Tag Archives: Birmingham Sidewalk Film Festival

I Want My Sidewalk 2019

 Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival (www.sidewalkfest.com) is always the final full weekend in August before college football season commences. Although the festival events begin several days before the weekend main event, Sidewalk, for me, always begins on Friday evening and ends late on Sunday night. During that time, there are several hundred screenings of every variety of shorts, documentaries, animation, and feature-length moving pictures at venues throughout the northside of downtown.

2019 marked the 21st edition of Sidewalk. In the early years, I would pride myself on how many screenings I could cram into a 48-hour period. Nowadays, I study the schedule carefully, curate a schedule that fits my time, and allow myself time to breathe. At Sidewalk, it’s impossible to see everything one might want to see; that’s part of the charm and mystique.

Sidewalk’s most exciting new addition to downtown Birmingham this year is the Sidewalk Cinema and Film Center, a two-theatre complex in the basement level of the Pizitz building that will screen indie films 365 days a year. With the two screens at the Pizitz, the Alabama, the Lyric, the Carver, Red Mountain Theatre’s cabaret space, and the McWane Center’s IMAX, Birmingham’s downtown “theatre district” is once again living up to its name.

Friday, August 23

Traditionally, my Sidewalk weekend begins with lunch at Chef Frank Stitt’s Chez Fonfon. My weekend pass is waiting at the Central Ticket Office at the Pizitz, around the block from the Alabama, Sidewalk’s most storied venue (www.alabamatheatre.com).

In the early days of Sidewalk, the Opening Night presentation was often a cutting-edge film which might open to mixed response. I remember the grumbling after John Sayles’s Silver City opened Sidewalk in 2004. It wasn’t Sayles’s best, but I was happy to catch a new Sayles movie on a big screen in Birmingham.

Since those days, the Opening Night film is most often a goofy documentary geared to a broad general audience. Although I enjoy being there for the opening festivities, I am sometimes likely to leave when the feature starts. A few years ago, when they opened with a documentary about some cat that was a sensation on the internet, I didn’t even bother to attend opening night.

This year, the opening feature is I Want My MTV. The 2019 documentary, directed by Tyler Measom and Patrick Waldrop, premiered in May at the Tribeca Film Festival. I Want My MTV is both informative and a great feel-good way to open Sidewalk 21. Alan Hunter, one of the original MTV veejays interviewed in the doc, is a Birmingham native, a founder of Sidewalk, and, for many years, was the very popular opening night emcee for the festival.

A short documentary, “Lost Weekend,” is screened prior to the feature. “Lost Weekend,” by Birmingham filmmakers Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb, chronicles the climaxes and misadventures of a young Pennsylvania man who wins a 1980s MTV contest in which the prize is a weekend for two to hang out in Detroit with Van Halen’s concert tour. Everything you expect to happen in that scenario, happens.

Alan Hunter is on hand to help introduce the feature film, which focuses on the genesis and early years of what was then a music video network that became a major force of 1980s popular culture.

As the Opening Night movie ends, the sell-out Alabama Theatre audience flows onto 3rd Avenue North in front of the theatre for the opening night street party. I have no doubt a good time will be had by all, but I walk through the festivities and straight to my room at the Tutwiler Hotel.

Saturday, August 24

When I arrive back at the Alabama on a bright and sunny Saturday morning, I don’t quickly comprehend why there are “cigarette girls” in the theatre lobby offering packs of candy cigarettes to patrons. However, I am there to attend a screening of the new documentary, Mike Wallace Is Here, directed by Avi Belkin, and am about to watch an hour and a half of on-screen smoking from a time when on-screen cigarette smoking was common, even for reporters on the job.

The life of Wallace, the legendary investigative news man who is best remembered for his decades on “60 Minutes,” is examined in detail in a fascinating no-holds-barred way that is reminiscent of the interviewing style of Wallace himself. His detailed examination into every story he covers is as incisive and prickly with Bette Davis and Barbra Streisand as it is with the Ayatollah Khomeini and John Ehrlichman.

After the screening, I grab a quick bite at the Pizitz Food Hall and head to the Alabama School of Fine Arts for a block of Alabama- and politically-themed documentary shorts. My favorite is Carroll Moore’s “Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project,” an examination of Bey’s photography mission to capture images of children the same age as the “four little girls” of the Birmingham church bombing were when they were murdered in 1963. He also includes homage to the two young boys who were murdered later in the day during the bombing’s aftermath.

“Call Me,” directed by Megan Friend and Norris Davis, is a most entertaining exploration of the rhymes and reasons behind attorney Alexander Shunnarah’s ubiquitous billboards that cover the state of Alabama. The 9-minute short includes the full 48-second Alexander Shunnarah / Jurassic Park parody by Kelly Coberly.

Other documentaries in the block explore political activism to get out the vote (“Woke Vote”); emergency responders in Tuscaloosa (“Druid City Strong”); photographic documentation of abandoned buildings in Birmingham (“Walls of Jericho”); diversity and inclusion in a rural Alabama climbing expedition (“The People of Climbing”); student debt (“A Generation Drowning”); and a 70-year-old murder case that went unpunished (“Murder in Mobile”).

From the School of Fine Arts, it’s a short walk to Birmingham Museum of Art for Vita and Virginia (2018), a British film directed by Chanya Button. This is another biographical exploration of the tortured romance of Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) and Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton). This latest one is adapted from the 1992 play of the same name by actor/playwright Eileen Atkins.

Vita and Virginia lingers over the cat and mouse game that leads up to the affair of Woolf and Sackville-West in the artistic communities of 1920s England – particularly the Bloomsbury group. The story is told realistically, but with the occasional inclusion of tangled imagery that seeks to capture Virginia Woolf’s mental instability and emotional confusion. There is a stilted, stagey formality to the dialogue at times, but one adjusts to the play’s pace and structure. Atkins based much of her play on the letters of the two title characters; there are some fine moments when the camera rests on a face speaking directly into the camera, delivering emotional and occasionally laughably over-the-top declarations.

Despite noble and occasionally brave performances, Debecki and Arterton seem miscast to me.

Among the supporting actors, Peter Ferdinando delivers an understated, complex, and compassionate performance as Leonard Woolf and Isabella Rossellini has a fine turn as Vita’s snarky mother, Baroness Sackville.

By the time Vita and Virginia is over, a passing thunderstorm drenches downtown and Museum maintenance staff is scrambling to deal with puddles and leaks outside the main entrance as I make haste to get back to the Tutwiler to change and join a friend for dinner.

Sunday, August 25

I will not go to church today, but I waken to the pealing of church bells throughout the city – not an unpleasant way to meet the day. And I plan to attend something equally spiritual and, to my tastes, more inspirational.

A few months ago, when I first heard the buzz about the new Aretha Franklin documentary, Amazing Grace (1972/2018), I remember thinking I hope that’s scheduled to play Sidewalk this year.

It was.

In 1972, director Sydney Pollack and his crew filmed the two-night recording session of what would be Aretha Franklin’s best-selling live gospel album, Amazing Grace. The recording took place in the sanctuary of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Franklin was supported by legendary gospel singer James Cleveland, the Southern California Community Choir, and an all-star group of musicians. Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts are spotted in the audience.

For some reason, during Pollack’s recording of the two services, the audio and video were not synched, the footage was deemed unusable, and eventually the film was presumed lost.

Fast forward to the early 2000s: the “unusable footage” is rediscovered, producer Alan Elliott supervises a team of digital experts in the rehabilitation of the “lost” footage, and the resulting movie is a revelation. During her lifetime, Franklin kept suing to halt screenings of the reconstructed movie. After her death, the family consented to the release and it is finally being shared with audiences world-wide.

No real effort was made to mold the concert into something “cinematic.” Much of the footage is raw and immediate, with awkward camera movement, sloppy zooms, finding focus – all still there for the world to see.

So is raw emotion – James Cleveland breaking down in sobs at one point; the choir clearly overcome by the event they are witnessing and being a part of; Rev. C.L. Franklin – Aretha’s father – jumping up to wipe the sweat from her face and neck as she plays the piano. His handkerchief completely covers her face at one point just before she starts to sing. The audience, lost in emotion and awe, becomes a part of the power of the film and Pollack’s camera crew scrambles to capture it all.

You must see it.

As the Sidewalk audience gathers outside the Lyric Theatre for the screening, ladies distribute church fans on the sidewalk. When the audience is seated in the theatre, Birmingham-based gospel singer Belinda George Peoples emerges from the wings to sing “Amazing Grace” a capella. By the end of Peoples’s performance, the audience is singing along.

The event feels more like a church service than a movie screening as the audience claps and sways with Aretha’s powerful sound on songs like “What a Friend,” “Wholy Holy,” “God Will Take Care of You,” and the title song. There’s a very effective medley of the gospel standard “Precious Lord (Take My Hand)” with Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.”

But the song that gets to me most is Franklin at the piano playing and singing “Never Grow Old,” with the camera closing in tight. It moves me to see a young Aretha Franklin (she was 29 when the album was made) plaintively repeating the phrase “never grow old” and its contemplation of eternity. Mick Jagger is there, also 29-years-old at the time, and, in the Lyric, I am sitting a few seats down from a friend I knew in college in the ‘70s.

When our work here is done and the life crown is won

And our troubles and trials are over

All our sorrow will end, and our voices will blend

With the loved ones who’ve gone on before

Never grow old, never grow old

In a land where we’ll never grow old

I leave the theatre and drive across town to have lunch with Mother. I have a list of movies I plan to see later on Sunday afternoon, but – blessedly assured that I have gotten what I came for – I actually feel a little sanctified as I hit the road for home.

Archival photo of Alabama Theatre, Birmingham; 1934

Advertisements

Sidewalk 2017

“The films I most eagerly look forward to will not be documentaries but works of pure fiction, played against, and into and in collaboration with unrehearsed and uninvented reality.”

That quote, by the writer and critic James Agee (1909-1955), is one I often share and discuss with my directing classes. It provided fuel for the makers of Behn Zeitlin’s magnificent 2012 film Beasts of the Southern Wild (www.beastsofthesouthernwild.com) and it resonates with me whenever I am trying to think of my favorite kinds of movies.

I have always liked – maybe preferred – to attend movies by myself, which is probably a good thing. I have a long habit of trying to catch movies on weekday afternoons when the theatre is almost empty. One of the reasons for that is the ability to focus more intensely but the other is that it is sometimes hard to find people who share my tastes in movies. I am drawn to what I call “chamber movies” – intimate character-driven dramas that have a meditative quality and pace. Not everybody is into that.

The 19th annual Sidewalk Film Festival happened in downtown Birmingham last week and, while I didn’t have time to commit myself to the festival as fully as I have in the past, I did manage to catch a screening or two each day.

Two screenings stood out for me.

Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table (www.ellabrennanmovie.com) is the 2016 documentary about the doyenne of New Orleans restaurateurs. Directed by Leslie Iwerks, the film reveals things about Ms. Brennan and the famous New Orleans restaurant family that even the most avid New Orleans foodie might not have known.

Ella Brennan is credited with jump-starting the careers of chefs Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, Jamie Shannon, and Tory McPhail, Commander’s current executive chef. Commander’s Palace is known as much for its joie de vivre as for its innovative and ever-evolving cuisine and Ella Brennan is credited with starting that New Orleans institution the Sunday “Jazz Brunch.” “I don’t want a restaurant where a jazz band can’t come marching through,” she says.

Archival footage and recent interviews keep the documentary moving like a fabulous feast and the screening I attended was packed to overflowing.

“I wasn’t expecting this particular screening to be this popular,” said the woman perching on a bar stool next to me at the Red Mountain Theatre Company’s cabaret theatre space in the basement of the Kress Building.

“Well, it’s New Orleans and it’s about good food and it’s playing in Birmingham,” I responded. I wasn’t surprised at all. On leaving the theatre on 19th Street I immediately booked a table at Commander’s for an upcoming business trip.


A few years ago, I attended a mid-morning Sidewalk screening of a documentary that I have never forgotten and that may be my favorite movie ever seen at the festival. 45365 (2010) was directed by brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross (www.rossbros.net) in their home town and is a beautifully shot and moving chronicle of life in Sidney, Ohio; 45365 is Sidney’s postal code.

45365 has a hypnotic pace and is definitely not for everyone. It provides neither climaxes nor resolutions but follows the pace of life in a small midwestern town in an incisive and beautifully edited piece of meditative work that is documentary but hard to pin down.

I found myself thinking about 45365 at another Sidewalk mid-morning screening last week. The movie was The Other Kids (2016), a “narrative-documentary” hybrid directed by Chris Brown (www.theotherkidsmovie.com).

The Other Kids follows a group of high school students in a Sonora, California, high school. The cast are non-professional actors and the dialogue is improvised, based on the experiences of the engaging and attractive young cast. Many questions are raised but few are conclusively answered as the audience feels like it is eavesdropping and peeking in on personal and intimate experiences.

One of the teenagers resorts to cutting as he struggles with college and major decisions while another considers enlisting in the military. One deals with the pressure of being moved into a new school and community while another finds herself functioning solo, unable to make a connection. One lives off the grid, protective and secretive about his immigration status, while another feels pressured to hold everything together while her parents’ marriage dissolves.

Levity and pain are interspersed throughout the movie along with moments of pure joy and horseplay. The adult characters are as authentic as their young counterparts and the film quickly absorbs the audience into a world that is familiar but presented in a cinematically fresh manner.

The Other Kids ends with a high school graduation. “Pomp and Circumstance” has never sounded so portentous.

Meandering at the Sidewalk

IMG_1910 The Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham (www.sidewalkfest.com) has become one of my annual milestones. Held in downtown on the last full weekend of August, Sidewalk’s 2015 edition had over 250 screenings on nine screens in six locations within sweaty walking distance during roughly a 52-hour period. There are also workshops and panels, outdoor concerts, and nightly after-parties.

What I like most about this particular event is its intense brevity. Basically the screenings start with an opening night event on Friday at the Alabama Theatre and everything ends with an awards show, back at the Alabama, late on Sunday (www.alabamatheatre.com). This leads to exhaustion but it also provides an opportunity for lovers of indie movie-making to experience total immersion in a short span of time at venues that are in reasonably close proximity. There’s no way to see everything one wants to see and participants know that going in. As the name suggests, it keeps the downtown sidewalks busy. And it brings movies and movie-makers to Birmingham that would likely not play the city otherwise.

2015 marks the 17th Sidewalk. The event began as the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival (a name I prefer since it is more reflective of 21st century media) but common usage won out and it is now officially the Sidewalk Film Festival. Sidewalk is produced by the Alabama Moving Image Association and has steadily grown in size and influence since its 1999 debut. Much is still made of Sidewalk’s designation a few years ago by Time magazine as one of the “Top 10 Film Festivals for the Rest of Us.” Birmingham’s SHOUT LGBTQ Film Festival, another AMIA production (www.bhamshout.com), joined the Sidewalk line-up in 2006 and shares dates and venues annually.

While Sidewalk is international in scope and programming, it makes an earnest effort to screen local product and give Alabama artists a showcase. Scattered throughout the event are screenings of Alabama-centric features and documentaries as well as programs of Alabama narrative and documentary shorts. The Sidewrite screenplay competitions include a separate category for scripts by Alabama writers. The festival has been a proven catalyst for the emergence of a much more vital and energetic film community in Birmingham and throughout the state.

One of my must-see screenings this year was Norton Dill’s documentary, Q: Alabama’s Barbecue Legends, a production of the Alabama Tourism Department in honor of 2015 as “The Year of Alabama Barbecue.” Q is an enjoyable survey of the scope of barbecue in the state with the usual suspects featured as well as a few lesser-known joints. The diversity of attitudes and opinions captures the complexity and variety of barbecue in Alabama. It’s a good documentary although I had hoped for it to soar.

IMG_1917Even though I am a film buff, one of the particular pleasures of Sidewalk for me is the opportunity to just wander around downtown Birmingham and soak up atmosphere. The historic 4th Avenue Business District hosts a jazz festival on the same weekend as Sidewalk and it’s always fun to hang out on 4th Avenue and listen to the music between screenings. The 4th Avenue District is home to a favorite quirky Birmingham attraction, the Eddie Kendrick Memorial Park, dedicated to Eddie Kendricks, lead singer of The Temptations (Eddie Kendrick apparently added the “s” to his last name when he joined the group). IMG_1911

The Alabama Theatre, a 1920s movie palace and the centerpiece venue of Sidewalk, is part of Birmingham’s “Theatre District.” This might seem to be an odd designation since the Alabama is the only historic theatre still in operation on that part of 3rd Avenue North. However, there was a time – and I am old enough to remember the latter part of it – when the Alabama was in the center of a group of at least fourteen movie and live theatre venues stretching from 17th to 21st Streets around the 3rd Avenue core. Before suburban megaplexes, downtown Birmingham around 3rd Avenue North was where one went to see movies. I well remember as a child and even into my college years when the neon movie marquees along 3rd Avenue were bright, plentiful, and enticing. IMG_1923

Today, there is the Alabama. The McWane Science Center next door has a state-of-the-art IMAX theatre and Red Mountain Theatre Company has a cabaret performance space in the basement of the old Kress Building. The Carver Theatre around the block in the 4th Avenue District does double duty as a performance and screening space and the home of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame (www.jazzhall.com).

Still, Birmingham’s Theatre District is lackluster when compared to its former neon-lit grandeur. A hopeful sign in downtown this year was on the old Lyric Theatre, caddy-corner across 3rd Avenue from the Alabama. Its marquee proclaimed

WELCOME SIDEWALK

NEXT YEAR WE’LL BE HERE

The Lyric was a 1000-seat performance venue built in 1914 for live vaudeville shows. The Marx Brothers, Mae West, and Milton Berle are listed among its marquee attractions. As movies and the Alabama began to dominate, the Lyric became a second-run movie theatre and by the 1970s it was a seedy adult movie house. People still talk about Deep Throat’s run at the Lyric; by that time the Lyric was known as the Roxy. The Lyric made a memorable cameo in the climactic scene of Bob Rafelson’s 1976 Birmingham film Stay Hungry in which a bunch of bodybuilders poses on the Lyric’s fire escape. After the Lyric closed in the 70s, it went through a sad decline; after the restoration of the Alabama, attention returned once again to the Lyric. Its renovation is well underway and it is slated to once again become a venue for live performance (www.lightupthelyric.com).

After years of photographing the Lyric, it will be nice to relax and enjoy a Sidewalk movie there in 2016. IMG_1913