It still feels like a well-kept secret. The Taos Talking Picture Festival has kept a low profile, even as it has risen quickly in prominence as a vital stop on the world cinema tour. Unless you're inside one of the eight screening rooms, you'd barely know the festival was taking place. The lines move quickly, and aside from their black attire and purple passes, the filmmakers are virtually unrecognizable. Traffic is as slow as ever on the one road through town, and the streets are empty by 11 p.m., when even on a Saturday night, only two bars stay open.
When a film wins the grand prize at other big festivals like Cannes or Sundance or creates a buzz at a place like Telluride, you can be reasonably sure it has some kind of future. It may not make it to Colorado Springs, where American Beauty is as close as we get to an art film, but you might hear of it playing at the Mayan in Denver. Part of the ambience of TTPF is the feeling that, although these filmmakers certainly have a future, many of the films will never be seen again in a movie house. The transitory, temporal experience of these films heightens the value of the experience.
This year's Taos Land Grant Award winner -- five acres on a mesa 10 miles north of town -- is a case in point. Daniel Yoon's Post Concussion is an inventive, quirky and hilarious look at a character who becomes a stranger in his own life after suffering a concussion in an automobile accident.
Yoon, who wears the hats of director, producer, screenwriter, cinematographer, editor and star, created an irresistible tale full of insight, humor and tenderness as Matthew, a corporate downsizing expert, reclaiming his life after the accident. Yoon opens the film with a spoof of the public service personal injury films of the '50s, continuing to intercut these scenes of "dorks waiting for disaster to strike" into the body of his narrative as the story unfolds. He makes beautiful use of time lapse footage of boats on the San Francisco Bay to mirror the tweak perception of time after the injury, and, enhancing the film's autobiographical nature, he casts his own mother as Matthew's mother, appearing through voice-over answering machine messages that effectively ground the story.
Yoon was a stranger to the camera when he made this first feature, explaining that he only wanted "to complete the film and not go bankrupt or hurt anyone we cared about." Relying on unpaid actors and crew, Yoon said "you could buy a car with the money it took to make the film. A used car." He's working on new scripts and deadpans that he's "concerned about being pigeonholed as a personal injury filmmaker."
The steepest competition for the Land Grant Award came from Long Night's Journey into Day, a documentary film by Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffmann that brings us into South Africa's riveting, unprecedented experiment in national healing through the Truth and Reconciliation Committee hearings. The film follows four murder cases in which the TRC weighted amnesty with justice, granting the former on the two conditions that applicants fully disclosed the facts about their crimes and that the crimes were politically motivated. The process brings victims and perpetrators face to face in a unique attempt to let the truth provide resolution and closure.
The hearings are remarkable, a Kafka-esque confrontation of civility and vengeance, and the footage of wives and mothers of the murder victims reacting to testimony is both heart-wrenching and hopeful. The hearings were held, literally, on a stage, with those attending playing the role of a Greek chorus, watching characters who had previously exerted uncontested power in apartheid South Africa squirming under the scrutiny of their public confessions.
The film makes the point that "you want to see that they're not monsters after all." And though at least one of the four cases featured applicants who were not forthcoming in their disclosures, there was more promise than pessimism. As one of the film's subjects put it, "When you see them look back with regret, you think there's hope for humanity."
Another highlight of the festival was Stranger with a Camera, the story of the 1967 murder of Canadian filmmaker Hugh O'Connor by Hobart Ison, a native of Jeremiah, Kentucky. O'Connor was documenting the poverty-stricken area, filming Ison's tar-paper pine shack rental property, when Ison drove up and started shooting, resenting the outsiders he believed had come to Appalachia to embarrass the locals in front of the world.
Director Elizabeth Barret was a high school student three miles from Jeremiah when the murders took place. The process of stepping behind the camera to tell the story forced her to confront questions about who has the right to tell a community's story.
Ison was vindicated by many in his community for defending himself against outsiders. When his crew testified that they didn't know what a serious invasion their presence in town and on Ison's property had been, the local response after the murder was "I bet you know it now." Ison's plea bargain for involuntary manslaughter yielded a ten-year sentence. He was paroled after one year.
One of the festival's most uplifting films was On and Off the Res with Charlie Hill, chronicling over 20 years in Hill's career as a stand-up comedian and comedy writer for everyone from Steve Allen to Roseanne Barr, subverting stereotypes and prejudices in his performances for mostly Anglo audiences in which he tries "to turn poison into medicine."
Other notable films included Steal This Movie, a portrait of cultural revolutionary Abbey Hoffman, who utilized "guerilla theater" to rescue the Civil Rights and antiwar movements from the fringes; The Photographer which follows a tortured artist through the backstreets of New York on a surreal quest, complete with Scarecrows and Tinmen; and The Origin of Man, Stuart Hynson Culpepper's subtle coming-of-age exploration of sexuality, fatherhood, and mortality.
A few films that touched the edge of the mainstream include Stanley's Gig, a tender, affirming film about a ukulele player who dreams of playing gigs on cruise ships and settles for playing to senior citizens as a recreational therapist at a nursing home; The Last Producer, a dark film directed by and starring Burt Reynolds in which Reynolds exposes his vulnerabilities as an aging icon; and Vadim Jean's black comedy One More Kiss, a surprisingly effective film in the terminal disease genre in which a dying character returns home to Scotland, hoping to spend time with the great love of her life, now married, and have a few final arguments with her father.
Merata Mita, recognized with the Taos Mountain Award for lifetime achievement for an outstanding aboriginal film professional, scored a hit with the local favorite Dread, a portrait of a community of self-sufficient Rastafarians living on New Zealand's east coast.
As surprising as it is that Taos has managed to tentatively maintain its identity under the pressures of tourism, it is just as impressive that the Talking Picture Festival maintains its cozy atmosphere blending world cinema with cutting edge projects from previously unheralded artists. It's worth looking for these films in the big cities, on cable and at the video store, but more importantly, look for these artists to take the momentum from Taos to break through with a new generation of cinema.