Local Scenes Stuff

Alabama’s Sidewalk Film Festival 2020: A Tale Of Four Short Films

Post by Alec Harvey from Alabama NewsCenter

Though the Sidewalk Film Festival is in a new location this year – at the Grand River Drive-In in the Backyard in Leeds – some things remain the same.

The seven-day festival will be loaded with movies, from indie feature films to cult favorites to the ever-popular short films that are a hallmark of the 22-year-old fest.

This year’s short films, as in years past, are an eclectic group, from documentaries to music videos to narrative films revolving around COVID-19, ghost stories, amateur detectives and much, much more.

In advance of the festival, Alabama NewsCenter interviewed the directors of four of the short films screening next week.

 

THE MYSTICAL MIGRATION OF THE MONARCH

(Environmental Shorts block, Thursday, Aug. 27, 8 p.m.)

When Fairn Whatley asked her friend Suzanne Damrich to help landscape her yard, a movie was born.

“With Suzanne’s experience with landscape design and butterfly gardens, I said, ‘Would you please design a New Orleans-style courtyard,’ and she said, ‘Happy to,’” Whatley recalls. “She brings this plant one day and says it’s a very important plant. … It turns out it was milkweed, the one plant that the monarch butterfly needs to lay its eggs on and for its caterpillars to survive.”

Damrich, a longtime master gardener, educated Whatley, a photographer, about the monarch butterfly, its migration from Mexico to Canada and back again and its dwindling habitats.

“I had my little butterfly garden for years and would talk about it, but people weren’t really listening,” Damrich says. “She was really listening, and she pulled out her camera. The rest is history.”

The two were asked to create a film for the Mobile Botanical Gardens, and the result is “The Mystical Migration of the Monarch,” which has grown in scope since its initial version. Shot entirely on an iPhone, the film follows the monarchs from the Gulf Coast to Mexico, where millions of them overwinter.

“We have traveled to Mexico twice now to get additional footage, so the film has really grown up a lot since that very first one we did,” Damrich says.

Damrich and Whatley now have a YouTube channel that features gardening videos, and the two are still working to spread the word about the monarch butterfly and its plight.

“All of us are really disconnected from nature, and it’s to our detriment,” Damrich says. “If we can learn how to just get back out in nature and appreciate it and have that awe and wonder again, we can help start restore what we have destroyed.”

 

HANGRY

(Black Lens Shorts block, Thursday, Aug. 27, at 8 p.m.)

Clint Till remembers the day he was bitten by the filmmaking bug, as an 8-year-old in Homewood watching his uncle’s advertising team at work.

“He and his production team shot a commercial for the Red Cross in my backyard at my house,” says Till, whose uncle, Spencer Till, is longtime creative director at Lewis Communications. “And they had the whole crew there, and they had the camera up on a big crane, and they were swooping over our house into the backyard, and I just remember watching that.”

Till studied telecommunications and film at the University of Alabama, worked for 10 years in video production in Birmingham and now works in video production for the fundraising arm of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

He’s also creating his own films, and his short film, the comedy “Hangry,” is screening at this year’s festival after landing in the top 10 of the Memphis Film Prize competition.

“’Hangry’ is a comedy, and it takes place all within the dining room of a retirement home where a retired reverend is dissatisfied with the lunch that he is served and takes it upon himself to try and get the lunch he thinks he does deserve,” Till says. “Who hasn’t been hangry? It’s a title that I think a lot of people can instantly relate to.”

Till had the idea long ago, when Dorito’s used to solicit viewer ads for its Crash the Super Bowl competition. He never shot it, but Till had the idea of a person in a retirement home eating a bland meal and noticing some staffers chowing down on a big bag of Dorito’s.

“I was flipping through this notebook that I keep and saw this idea and said this may be something I could do,” Till says. “It has two main actors. … Logistically, it was very easy to pull off. I knew that audiences would have a lot of fun with it, because it’s universal. It’s about our love for a good, quality meal.”

 

HANDHELD

(Narrative Shorts #3 block, Friday, Aug. 28, at 8 p.m.)

For Pisie Hochheim and Tony Oswald, making movies is all about family.

Not only are the two married, but their short film “Handheld,” like Oswald’s “Great Light” before it, is set in Oswald’s hometown of Glasgow, Kentucky, uses family locations and family actors.

“It started because of resources, basically,” Oswald says of “Great Light.” “I knew I was writing a script about my mother. It was natural to set it in my mom’s house in my mom’s town with my mom acting. Ultimately, we just cast the film with my entire family.”

“Handheld” is also a family affair, based on a short story by Oswald’s younger sister.

“This was about our nephew finding an artifact from his mother’s past that kind of called up a lot of questions about their relationship and their history,” Oswald says. “It was a really emotional thing for my sister, and we wanted to kind of capture what it felt like for her and for him to go through that experience.”

“Handheld” stars Oswald’s nephew, Emery, and an actress playing Oswald’s sister, who chose not to be in the movie. The movie was shot in his sister’s house.

“Keeping in the trend of using my family as actors and using their homes as locations,” Oswald says. “They’re just all so good and so open and willing. … They are technically non-actors in the sense they are not professionals, but they are so, so good at inhabiting themselves, which is a quality that I think a lot of people don’t have.”

Though they’re based in New York, Hochheim and Oswald, who also produced and edited the feature film “A Dim Valley,” which is screening at Sidewalk, are spending the pandemic in his mother’s basement in Kentucky, where they hope to make more movies.

“There’s just a wealth of stories in Kentucky, and the more we are here, the more we want to tell stories about this region,” Oswald says.

And there are other benefits.

“It’s cheaper, too, because all of our family members are still willing to help us out and be actors in our movies,” Hochheim says.

 

OBSERVANTIUM

(Narrative Shorts #4 block, Sunday, Aug. 30, at 10:30 p.m.)

Ben Davis got his start in the movie-making business when he was selling advertising for cable television and made a few commercials. It got him to thinking.

“If people are so enamored by what they see in just these 30 seconds, I can really do a lot with a feature-length film,” he says.

Though “Observantium” is not feature-length, it does give Davis a chance to show off his avant-garde technique as he tells the tale of young widow whose husband returns from the grave with a cryptic message.

“Most of my ideas come from personal experience mixed with imagination,” Davis says. “So there are personal things about the story that I’ve taken creative liberties with and added imagination to it, but it comes from a place of experience, something I’ve observed or experienced personally.”

The film was shot entirely in Birmingham, including an opening sequence that includes Birmingham locations from many different angles, including upside-down.

“A lot of people are commenting about the visuals, especially the aerial shots,” Davis says. “I didn’t want to just do the steel shots and then cut to another steel shot. I wanted something exciting, something dynamic, something that could really capture you and make you wonder, even if you’re from this city, ‘Hey, where is that?’ This is your skyline. You’ve just never seen it from this angle.”

Davis owns a commercial construction business, Armored Construction, but he plans to continue making movies through his LifeLike Motion Pictures.

His next movie’s title will be “Zipperhead Thread,” and he’ll only say a little more about it.

“It will be a serial thriller,” Davis says. “Stay tuned. Watch for it real soon.”