Strange Beauty Film Festival

May 19, 2012

Raleigh News & Observer

On a recent bitterly cold night in Durham, 100 or so fans of experimental film and music braved the elements to pack into a vacated, hastily repurposed retail space downtown.

As Greensboro’s visiting musical collective Invisible set up a menagerie of equipment, local film curators Jim Haverkamp and Joyce Ventimiglia powered up the projector for the night’s opening feature – a special sneak preview of this year’s Strange Beauty Film Festival.

A three-day exhibition of short films featuring “the strangely beautiful and the beautifully strange,” the festival is returning for its third season at Durham’s Manbites Dog Theater tonight through Saturday. Festival organizers will screen 48 short films in four programming blocks – at 8:15 each evening, and a matinee screening Saturday afternoon.

The preview event provided an intriguing sampling of this year’s lineup, and the downtown art crowd responded with enthusiasm. As one onlooker observed, in an era when everyone has his own portable digital screen, it’s nice to attend a communal cinema event that doesn’t involve $9.75 popcorn buckets.

Haverkamp and Ventimiglia screened 10 shorts, mixing experimental animation with more traditional documentary-style shorts. Among the highlights was the haunting “Aviarium,” an experimental German short with dreamlike images of birds, landscapes and heavy industry.

Also screened was the disturbing “Bloodsucker,” from California, which details an unexpected side effect of the foreclosure crisis – the thousands of abandoned residential swimming pools that are now a haven for pathogens like the West Nile virus.

There was plenty of comic relief, too. The night’s funniest short was essentially one man’s hilariously profane rant against the aesthetics of cheap motel signs and bad graphic design. Another film described a technique for summoning the voice of Nat King Cole from the great beyond. Still another depicted what happens when chocolate Easter bunnies square off against heat lamps and hair dryers.

Starring kudzu

Festival co-director Ventimiglia, who also works as video producer at the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics, said more than 200 films were submitted for this year’s festival, about double the number of submissions received last year. The shorts range across genres – narrative and documentary, animation and experimental – and many combine multiple film formats, she said.

“We have a film this year that was shot entirely on someone’s Apple phone,” Ventimiglia said. “Format doesn’t really matter. Really, if it emotionally resonated with us, if we get some kind of feeling from the film – that’s what we base it on more than anything else.”

Of the local films that will be presented, Ventimiglia said she’s particularly enthused by “Kudzu Vine,” a 20-minute black-and-white film by Durham filmmaker and Duke University instructor Josh Gibson. “It’s just so visually stunning,” Ventimiglia said. “The way it’s shot is just so incredible, so meticulously done.”

“Kudzu Vine” examines the history and utility of the pervasive plant, famous in the South for growing more than a foot a day and draping the landscape with its slightly eerie vines. Gibson said that, with “Kudzu Vine,” he tried to take a genre approach to the documentary form.

“I’d worked with this particular film stock before, and knew it had this sort of mid-19th-century feel to it,” he said. “It feels like an old scary movie. I began to think, what about a documentary that feels like a horror film?”

Aside from the submitted films, this year’s Strange Beauty festival features several special events as well. On Friday night, Durham filmmaker and historian Tom Whiteside will present a three-screen, 16 mm program called “FILMISTORY.2,” including archival clips from a dozen films, each more than 100 years old.

Also on Friday, Triangle musicians Wendy Spitzer and Billy Sugarfix will perform a live original score to the 1921 animated silent film, “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend: The Pet.”

On Saturday, Durham audio producer Jennifer Deer returns with “The Strange Beauty Aural Fixation,” a curated collection of audio-only programming “best experienced in a dark room with strangers.”

Canadian invasion

Ventimiglia said that one aspect of this year’s festival was entirely unexpected: Of the films showing at the festival, a disproportionate number are from the Canadian city of Winnipeg.

“I don’t know how that happened, it’s really weird,” she said with a laugh. “We got a few submissions from a filmmaker in Winnipeg last year, and I guess he told all his friends. They must have quite a vibrant experimental film scene in Winnipeg.”

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