Tag Archives: Birmingham Sidewalk Film Festival

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.

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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