Downtown at the famed honky tonk Tootsies, a cover band plays Kenny Chesney tunes and we raise our beer mug and “holler and swaller.” Filmmakers from the Nashville Film Festival drift in and out of the late-night venue after a day of presenting their work.
“The festival fits into a vibe of creativity expanding beyond its music roots into film,” says artistic director Brian Owens. In fact, Mario Van Peebles shot his latest work, Black, White and Blues, in Tennessee and world premiered it at the festival. The film is atmospheric, though a bit slick, and is interspersed with live club performances. Co-writer Morgan Simpson credibly plays Bailey, a blues guitarist with stage fright and hellbent adversaries. His protector, Augy, wonderfully played by Michael Clarke Duncan, is the perfect foil to the down-and-out bluesman, until the surprise finale. The film is a crowd-pleaser.
Continuing the theme of showcasing local work, the festival presented The Colonel's Bride, a spare, melancholy love story directed by local filmmaker Brent Stewart. To relieve loneliness, a world-weary Vietnam veteran, played by Tennessee native James DeForest Parker, acquires a Vietnamese mail-order bride and begins a journey of making amends with his past. He and his young wife find a tender understanding despite the language barrier. Elegant long takes underscore the heartfelt emotions in the film.
Hoop skirts and curtsies are on view in Southern Belle, a fascinating documentary by Kathy Conkwright and Mary Makley on the 1861 Athenaeum Girls School in Columbia, Tennessee. In partnership with Nashville Public Television, the filmmakers brought cameras in for the first time to observe a summer camp's students in an intensive week of historical reenactment, including antebellum costumes, singing the confederate anthem “Dixie,” attending a ball, and hearing the news of the times. The topic of slavery is minimized, as the mission of the camp is to develop etiquette and confidence in the young women by having them walk in the shoes of their forebears.
Moving beyond the South, the short film series, The Complete Work of Jamie Travis, depicts an imagination in overdrive. Described by festival brass as “the love child of David Lynch and Pedro Almodóvar,” Travis builds suspense through oddball narratives and original songs. The Canadian filmmaker's nostalgic world is pristine, with menace at every turn. His newest films, 2009's The Armoire and 2006's The Saddest Boy in the World, take on gay adolescence, and the Patterns trilogy follows a twisted heterosexual love story. Why the Anderson Children Didn't Come to Dinner, from 2003, is a family meal from hell. Space-age telephones, taxidermy, graphic wallpaper, and polyester clothing make the eye-popping films fresh entertainment. “I fetishize objects and write scripts around props,” Travis says in a Q&A following the screening.
Evoking a Baz Luhrmann musical by way of 1950s communist Russia, Hipsters stirred up lots of buzz at the festival. An explosion of vivid color, dancing, and saxophone music illustrate a standoff between Stalinist youth and their rebellious jazz-loving counterparts. Director Valeriy Todorovskiy infuses the fun with sly references to past and present political climate. The Russian-language film has been traveling the festival circuit for over a year, with stops in Karlovy Vary and Toronto, but deserves a theatrical run for its rare quality of pure exuberance. Jurors in Nashville gave the work several awards, including the narrative competition grand prize.
The Nashville Film Festival runs from April 15 to 22.