Local Arts

What can you see at the Charlotte Film Festival? Something definitely ... different

“Purple Dreams” documentary heads to festivals

Watch a trailer for this documentary about an intriguing group of Northwest School of the Arts students in a triumphant production of "The Color Purple."
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Watch a trailer for this documentary about an intriguing group of Northwest School of the Arts students in a triumphant production of "The Color Purple."

If the Charlotte Black Film Festival shows pictures with African-American themes, and the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival imports movies about Jewish issues, then the Charlotte Film Festival must bring us – what, exactly?

Everything under the cinematic sun. Movies urban, suburban and rural, scary or sentimental or silly. Protagonists white and black and yellow and red and brown and gay and straight and questioning their gender. Stories that leave you deep in conversation or scratching your head.

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The CFF slogan “Discover different” tells you nothing except that these offerings will be … different. Different from what you find not only at multiplexes but even at art-house theaters. Different from each other. Likely to leave you a different person if you come with an open mind.

Organizers of the city’s longest consecutive film festival – 10 straight days, running Sept. 22-Oct. 1 at Ayrsley Grand Cinemas – might hook you with an acknowledged horror classic such as “Suspiria,” which gets a 40th-anniversary screening this year.

If you like it, you’ll return for the modern horror film “Replace,” about a woman whose skin is crumbling away and can only be rejuvenated with someone else’s. Suddenly you’re drawn to “Nature Boy,” a documentary about a man whose aging body forces him to make hard choices in real life: pro wrestler Ric Flair. Then you’re a film junkie, and there’s no telling what you’ll do.

That’s the hope of festival director Jennifer Bratyanski (an educator and social movement historian in her day jobs) and program director Jay Morong (a senior lecturer of theater and film in the Department of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte).

“We are one-stop shopping for smaller films that aren’t going to be shown in local theaters, even art-house theaters,” says Morong. “We want you to experiment, to step outside your comfort zone.”

The festival took some time finding its own comfort zone. It spent its first six years hitting financial bumps, moving to various venues, deciding how many ancillary events to schedule – panels, tutorials, parties – until it eventually ground to a halt.

After a two-year hiatus in 2013-14, it was reborn under the umbrella nonprofit Charlotte Cinema Arts. That group created Film Shots, an every-so-often chance for filmmakers to network and show movies, and Charlotte Film Scene, a one-stop online site for local film screenings, series, festivals, school showings and the like.

Mostly, though, CCA sponsors this festival, which has grown larger than ever and will show roughly 100 films this fall in its ninth incarnation.

It’ll start Friday night with “My Friend Dahmer,” a narrative based on the graphic novel that examines the serial killer as a misfit high schooler in Richfield, Ohio. It’ll end Oct. 1 with “Purple Dreams,” a documentary about Northwest School of the Arts’ effort to take the musical “The Color Purple” to a national theater competition. Those two films show the arc of the festival: It can swivel from spine-chilling to heart-warming.

Bratyanski and Morong were in place before the two-year hiatus, which gave them time to catalog successes and failures.

Red-carpet galas, they decided, were a waste of money: Filmmakers were so happy to see their films in a real theater (sometimes for the first time) that glitz didn’t matter. Extracurricular activities usually cost more in time and money than they were worth, though the fest hasn’t ruled them out altogether. Interim screenings throughout the year to maintain the festival’s brand didn’t pan out.

All-access passes didn’t sell well, though they’re still available: They cost $150 and get you into all screenings, the Filmmakers Lounge, the opening night party and invitations to events sponsored by festival partners. Most people just buy tickets to individual films, which cost $10 ($9 for students, $8 for Charlotte Film Society members).

What did work? Loads of movies and conversation. Brief conversations with filmmakers in Q-and-As after screenings. (“We are the on-time festival,” says Bratyanski, “so we keep those short.”) Longer chats in the lobby afterward with eager writer-directors. Philosophic discussions at watering holes late into the night, made possible because “We’ll tell you where filmmakers like to drink and hang out,” says Morong.

The festival often shows movies as a call to action. It created a Social Justice Award last year, presented along with the Southern Poverty Law Center to “Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America.” The SPLC won’t attend this year, but the award will be given. The fest will also pick two narratives and two documentaries for second screenings on Oct. 1.