RiverRun – Working Class Filmmakers, Working Class Films

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by Camel City Dispatch

By Cyndi Briggs

Julia Roberts. Matt Damon. Meryl Streep. None of these people attended the RiverRun International Film Festival this year.

And it’s OK with me. It would feel in-congruent to have such huge celebrities strolling 4th Street, clogging up traffic and creating a distraction. Winston-Salem is, fundamentally, a working class town. Rather than celebrities, RiverRun draws working artists, people with passion, vision, daring, and a knack for improvising and adapting when faced with limited resources and roadblocks. These are not big studio films green-lit and infused with heaps of cash. These are passion projects. The stories of how the films were made are often as compelling as the subject matter itself.

rex miller
rex miller

For example, documentary filmmaker Rex Miller described fund-raising for his tribute film to Althea Gibson, the first African American tennis player to win national championships. He described making a connection to a hedge fund manager in New York who happened to be a tennis enthusiast. During the fund raising pitch, the potential donor looked bored and distracted. Finally he asked, “Will it be any good?”. Miller affirmed he’d do his best. The hedge fund manager said, “I’m in for a hundred,” and left the room.

$100,000? Miller hoped he’d heard correctly. Two days later, Hurricane Sandy hit New York, and in the aftermath Miller felt awkward following up to confirm. Fortunately, the money came through, and the film proceeded.

RiverRun films aren’t written by committee, nor created by studio execs around a boardroom table. Instead, these films begin with a seed of curiosity. A moment of wondering. A dream that just won’t die.

Meeting these filmmakers is one of my favorite aspects of the festival. I’m almost always a little starstruck. People who cleave so wholly to their passions awe me. Yet each year I overcome my nerves, hanging around in the atrium near the RiverRun headquarters, hoping to meet arriving filmmakers.

Just a few days ago, I sank into one of the enormous couches in the atrium, taking a short break between films. I pulled out my phone to check Facebook, the digital substitute for the nap I really wanted. Just as my brain began to shut down, I heard a voice.

“Are you here to talk to Neil?”

It’s Kristi Marion, Publicity Manager for the Festival. Next to her stands a tall man with a filmmaker badge hanging from his neck.

“Um. What? No. What?” I said. Quick thinking.

She laughed (Kristi astounds me each year with her constant generosity and good humor). “Neil Williams. He’s here for his interview with Camel City Dispatch.”

I explain Neil’s interview will be with Chad Nance, and she leaves to go check on timing. Neil sits down opposite me, and I quickly learn he’s the filmmaker and director of David’s Reverie, a film showing in the NC Shorts II segment. Neil’s a Winston-Salem native, and a recent MFA graduate of the University of Southern California. His narrative film portrays a jazz musician with epilepsy who worries his diagnosis will damage his performing career. Neil himself has epilepsy, and talks honestly about his struggle. We’re joined by one of the lead actors (and film producer) Channing Peoples. We chat for a few minutes about the festival, and they are off to their interview.

I see them both the next day at a screening of “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” about serial murderer Lonnie Franklin, Jr. They wave at me as if we’re old friends, and Channing says, “I want to hear what you think about this film afterward…” I hold myself back from looking around. Who? Me?

neil williams
neil williams

Working artists like these are typically kind. Appreciative. Grateful for an audience and an opportunity to show their art. Quick to follow me back on Twitter. Completely at odds with any Hollywood stereotypical arrogance.

The same can be said of Diane Gabrielle Hodson and Jasmine Luoma, third year documentary film students at Wake Forest University and creators of “Unmappable” a short documentary film about teacher and convicted sex offender Denis Wood. Diane, who is also a teacher, explained that she chose the masters in documentary film over a PhD because she wanted to be able to take a broad view in her career, to explore areas of interest and curiosity, rather than narrowly focusing on any one thing. The film has already won awards at film festivals in Victoria, New Orleans, and Florida, so it seems her instincts paid off.

Vision. Passion. Curiosity. These qualities inspire me. And as RiverRun winds down over this final weekend of films, I’m left with a clearer sense of my own life, and the kinds of experiences I want to create in the coming year.





cyndi briggs
cyndi briggs

Cyndi Briggs is a blogger, essayist, and professor of counseling who lives in Winston-Salem. You can learn more about her at her website, HERE.


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