The SCAD Savannah Film Festival, now in its 21st year, remains a great gateway drug for those looking to experience the film festival atmosphere. This is my second time attending the event. So far, it’s been much easier to navigate the dozens of fantastic events and screenings. I know when I need to arrive. I know how much time I have for Q&As. I know when I need to eat and go the bathroom. Last year, I was a chaotic mess, running from building to building with seconds to spare often with a completely full bladder (or worse). This year, I partially have my shit together, which I recognize as progress.
Filmmakers flock to the SCAD Savannah Film Festival for multiple reasons, I suspect. Savannah as a city is gorgeous. An historical and quaint haunted place where nearly every building in the central historic district is as gorgeous as the surrounding moss-covered trees. There’s an easy-going vibe here where you can easily lose yourself. Also, the fans attending the festival really love art and respect film as art. I doubt many, if any, are Oscar voters, but there’s an electricity in the air generated from the excitement at watching the dozen or so Oscar contenders screening.
But first and foremost, most filmmakers seem to flock to the SCAD Savannah Film Festival because this festival isn’t just about launching awards campaigns. It’s about the students. Celebrating its fortieth year, SCAD is the only major educational institution to launch a festival of this size and scope, and attending filmmakers never forget their primary reason for attending is to reach out to SCAD students. Screenings, lectures, and panels are packed with students, and they’re asking great questions. I couldn’t help but be a little jealous at this magnificent opportunity laid at the feet of SCAD students. It’s one I wish I’d had at that age.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Case in point, my first event was an In Conversation event with Oscar-winner Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), moderated by the great Leonard Maltin at the SCAD Museum of Art. I’d always heard how incredibly nice Jenkins was, and it’s very true. He’s a magnetic personality, at ease with a story whether it be about his upbringing or his filmmaking process. Jenkins, whose If Beale Street Could Talk screened later in the evening, talked about getting his start in filmmaking at Florida State University thanks to generous grants and scholarships provided by the state of Florida through their lottery. He made a splash with the indie film Medicine for Melancholy, but his career failed to take off as many predicted it would. He talked about being trapped by the standard story of a Hollywood system that didn’t know what to do with him.
“It wasn’t until a friend of mine got on Google Chat with me and told me I needed to be writing,” Jenkins laughed. “Sometimes, she’d yell at me. Sometimes she’d just stare at me for an hour saying nothing.”
Jenkins asked for funds to travel to Europe and focus only on writing, which he did. Over the course of six weeks, he wrote his Oscar-winning screenplay for Moonlight and wrote an adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. According to Jenkins, he’d been turned on to Baldwin after an ex-girlfriend told him he needed to read the author’s books.
“She told me I needed to adopt about a broader view of masculinity that Baldwin explored in his novels,” Jenkins said. That deeper understanding of masculinity is on full-force display in Beale Street.
After the event, Jenkins met with students waiting to attend a screening of Vox Lux. I’m sure he had other events to attend, but he took the time to meet with several and engage in deep conversations. It was his way of giving back to the same kind of cinematic educational institution that changed his life.
And what of If Beale Street Is Back? It’s a stunning work of art, deeply rooted in the foreign films Jenkins watched to learn about the art of filmmaking in and after his college career. Given the makeup of the (re: mostly white) audience at the Trustees Theater, I wondered how the film – an honest exploration of the African American experience in 1970s New York – would be received. Turns out, the audience laughed, gasped, and swooned in all the right places. This film, like Moonlight before it, may quietly dominate the awards run ahead. It’s a poetic masterpiece that I will never forget.
Following the screening, stars Kiki Layne and Stephan James received awards recognizing their towering performances in the film.
Ben Is Back
Writer/director Peter Hedges also held a Q&A session following a screening of his newest film Ben Is Back, starring Julia Roberts and his son Lucas Hedges. He’d attended a Writers on Writing panel earlier in the day and gushed about the calibre of SCAD students in attendance. An odd but effective blend of a crowd-pleasing comic tone and intense drug trafficking drama, Ben Is Back boasts a career-high performance from Roberts. Judging from the audience in attendance, she could be a major playing in the Oscar circuit ahead. Hedges certainly seemed in awe of her. He had several amusing anecdotes about the actress and attributes the realization of his film directly to her.
“Everything starts with Julia Roberts. You wake up in the morning and you don’t even know that you start with Julia Roberts.”
During the Q&A, Hedges talked about the deeply personal experiences behind the film. Hedges’s family was touched by addiction multiple times, and he’d lost friends to overdoses more than once. He channeled his experiences and pain into the screenplay.
“I was inspired to make something urgent and necessary,” Hedges said. “I was actually shocked to discover that something like 80 percent of heroin addicts started with prescription drugs.”
Oh, and what about the dog in the film? Spoiler alert: the dog makes it through just fine. Hedges revealed that the dog was actually a former Toto (re: Wizard of Oz) performer whose ear had been accidentally broken, thus ending his stage career. Hedges took great pride in rescuing him and bringing him out of retirement.
“Aside from Julia, his may be the best performance in the film!” Hedges joked.
…And All the Rest
My first day at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival proved exhausting. There is literally no way a human being can do it all. Aside from the panels and screenings I attended, there were screenings of high profile short films, Willem Dafoe’s At Eternity’s Gate, and a revival screening of Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs attended by the puppeteer team behind the film. There were seminars on writing, SCAD alumni experiences, making attractive and eye-catching trailers, and on the hot topic of creating inclusive worlds. All of this content, despite the “O” word floating around, is absolutely geared directly at educating and broadening the worldview of SCAD students.
That’s just a taste of what the SCAD Savannah Film Festival can offer, and I started on Day 6. Next year, maybe I’ll be able to attend the whole damn thing. I can’t escape the feeling that I’ve missed out on so much great content as it is. But there’s always tomorrow!