We are less than a year removed from Robert Redford’s provocative declaration, at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival’s opening presser, that “there are too many film festivals.” It was a comment that itself came a year after Redford’s even more contentious comment that, as far as he knew, his Park City annual was the only festival in the world that could claim to be “purely independent.” Most of the world’s film festivals are still in revival mode following more than three years of cancellations, hybridizations, shutterings and overhauls, and the persistent question of whether or not they’re still necessary to cinema culture should arguably begin with the regional film festival—a category that contains more than 95% of the world’s festivals, and also does not include Sundance. Without getting too hung up on the terms “regional” and “independent”—the latter, in particular, is prone to very loose interpretation—these are festivals that exhibit and foster a mode of film production for which key creative decisions (including regionally-specific geography and settings) are meaningfully detached from financers. If film is to remain a vital art form, it cannot be confined to a limited number of coastal hubs.

No, there aren’t too many film festivals, especially ones as thoughtfully curated as Knoxville, Tennessee’s Film Fest Knox, which just wrapped its first edition earlier this month. The event replaced (or at least re-branded) the now defunct Knoxville Film Festival, which ran for 19 years until director Keith McDaniel, and is now led by filmmaker Paul Harrill and film critic Darren Hughes, who together launched Knoxville’s microcinema, The Public Cinema, ten years ago. Over the past year, the pair, working in tandem with Visit Knoxville leadership, re-structured the festival so that its image of contemporary cinema would be both macro- and microscopic. A pitching competition, called Elv8or Pitch, was open to Knoxville production teams looking to finance a first feature; a Revivals program gave screen space to a handful of restored older films (more on a couple of this section’s highlights below); and International Currents allowed Hughes and Harrill to screen some of their favorite global arthouse films from this year, including challenging, formally rigorous films by Angela Schanelec (Music), Bas Devos (Here), Rosine Mbakam (Mambar Pierrette), and Pedro Costa (The Daughters of Fire) that likely would never have screened in Knoxville otherwise. In full disclosure, I collaborated with Hughes and Harrill on a film program, “Stereo Visions,” in 2018 and 2020 (the latter canceled due to the pandemic) back when they were programming films for Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival, and both of them are friends of mine. Additionally, my latest 3D short film, Laberint Sequences, was included in this year’s International Currents lineup, paired with Wim Wender’s new 3D documentary, Anselm.

In addition to the aforementioned sections, the heart of Film Fest Knox is the American Regional Film Competition. Comprising six US-set features—all made outside of NYC and LA—the section rewards its winner with an eventual Oscar-qualifying theatrical run in at least ten of the country’s top markets, courtesy of festival partner Regal Cinemas. Henry Loevner & Steven Kanter’s Peak Season, which premiered in South by Southwest’s Narrative Spotlight earlier this year, was a suitable winner, in that it’s almost uncannily in-step with the regional cinema ethos that the festival is geared toward. While the filmmakers are both based in LA, Loevner spent some time living in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and the two decided to return with his directing partner to shoot a film about a couple of New York yuppies briefly escaping their lives climbing corporate ladders. Amy (Claudia Restrepo) travels to the “little cowtown” with her fiancé Max (Ben Coleman), intending to spend the week taking fishing lessons, hiking, and dipping into their modernist cottage’s hot tub. Unsurprisingly, Max—who compares humans to sharks (”If you stop moving, you die”)—shows no interest in turning away from his work, and doesn’t hesitate to vacate his vacation when an urgent situation beckons him back to the city. Amy, who actually recently stepped away from her job as a managing consultant, sees the value in this rumination period, and continues along nature’s path. In her fiancé’s absence, she quickly forges a friendship with Loren (Derrick DeBlasis), her scraggly fishing instructor who sleeps in his car, and their pronounced chemistry makes it pretty clear where the film is headed. Celine Song’s Past Lives reminded us earlier this year that cinephiles’ appetites for impossible love stories, especially those centered around aimless urbanites desperate for authenticity, is far from sated, making Peak Season probably this competition’s safest choice to deliver an audience-friendly title to Regal’s screens.

An Evening Song (for three voices)

Graham Swon’s An Evening Song (for three voices), which took home the Regional Competition’s Best Director prize, is less accessible, but far more singular. Despite Swon’s frequent work as producer for many of New York’s thriving independent film scene (Ricky D’Ambrose, Joanna Arnow, Gina Telaroli, and Ted Fendt, among others), the film is a product of Iowa, where its maker currently resides. Shot in Fairfield and around the nearby Des Moines River, An Evening Song is a 1930’s-set melodrama that is quite true to its title: three voices—pulp author Richard (Peter Vack), his sultry wife Barbara (Hannah Gross), and their badly burned housekeeper Martha (Deragh Campbell)—participate in a bucolic love triangle amidst the area’s aged hills, their prayers, whispered dreams and earnest glares woven together in a nearly endless barrage of crossfades (I suspect I might be able to count the number of hard cuts this film contains using only my hands). Adding to the film’s hypnotic tone were a woozy (and, frankly, beautiful) drone score by Rachel Evans, and a startlingly impressionistic image, which was achieved by capturing the footage though a sheet of custom ground glass, and creates intense vignetting and gives the effect of watching the movie through a Hasselblad viewfinder. The film’s writing, including dialogue that’s fittingly delivered in a bookish prose style, is not nearly its strong suit, but it knows it. It’s a film to see and hear, not to watch or listen to.

There were no midnight screenings in this edition of the festival, but Gary Huggins’ Kick Me played the part anyway. The film details school counselor Santiago’s (Santiago Vasquez) hellish trek into the shadows of Kansas City, Kansas (Huggin’s hometown, which is also known as KCK, to clarify the title’s pun), where myriad hooligans and jenkem-sniffers pursue and torment the film’s hero, who merely wishes to retrieve his daughter’s pet bunny so he can make it home in time to see her choir recital. The film, which is not at all my speed, exists thanks to a Kickstarter campaign back in 2012 that successfully raised the $70,000 Huggins needed to begin production. After its long-anticipated premiere late in 2022—Huggins now refers to the film as “a knock-knock joke ten years in the making”—at San Francisco’s Another Hole In The Head, Kick Me has been scouring the genre film festival circuit finding its audience of local color enthusiasts; indeed, Film Fest Knox had to inform the competition jury that the film was now ineligible to receive the distribution prize since it had just been picked up by (and is already available to stream on) Amazon Prime

Time of the Heathen

To take a step back, my weekend in Knoxville actually began with the 62-year-old Time of the Heathen (1961), the only film directed by Peter Kaas (a man more readily known for his work acting and directing theater), and also one that’s been seen by very few. This restored digital scan was unveiled at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, Italy last June, and now made its North American premiere at Film Fest Knox. An on-the-lam picture filmed in Oyster Bay, NY, Heathen tracks Gaunt (TV actor John Heffernan, whom character name fits like a glove) as he flees police with a young mute Black boy after being wrongly accused of raping and murdering a servant, the boy’s older sister. Bay shores and docks aside, I can’t say the location specificity is super important—early-60s racist Americana is the vibe, generally speaking—and the shoddy ADR, which allows voices to hover atop the predominantly non-pro actors’ mouths like oil on water, also precludes finer character traits (e.g. accents) from building any location specificity. More crucial, rather, were the film’s apparent theme, which likens the impulses that resulted in the US dropping bombs on Japan to lingering hatred against Black people (a thesis dubious enough to have me digging for deeper meanings long after the screening ended), and, the star of the show, the photography and editing of artist & experimental filmmaker Ed Emshwiller (known more for his work lensing Adolfas Mekas’ Hallelujah the Hills [1963], not to mention his own body of ravishing poetic shorts). Shot mostly in black and white, the film slides in and out of full-color dream sequences that do the expressionistic heavy lifting to make Gaunt into some kind of martyr, forced to live and relive the ongoing nightmare of American imperialism.

Finally, Revivals included an in memoriam screening dedicated to the late, great experimental filmmaker Jim Jennings, which compiled eight of his recently preserved 16mm shorts in a program called New York Stories. Jennings was a regular at avant-garde venues just before I began frequenting them in the late aughts, so this was my first real encounter with his work in any format. Screened in silence (plus the occasional sound leaks from the neighboring Priscilla showing), the films felt blissfully at-odds with anything else I’d seen that weekend, as well as with the multiplex architecture enframing—appropriate, given Jennings’ infatuation with the way buildings (and the spaces between them) create and distort frames within his frames. I’ve now been a regular at experimental film showcases like Toronto International Film Festival’s Wavelengths and New York Film Festival’s Currents (formerly Projections and, before that, Views from the Avant-Garde), and, as other critics have recently pointed out, the gap between what’s currently deemed vital in experimental film & video and previous generations’ modes of showing the world seems to be widening at an exponential rate. But my curiosity about how a suite of films explicitly made in New York City might situate itself within a festival whose gaze was so pointedly directed elsewhere resolved some of that tension for me. Besides the gesture of paying tribute to a recently passed expert within his field, the presentation of Jennings’ work in this context accentuated a sensibility that feels vital to Film Fest Knox’s core mission, which suggests that what may seem ‘quaint’ could actually just be a new way of seeing.

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