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Fledgling filmmakers find forum at festival

Tue, Jul 20, 2004 (8:07 a.m.)

But independent filmmaker Deborah Lowe's impressive "Portraits of a Naked Lady Dancer," showing Friday at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, bares it all in a different way.

A feminist and graduate from George Mason University who received a master's degree in linguistics, Rowe spent two years working alongside three women in an upscale strip club, befriending them and listening to their stories while capturing their dances.

The experience broke the stereotype Rowe said she held of strippers as "down-on-their luck girls whose lives had paved the way to the door of a strip club."

"What I came away with is what I tried to appeal to viewers, to really question the stereotypes, to complicate the stereotypes," Rowe said via telephone from Annandale, Va. "Each individual was profoundly human in an existential way, and very beautiful.

"These women came from middle-class to upper-middle-class families. They were in school, artists, or working for some technical degree."

"Portraits of a Naked Lady Dancer" is the first entry at the NYIIFVF for Rowe, who won honorable mention for "Zealots From Hell," a mockumentary on the men's Christian organization the Promise Keepers, at the Rosebud Film Festival in Arlington, Va.

The 72-minute documentary is among a collection of shorts, feature films, comedies and documentaries being shown in the seven-day event held at the Brenden Theatres at the Palms.

Films include "Gettysburg: Three Days of Destiny," a documentary on the Battle of Gettysburg; "The Promise," a "family values" movie with a Christian slant; and the mockumentary "LIKEHELL," an occasionally crude, but mostly funny, romp that follows a Minneapolis band from their formation at a Christian mime camp to the travails of rock 'n' roll fame.

The festival is a pay-to-play event that opens its arms to nearly any filmmaker who shows talent and who is willing to pay a $300 entrance fee plus other costs for promotion.

"Our philosophy is to accept more than we reject," festival founder Stuart Alson said. "If it's kind of good. If the guy's showing promise, the guy's going to have his day. If it's really bad and you can't watch it, we won't show it."

Getting in

A former comic whose laid-back personality belies his ambition, Alson started the festival after his difficulty in getting his own $70,000 martial arts/comedy film into festivals.

Alson moved to Las Vegas for the affordable housing and brought the festival here shortly after. It had been operating in New York since 1990, then grew to include Los Angeles. More recently the festival has moved into Miami and includes an accompanying music festival.

The film festival, however, has been under scrutiny by filmmakers, many of whom take jabs in chat rooms, citing rickety conditions (projectors and screens brought in for overflow crowds), high ticket prices and high fees. Most film festivals, including Sundance and Cannes, charge between $30 and $60.

"They called us out of nowhere," said local independent filmmaker Kelly Schwarze, president of Vision Dynamics Entertainment. "When they started talking about fees, we weren't interested.

"To me, it's not a film festival. To me, it's an exhibition. No legitimate festival will require you to pay more than an entry fee."

Alson, however, says he doesn't misrepresent the festival, that the filmmakers essentially purchase their time slot in the festival and that money is refunded to filmmakers whose movies are not accepted.

"It's a different type of festival that I do," Alson said. "Our goals are different. The people pay for their time slot. We don't fly in a bunch of celebrities. We just try to show the films."

With other festivals, Alson said, "It's like a lottery. What you pay, it's not an entrance fee, it's a chance to get in. If you're lucky, you might get in, but you'll get in in Ohio and show at 8 a.m.

"For me, it was all politics, celebrities, who you knew."

Stories to tell

The films, which are free during the weekdays and cost $10 (per time slot, which could be two or more screenings) in evenings and weekends, vary in production quality, screenwriting and acting skill.

"If the acting and screenwriting are good and cinematography isn't, we still accept it, thinking, 'Well, maybe they (different filmmakers) will meet and work on another project together,' " Alson said.

One of the festival's better-quality films, "Walking On The Sky," is a drama of six friends trying to find the cause of a friend's sudden suicide by reading his diary.

Other films include "Trans-American Killer," a local slasher film that offers plenty of strippers, sex and blood. It was filmed mostly in Las Vegas and stars a mostly Las Vegas cast (including a cameo by local band the Vermin).

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Michael Charboneau's self-described "family values film with a Christian overtone," shot in the state of Washington, shows a young girl searching for her father.

"I basically wrote the film for my children because there really isn't anything out there for them to see," Charboneau said. "I just wanted a nice film you could take the family to."

Charboneau started writing the film three years ago and modeled the main character after his own 12-year-old daughter. He's shown the film in theaters in Washington State and Oregon.

Regarding his effort to shop a Christian-themed film, Charboneau said, "It's a very tough market to find. Probably my market is going to be direct-to-video or cable publication."

No blockbusters have come from the festival. Its most commercially successful films, which mainly went to video or cable, include, "Jane Doe," starring Calista Flockhart, and "The Smokers," a drama about three rebellious teenage girls at a Wisconsin boarding school.

Alson's own ITN Distribution company, which is one of his many projects (including the company's magazine, Independent Film Quarterly), has taken in some films. "Trans-American Killer" is one of them. The movie is expected to hit video stores nationwide in January.

Local filmmaker Joanie Spina says she isn't looking for anything other than an audience for her 19-minute documentary, "Born to Die," which explores the overpopulation of discarded pets in Las Vegas.

Spina follows Heaven Can Wait Sanctuary and the Las Vegas Valley Humane Society in their efforts to spay and neuter cats in low-income areas while using a mobile veterinary van and volunteers who trap the animals to get them fixed.

Often the groups partner with trailer parks where feral cats are abundant.

"The majority of the problem comes from lower-income areas," Spina said. "They don't have the money to spay and neuter. We have these groups in town who go into these areas with a mobile vet."

Probably the film's most heart-wrenching section is when Spina interviews euthanasia technicians at Dewey Animal Shelter, which euthanizes dozens of animals a day.

"You can't imagine what it's like to be the person who does that," Spina said. "They have that sadness and that guilt and the public pointing fingers saying, 'How could you do that?' when someone has to do that.' "

"It was hard to be there, hard to edit."

Other local efforts include student films from the Community College of Southern Nevada's Videography and Film Program.


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