Local Arts

Small film festivals succeed in Charlotte, but where’s the big one?

When I think of the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival, I recall Spencer Tracy’s line about Kate Hepburn in “Pat and Mike”: “Not much meat on her, but what’s there is cherce.” (He was using a Brooklyn accent.)

The CJFF shows only 12 films over three weeks, but virtually all have won awards. The selection committee spends the bulk of the off-season finding gems, which, though they have something to do with Israel or the Jewish diaspora, might satisfy any audience. I see at least one every year and have never run across a clunker.

[What’s up with this year’s festival? Natalie Portman in her feature-film debut as star and director, for one thing.]

In fact, partly because the CJFF cherry-picks from fests around the world, it has become the most consistently impressive film event in a city with a checkered cinematic history.

Older readers recall the Charlotte Film and Video Festival the late Robert West started in 1990. West, who curated film at the Mint Museum of Art, ran it gamely for a decade until it ran out of financial backing. He then moved to Wilmington to start a socially conscious distribution company, Working Films.

In his wake came a slew of smaller events. The Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. The 15 Short Film Festival, a one-nighter devoted to movies lasting 15 minutes or less. The 100 Words Film Festival, in which every entry must have exactly that much dialogue. Joedance, created to raise money for cancer research at Levine Children’s Hospital.

African-American festivals have never found firm footing. Dennis Darrell, a pioneer in local promotion of African-American movies, had begun to expand his influence in the community when he died suddenly in 2010.

Floyd Rance and Stephanie Tavares-Rance, who created the still-active Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival, tried to replicate it in Charlotte and gave up after two years. The Charlotte Black Film Festival has had indifferent success over the last five years; it was supposed to announce films for 2016 last weekend, but a visit to its website reveals pages of gibberish, broken video links and no updates.

Unless we count the Cackalacky Film Festival, which barely staggered through its second year in a remote office park in 2009, the county has had one multipurpose film fest of any consequence since West went east: The Charlotte Film Festival. Even the CFF has had a bumpy road. It has opened, closed and reopened, moving to various venues; last year, it took place in the peripheral Ayrsley Grand and Carolinas Crownpoint theaters.

The team that revived it in 2015 for a seventh outing brought in movies with name stars and at least one future Oscar nominee, Colombia’s “Embrace of the Serpent.” (It’s up for best foreign film this month.) “Chuck Norris vs. Communism,” a documentary about action movies smuggled into 1980s Romania, became part of PBS’ “Independent Lens” series.

Yet a visit to the CFF’s Facebook page tells us nothing except film submission deadlines, and its website consists of a home page with no news (except for the 2016 dates, Sept. 22-Oct. 2) and no links. A major-league festival would do more.

In fact, a major-league festival requires years of consistent growth and a wide array of programs, not just screenings and parties but classes and panels. The model could be RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem.

RiverRun has three things no local festival can boast: a full-time director, significant corporate backing and commitment from exhibitors at the center of the city. Those are targets at which the Charlotte Film Festival should shoot.

Toppman: 704-358-5232