

 

There are three location in Thalian Hall where Cucalorus can screen a feature or a shorts block. The first is obviously the main theater, where certain selections and programs with the best chance at gathering a large audience are screened. Upstairs, there are two more location: the Thalian Ballroom, which can host a variety of events in addition to films, which are screened via the trusty screen/projector comb; and Thalian Black, a “black box” theater setup which is a great space to watch a movie in.

 

In 2019, Cucalorus also screened movies and shorts blocks in Jengo’s Playhouse, a small lounge venue, as well as the auditorium at UNCW’s film building. Jengo’s Playhouse doesn’t have many seats, but it makes up for that by generally being awesome. The film building auditorium is also a good place to screen movies; the chairs are wooden, but besides that, it has multiple DVD players as well as a retractable curtain where you can open and close the curtain depending on the aspect ration of what you’re screening. I will always love this theater!

 

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The very first film I saw at Cucalorus was the dramedy Lucky Grandma, about an elderly Chinese-American woman who steals a bag of money and gets pursued by mafia gangsters. I saw it with my stepdad, and he enjoyed it! It was a memorable film with great performances, and it was later picked up for a VOD release by Good Deed Entertainment; it’s also available to watch on Paramount+.

 

My second film came later that night, and it was my personal favorite of the festival. I’m talking about A Great Lamp, which is available for free on YouTube. That film is an experimental black-and-white indie that’s way more poetry than narrative, and it was shot on the streets of Downtown Wilmington guerilla-style. (Makes me feel like a loser knowing there’s these great films being shot in my town and I’m missing my chances to help with filming.) Anyway, I made a complete fool of myself because the credits were rolling, and I was loudly yammering about how the film was great but I was leaving the ballroom; then an actor from the film stared at me in disbelief, and I sat back down because I was embarrassed that I almost left before the Q&A. Of course that would happen to me 😅. But the Q&A was awesome, and I told the actor that I would tell all of my friends about it (which I did).

 

I only sat through two shorts block, the first of which was the animation block. I’m a diehard animaniac and I love watching animated films whenever I can, though I’ve since come to favor the realness of live action just a little bit more. But this block has good shorts, including an experimental one about a night trucker losing his sanity, as well as one of the ten shortlisted films for the Animated Short Oscar, which was about a shy airplane model maker and the little guy living in his mind. Mind Over Mind, I think?

 

The second shorts block was dedicated to *excellent* short films, like burgeoning auteurs who definitely knew what they were doing. There was a drama in a barbershop, then a film about Jamaican Americans where a teenager was trying to find his father, then a horror film (more like “first ten pages of a feature script they’re trying to make”), which was a cross between Get Out and The Descent, and I really hope they make it. It ended with Pony Boy, about a male prostitute working in a laundromat (a wink to My Beautiful Laundrette perhaps?) and that was a very well made short film. I saw a few short documentaries during my volunteer hours, one was about the injustices caused by nuclear plants, and another was about Native American motorcross racers (or some sort of motorcycle sport). Those two were awesome!

 

Then I’ll ramble about the documentaries next; the docs I saw were Hope Frozen, Pariah Dog, and a film I forgot the title of, but that one had the filmmaker follow a boy in a third-world country with the camera, and it was very poetic. But Hope Frozen was about the little girl in either China, Taiwan, or another place who was put in cryosleep. Then Pariah Dog had the filmmaker travel around India to film these packs of street dogs as well as the human discourse surrounding whether they should be taken care of. That was like Kedi but not as lighthearted.

 

Before I get to other features I watched, I want to talk about how I volunteered. And the only crummy part about volunteering is getting a shift that conflicts with your ability to watch a film you really want to watch. In my case, I had to volunteer around the time Bacarau was screening. Yeah, the Boffy-winning masterwork, and I still haven’t seen it too… Anyway, they had me usher in Jengo’s Playhouse, so I was making sure everyone got to their seats, and that there were enough seats for everyone. Then I was pulled aside along with a classmate, and we were in someone’s kitchen peeling shrimp for someone’s huge batch of shrimp and grits they were making for a late night house party. You haven’t volunteered for Cucalorus until you’ve peeled shrimp for shrimp and grits!

 

Okay, it’s narrative feature time again. I watched a film called The Miseducation of Bindu. It’s a high school coming-of-age starring an Indian-American girl who tries to fulfill her final requirements so she can skip Senior year and get the heck out of that dump of a public high school. Up and coming actress Megan Suri stars as Bindu, and with my limited film and television watching experience, I can safely say she’s one of the hidden industry talents I’m rooting for at the moment. She starred in Netflix’s Never Have I Ever as well as a film I’ll be talking about during the 2020 blog post; she will also appear in the Searching sequel Missing. And Miseducation of Bindu is available on Tubi and Peacock if you want to watch it for free!

 

Finally, my last film that I remember watching was The Twentieth Century, a Canadian treasure which takes a zany and satirical approach to the early 1900s divide between British Canada and French Canada. It’s filmed in a old film style, like super old, and it has expressionistic production design. I campaigned it during the 2020 Boffies and got it a bunch of noms, because users were starving for good films to nominate due to the pandemic shutting down theaters. Good times!

 

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I had a ton of fun at the 2019 Cucalorus Film Festival, and my experience is going to keep me going back to the festival again and again, and also volunteering again and again. If you want to hear about how they pulled off presenting a festival during the pandemic, stay tuned for the next blog post (a much shorter post), where I talk about the 2020 festival! :D

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