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Elston Gunn Interviews Filmmaker Jason Brown About CFVF And The MATEWAN Doc THEM AT WORK!!

Elston Gunn here...
One of the fastest growing film festivals in the southeastern U.S. is the Carolina Film & Video Festival (CFVF) in Greensboro, North Carolina. This year the fest runs February 21 - 23 and is features some interesting films and workshops. Check out the festival's sites HERE and HERE. Filmmaker Jason Brown of CFVF has been with the festival for a few years while also working on his own film, THEM THAT WORK, a compelling documentary about the making of John Sayles' MATEWAN in West Virginia twenty years ago and the impact it has had on the state. You can read about the progress of THEM THAT WORK at . Brown took some time to answer a few questions for AICN about the festival and his upcoming film.

[Elston Gunn]: What do you think separates the CFVF from other film festivals? [Jason Brown]: This festival is built into the curriculum here at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; so, this isn't just a bunch of screenings. This is all about what we teach here. The students in our film program are taught production and film studies here as undergraduates. They use those tools to review the films submitted, and they review every film that is submitted. They are taught to articulate their point-of-view about experimental films and documentaries and narratives. After they have reviewed the films, our staff sorts out the best program from the top films we've received. So at the end of the day, we hope that based on educated opinions quality, entertaining films get into our festival. Does that mean the best films get in every time? Depends on who you ask, but I think that is a fair statement of most festivals. I just think there is less concern about politics about getting your film in here - if it reaches and entertains an audience, we'll find a place for it.
[EG]: Has attendance been growing each year? [JB]: Absolutely! In the last ten years, this festival has moved from a few dozen people in a basement screening room to this year we'll fill the auditorium for three nights along with dedicated screenings of our feature length films at the local first-run movie theatre, CAROUSEL CINEMAS. North Carolina loves film. The number of festivals here is amazing, but it could only happen if there were this many great film lovers to come see them.
[EG]: It isn't strictly a student film festival. You divide categories and awards between independent filmmakers and students. Do the students have a chance to discuss or workshop with the indie filmmakers through workshops or Q&A sessions? [JB]: Workshops and Q&A sessions are a big part of what we tried to provide to the Greensboro community. Every year our judges, usually accomplished North Carolina filmmakers, provide free workshops and screenings to our students and the public at large. This year, Ramin Bahrani, from Winston-Salem, NC, will be screening his film MAN PUSH CART which is currently nominated for three Indie Spirit Awards. Jim Haverkamp, co-editor of the 2004 Slamdance Best Documentary MONSTER ROAD, will be screening his film WILLOW GARDEN. On the other side though, judge Wendy Fishman is a programmer at THE LIGHT FACTORY in Charlotte; so, she'll be talking about what filmmakers should be doing with their films to get them seen. This festival is run by students because we see it as an opportunity for our future filmmakers to get close to other working filmmakers. Our students at UNC-Greensboro not only tear tickets and clean the floors, they're usually the people taking visiting filmmakers to lunch or on the town after the screenings. When a student from UCLA brings their film here, they're treated just the same as the guys whose feature film stars Ray Wise and Paget Brewster. The student taking the filmmaker to the stage is the same person who reviewed the film and will probably be the same person taking them out to celebrate afterward. So this year, we have filmmakers as divergent as Neil Mandt and Joel Davenport coming this year. Neil is an accomplished producer for ESPN, as well as NBC, CBS and ABC over the years. He'll be here with his great film called LAST STOP FOR PAUL. Joel Davenport is finishing up his BA degree at UNC-Wilmington, but is coming to our festival with his cold war era film THE DRILL. We're excited this year to have so many great people for our students to meet.
[EG]: Why the decision to showcase North Carolina filmmakers along with the inclusion of a North Carolina Showcase Award? [JB]: To steal a phrase from Tip O'Neill, all film festivals are local. We've been very happy over the last few years to receive so many great entries from the top film schools around the world, not to mention the great independent filmmakers looking to set themselves up for that next step in recognition. When we partnered with the Carousel Cinemas last year, we realized that we could present our feature films in a more appropriate setting which opened up space and time to promote local filmmakers along with the great movies we were already showing. Down Home Entertainment, which is currently shooting CABIN FEVER 2, asked us to let them sponsor the award and name it after a great supporter of film in North Carolina, Bill Arnold. We look forward to presenting this award to many more great Tar Heels in the future.
[EG]: What do you anticipate to be the highlights of this year's festival? [JB]: There is so much good stuff here this year. And I think other festivals prove that out. Just look at Friday night. You can catch Nick Childs' THE SHOVEL, with Academy Award nominee David Strathairn, which won at Tribeca last year, along with THE TOLL and ALIVE & WELL which will both be playing at SxSW this year. I love THE TOLL. It's so funny, but ALIVE & WELL is hilarious as well. Finish up the night with a film like PLUCK, which played at Palm Springs last year. Personally, I hope that people come out Wednesday night to see the great local films, like METACARPUS, which won the Student Award at the Asheville Film Festival, or BOTTLE TREE, which screened at Sidewalk this year. We're not a very political festival, but you can see a local film like ONLY THE DEAD look at the Iraq War from a GI's perspective or catch IMPROBABLE COLLAPSE and see the theories behind the Twin Towers collapse. We just want to show great films. It's a luxury when we're able to show a great film first, like Chris Perkel's THE TOWN THAT WAS.
[EG]: Have you seen Chris Perkel's THE TOWN THAT WAS? [JB]: I have, it's an amazing film. It's an amazing story! It's one thing to hear something like that in SILENT HILL, but to realize that this real town in Pennsylvania has actually been on fire for 40 years? It's incredible. I think as someone on the festival, you're big concern is that you put a film like this in a position for the most people to be able to see it.
[EG]: What kind of films do you usually feature? [JB]: I think some people had thought of us as showing only crusty, dramatic pieces, but that was because those were the best films we were receiving. Since I've been involved with the festival, the quality of films across the board has risen and it shows in what we feature. Two of my favorite films from last year's festival were both comedic - John Morgan's END OF A DOG and John Huff's CYXORK 7. Both are great films that happen to be funny. Having them here at our festival was great, because they both made an effort to interact with our students. END OF A DOG ran on KCET this past year, which as a festival we probably celebrated as much as John did. If you make an enjoyable film, it will be recognized.
[EG]: You are currently in the post-production process of your own documentary, THEM THAT WORK, about the making of John Sayles' MATEWAN, but you've said it's more than just a "making-of" production. How so? What is your goal with the film? [JB]: Maybe it's because of my involvement with film festivals, but I love seeing the lasting impression a movie can have on people. Being from West Virginia, I grew up around so many people who were moved by MATEWAN as viewers and as participants. There are a couple of films that look at the impact a film production has, STRANGER WITH A CAMERA or Les Blanks' BURDEN OF DREAMS, but I can't say that I've seen one which explores the lasting impact a film can have on people's identity. I think MATEWAN convinced a lot of people to believe in themselves in a new way. Some people became filmmakers, and some people turned their small town into a tourist attraction.
[EG]: You have interviewed Sayles, David Strathairn, Chris Cooper and Haskell Wexler among others, but you're also giving equal time to the local talent, writers, observers and people who lent a helping hand. What are you learning from them? [JB]: I am learning a lot of the same things from the lady who stitched up costumes or the extra in the back as I am from those people you mentioned or Will Oldham who played the lead role. This was a unique experience for many of them because of the people they were able to work with. Haskell Wexler laid all the credit at the feet of Producer Maggie Renzi. She's the one given credit for making the working environment such a great experience for someone who had perfected their craft to someone who had never been on a set before. The recurring theme I'm hearing is how movies aren't just the two-hours we spend alone in the dark with these characters and images, it's the time it spends in our hearts reminding us of people we care about. The cast and crew were lucky enough to have MATEWAN affect them on so many levels that it lasts with them to today. As viewers, I think that bleeds off the screen and moves us as well.
[EG]: When MATEWAN, which many argue is Sayles' best work, came out twenty years ago personal films with a regional flavor were few and far between. Do you think the marketplace is still lacking with regards to those types of films? [JB]: It depends on what you mean. Are there great regional films being made, I would say yes. LOGGERHEADS was a great film from a couple years ago. OLD JOY was a very interesting Northwest film. Both of those films talk about something very specific and reached a lot of people through festivals, cable and NETFLIX. I think what's missing are the number of films that have something to say about our world that reach the broadest numbers of people. You don't see a whole lot of historical epics about labor on NBC. I think more and more of the filmmakers that would make those films are making documentaries. Someone like Morgan Spurlock, who is making entertaining, specific documentaries, would not be able to get the same kind of movies made as fiction films. He's also using his position in the marketplace to get a film like WHAT WOULD JESUS BUY? seen, and a film like CHALK, which is such a good, subtle film, distributed on DVD.
[EG]: MATEWAN is also one of those movies that deserves the special edition DVD treatment. Do you know if there are plans for one any time soon? [JB]: It's funny you should mention that. The short answer is 'I don't know.' The long answer is that everyone I've spoken to - from some of the original producers to the cast down to John Sayles himself - all would love for it to happen. I was talking with one of the original producers the other day and even he wasn't sure when that might happen. Twenty years ago, this little film with a bunch of stage actors and James Earl Jones cost nearly $100 on VHS. Now, you have this masterpiece filled with Oscar winners like Chris Cooper and Mary McDonnell and nominees like David Strathairn, and an indie music icon like Will Oldham. What you don't have is a huge conglomerate pushing to make their money back on another piece of product. You have a bunch of great artists trying to find time to go through getting something like this out there in a form that respects what they all have done. I think that everyone involved wants it to happen soon, but it can't imagine it happening for a while. I hope I'm wrong. I hope it's in a Criterion version by Christmas. Or... maybe wait till next year and my movie can be included in the extras.
[EG]: What advice has Sayles or Wexler given you, if any, about the making of your own film? [JB]: They both were very giving people to be around. It's hard to deny that simply being in their presence I was learning things about how to make my own film. Having said that, when I showed up to interview Haskell Wexler, the first thing he did was start carrying the ARRI kit down the hallway and said, 'Let's see what we can do to not have to open that up.'
[EG]: When do you expect to be finished and where do you go from there? [JB]: The plan is to have a cut for people to see by Fall. Then I'll probably start making changes until someone takes it away from me. Hopefully, at that point, THEM THAT WORK will be in festivals across the country inspiring filmmakers to be aware of the impact they have when they make their movies. By that point, I'll be looking for money to make another film. Of all the lessons I learned on this one, the greatest lesson is don't do something hoping for some result, like me making a movie hoping the money will show up. It won't. Do what you do because you love it. Whatever comes from that is great, and you won't be disappointed that way.

Elston Gunn

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