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deadCENTER Film Festival 2009

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deadCENTER Film Festival 2009

The deadCENTER Film Festival (June 10th—14th) derives its name from the sort-of-true fact that Oklahoma City is in the ’center’ of the (contiguous) nation. Oklahoma might also be considered a ’dead center’ as it is the farthest away from the coast lines of big-city urbanity. Whatever the case, this singular proximity from the film industry does not deter the locals from enjoying themselves. Enjoyment was the prime directive at the 2009 festival, with locations in downtown theaters, hotels, public parks and the arts district. Free-of-charge outdoor screenings drew crowds of film enthusiasts toting lawn chairs and ice coolers. Stella Artois, a sponsor of the festival, was readily available, and receptions were well supplied with featured delicious foods from local establishments. Filmmakers complimented the festival organizers with their enthusiasm and support and appreciated the audience turnout. Oklahoma has a strong theater community, which naturally turns to film as warranted. Viewers always like to see new works from local talent, even if it isn’t very good, and having more permissive expectations provides an occasional surprise, like the thrill of a bit of fool’s gold turning into the real stuff. This permissive attitude only encourages resident artists and musicians to really freak out, like local weirdo Matthew Alvin Brown in the film Rainbow Around the Sun. Support from businesses and donors, hotels and restaurants and an audience drawn from across the nation can make all the difference in an arts venture. Whether or not Hollywood notices, Okies are dancin’ and rockin’ and doin’ all kinds of cool things just because they can.

The first feature I attended was Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, directed by Bradley Beesley. Mr. Beesley previously filmed Okie Noodling, which captures the challenging practice of fishing without equipment, catching catfish bare-handed. The fishermen and women are sincere and honest representatives of noodling practitioners passionate about their sport. In Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, Beesley follows inmates from the Eddie Warrior Women’s Correctional Center in Taft, Oklahoma as they prepare to compete in the Oklahoma Prison Rodeo for the first time. In 2006, women inmates were granted permission to participate with the men in the annual ’behind the walls’ event. Sweethearts captures this historic moment and presents scenes from the rodeo show with profiles of both male and female riders.

Each inmate is a case study of the effects of Oklahoma’s justice system, illustrating who and how and why someone has been sentenced to spend years away from friends and family. The women inmates suggest that drug use and trafficking is the primary reason that most of them are there. Lack of employment is generally the primary reason for drug use. Many inmates are recovering addicts. Oklahoma leads the nation with the highest rate of incarceration for women. Sixty percent of female inmates are mothers.

The rodeo provides a welcome relief to the monotony of life behind bars. The high stakes of rodeo riding add to the risks and rewards which many embrace as an escape from their cells. Leaving the correctional center grounds in a trailer was the first time in years that many of the women inmates had ever left the prison. Participating in the rodeo provided a personal challenge for each participant. The experience builds faith and character in those facing release from prison and the challenge of creating a new life outside prison walls.

If I could have invited anyone to go out with me to the after-film party that night, I think it would have to be John Waters. He would have been excited to see some of the ex-inmates right there on stage talking about their new start in life and how great it was to have it all on film. The opening reception, the screening, and the after-party were all really fun. It’s great to see people in Oklahoma embracing who they are and doing fun things. Baltimore and Oklahoma City have a lot of similarities. John’s characters have cousins here in Oklahoma.

On Thursday night I went to see Ecstasy of Gold, a Western drama. Honestly, I do not really understand Westerns. While they might have different permutations, they all seem to have the same story. Ecstasy was about people chasing after a bag of gold. Among the scruffy guys was a beguiling and mysterious woman. While the guys were yelling and shooting at each other, she was alone and silent, walking through the wilderness. It was an interesting and nicely made movie but, as an un-knowledgeable Western viewer, I feel unworthy to form an opinion of it. Also, I arrived late and missed the opening credits. Without them, I felt I was not properly introduced to the tale. I was later well compensated in meeting Morgan, an actor in Ecstasy with whom I enjoyed a Stella Artois beer and conversation during a filmmaker reception.

On Friday afternoon I saw Official Rejection, a festival film about films rejected from film festivals. Many of the filmmakers in the documentary were present for a Q&A. The creators of Ten ’til Noon document their successes and failures while promoting their feature film at film festivals. They assert that while there are many film festivals, Sundance is considered the preeminent location for a successful and meaningful film premiere. Many festivals are profiled and filmmakers Chris Gore and Blayne Weaver contribute to the dialogue. Everyone appears to be struggling with the side effects of an expanding film festival community supplied with increasing numbers of submissions reaching far beyond what can be accepted.

Blayne Weaver’s second film, Weather Girl, won him a second award at deadCENTER. This film is very well made and the actors are excellent. The dialogue captures a fresh version of what cool kids are saying nowadays, which likely contributed to audience approval. Featured actors include Mark Harmon and Jon Cryer. The story details the struggles of a thirty-something career girl dealing with money, work and relationship issues, reconsidering who she is and what she wants. She is forced to quit a relationship with a career-enhancing but loveless husband and meets a younger, cuter guy with messy hair and a technology job who appeals to her passionate nature. Audience members stated in a discussion afterward that they appreciated the portrayal of a strong female character adapting to changes in her life. Mr. Weaver stated that Weather Girl will play on the Lifetime Channel later this year.

Friday night had a midnight movie vibe going for Lloyd Kaufman’s POULTRYGEIST: Night of the Chicken Dead. Mr. Kaufman himself was there that night, thanking the audience and promoting his books and films. Before the film, Mr. Kaufman charmed the audience in a montage of short clips of previous POULTRYGEIST screenings. As I am generally familiar with Troma Films, I was pleased to find all expectations met. It is just stupid. When a restaurant opens on an ancient Indian burial ground, murdered chickens return from the dead to exact revenge on the humans that eat them. Cheap jokes and inventive slang pepper the full-steam-ahead dialogue that drives the film. Ridiculous, over-the-top special effects are both gross and funny. Once people start turning into zombies, then there are chicken zombies everywhere and practically the entire end of the film is all zombies. I guess I am not complaining that this is too much but there are really a lot of chicken zombies. This movie is all about the zombies. I can’t help but think that Odienator would have been an ideal film-watching partner of POULTRYGEIST and that would have added considerably to my own merriment.

Twenty eight actors filled the stage to depict characters at a table reading of Laura Looks Up, winner of the deadCENTER screenplay award. It’s about a thirty-something career girl who is forced to re-examine herself when faced with life-changing decisions. Laura is told to choose between the current man who satisfies her logically rather than emotionally and a bed-headed, stubbly-bearded young man who offers an animal attraction instead of security and predictability. Once again, women in the audience commented that they appreciated the portrayal of a strong female character adapting to changes in her life. Scenes from this screenplay suggest a comically exaggerated environment, such as the offices of pet magazines ’Rodent Vogue’ and ’International Cat’ where editors fuss over photos of animals in costumes. During the table reading, audience laughter was light and scattered.

If made into a film, quick shots of these magazines would likely provoke strong laughter. The comical environment Laura resides in is reflected in some characters’ coarse dialogue, inappropriate behavior and flippant references to Tom Selleck and other pop culture figures. The screenplay sounded nice enough, but I was left wondering what it was that made it prize-winning.

The festival concluded with Saint Misbehavin’, a documentary portrait of Wavy Gravy. This film was screened in an outdoor park area which complemented the subject. Mr. Gravy was in attendance with the filmmakers and various friends. They promoted the cause of global neighbors, an organization to assist disempowered individuals. The film presented a lifetime’s worth of action, activism, words and music promoting peace and love and kindness and understanding. Combining recent interviews with archival footage, the film presented Wavy’s early days as Hugh, his creation and participation in the Hog Farm and his evolution into a hippie icon and clown for world peace.

The rowdy rodeo that started the festival returned for the awards ceremony, as the hoots and hollers from event organizer Cacky Poarch commanded responses from the beer-chugging crowds. Whistles and applause filled the parkway as prize winners were announced. Cowboy hats, tie-dye shirts, kilts and sunglasses and kids and dogs all came together in celebration of films and the people who make them. Although storm clouds cooled the air, rain did not fall and people hung out on the lawn. This year’s deadCENTER Film Festival concluded with a magical and inspirational vibe.

Shelby Button resides in rural Oklahoma and occasionally watches movies. He posts over at Liverputty, sometimes under the name, Charles Parsley.