The Savannah Film Festival gave me a chance to spend time outside the bubble of internet hysteria – a place every person should escape from time to time. Reality doesn’t happen with words typed on a screen, or the ever-increasing trauma of clickbait headlines, “Top Ten Ways Halloween is Secretly Killing You.” Watching mainstream news will offer no relief. No doubt, CNN is preparing for days and days of coverage of the downed airplane out of Egypt. Free floating anxiety is the name of the game in how most of us interface with our world. Until we don’t.
I was lucky enough to spend a few days in the town of Savannah, made better because Jeff Wells from hollywood-elsewhere was there too. If he hadn’t been here, I would spent the entire time holed up in my hotel room, glued to the hysteria interface, while the city of Savannah quietly and not so quietly in places, went about its business. “Let’s get bikes,” said Jeff. There was no other answer to that except “Okay.” He even got them both for us, got locks for the bikes and found a place to park them in the off hours.
One of the best reasons to attend the Savannah Film Festival, presented by the Savannah College of Art and Design (or SCAD), is to visit the town of Savannah itself. It’s as easy as the Spanish moss that hangs and droops off the ancient trees, and as pleasing to the eye as the many old homes still left standing if they weren’t burned down during the Civil War. And yes, this is that Savannah, a southern town likely fortified and built by slave labor. Once freed from bondage, African American communities settled in to all of the American states that once oppressed them. There probably hasn’t been a harmonious union of the two cultures since. But everyone tries, especially in Savannah where white Southern pride lurks beneath the names of tourist destinations, in the occasional stories of locals, in the way it’s remembered and revered. There will always be those parallel stories of the South so beloved and the South so reviled.
You see that here in Savannah, too. If you’re paying attention, you can’t really unsee it. Still, if you can forget about that for a minute and think of it as a beautiful American city – it’s that, too. Halloween weekend brings people to the streets, dressed up to party, or the children who trick or treat in the neighborhoods. Savannah proper, where I spent most of my time, is very different from the outlying communities, of course. Many of those, as across most of America, are still in the grip of poverty of varying degrees. Working class, middle class and poor people make up most of this country. If you’re a city dweller you don’t see much of it. Here is where fast food empires thrive. Where lottery booths offer a cautionary warning to those lost dreamers of the capitalist ideal, “play responsibly.”
The Savannah Film Festival, and all it brings with it – especially the fresh young minds of the future – offers some hope to the area, a way to redefine this city and so many like it. The one thing it could do – and every film festival should do but especially this one – is make an effort to bridge the gap between “white indie cinema” (let’s face it) and the could-be thriving African American film community. There aren’t those movies anywhere, except for the occasional surprise here or there coming to an impassioned think piece near you.
Still, watching the art students populate the city, hundreds of them – culturally and ethnically diverse – attending a women in animation panel. They walk from building to building with their sketchbooks tucked under their arm, impossibly young, still so hopeful about their future as artists in a world that will spend their next few decades trying to talk them out of it. Student life, SCAD life, turns Savannah into a Brooklyn-like, or Berkeley-like artsy community where the sloping, impossibly beautiful old Southern buildings are now curious fixtures in America’s ugly/pretty museum.
Our first day was spent tooling around Savannah, parking occasionally to take a picture or two. The thing about Jeff Wells is that you can’t really keep up with him. You can try but you will fail. He’ll be up before you. He’ll have written five stories to your one. He will have seen movies, gone to every party and interviewed available talent before you’ve gotten out of the shower. He also rides his bike full steam ahead. I wasn’t exactly struggling to keep up but no one would ever say about me that I move fast, or ride a bike fast, or do anything fast. Well, I can type fast.
We went to a coffee shop called the Sentient Bean, drank coffee and spent a few hours talking to a man with a guitar and a dog. The dog had been taught to bark along with the music. We would hit a restaurant later and almost everyone we encountered was prepared to sink in for a leisurely conversation. I noted that it was probably the first time in a year I’d actually spoken to real live human beings. Of course, it’s tricky when you don’t really know who you’re talking too. In a sharply divided country you might be talking to a Tea Party Republican, and they might be talking to a bleeding heart Sanders socialist. The conversations never got there. Everyone we spoke with noted the uptick in Savannah’s culture since SCAD moved in and began buying old buildings, restoring them and making a new future for modern Savannah.
The audiences here were appreciative during every screening I saw. Movies like Lady in the Van and Ithaca were warmly received. It’s refreshing to step outside the bubble of poker faced film criticism which just seems to grow and spread unchecked. Here were the people movies were supposedly made for, thoroughly enjoying what the film critics (basically everyone online) will not even deem worthy of a conversation.
Despite Jeff’s best efforts to pull me out of the cave I crawl in when I travel (he does the same thing in Cannes of Telluride, no matter where we go – he’s always that work devil tapping me on the shoulder saying “you should do more than you’re doing”) I did spend a lot of time in my hotel room, long enough to notice the quiet of the kind of life I’m about to have when my beloved daughter goes off to college next year. I missed the bark of my puppy every time someone knocked on the door (room service). Thankfully, Savannah is a doggie town and they’re kind of everywhere. Dogs make the world a better place. They are better than people in all ways.
Jeff had heard that Ben Affleck was filming Live by Night somewhere in Savannah. He knew where and when they were filming so he dragged me out there on our bikes to check it out. It was down by the train museum, close to the river. We rode our bikes on the lot, probably looking official with our film festival badges so no one bothered us or asked us what we were doing there (I suspect after we write about it that will change). Extras and actors milled about with crew who were preparing to end filming for the day. Affleck was seated over by an empty chair. I shrunk in the background, standing there as still and quiet as possible while Jeff wandered closer in. He’s kind of fearless in that way. “What’s the big deal,” he would say.
He wandered back over to where I was and we stood there in the blistering sun for a while when Affleck happened by. “Hey Ben,” Jeff said. Affleck must know him because he came over and they shook hands. I did not introduce myself because there was no chance he knew who I was, though I did get to tell him in a weird stalker way that I was glad he was helping to promote Beasts of No Nation. “He’s a brilliant director,” Affleck said. “I’m with him all the way.”
And with that, he walked in his costume back towards the trailers. Affleck will be starring in, adapting and directing Live by Night, set to come out in 2017.
Our last day in Savannah was Halloween. After 45 Years and Lady in the Van (two wonderful performances by veteran actresses) Jeff and I hit the streets again with our bikes, riding the entire outline of the city, down by the river where so many people were listening to street jazz in their costumes. There was the river and the river boats. There was South Carolina, across the river. There were the cobblestone streets that once carried loads of cotton.
We stopped at a restaurant called The Florence, which is housed in an old ice-making building. Upstairs there was a party going on with loud music for a film crew. It wasn’t Affleck’s movie but another one, which we noted by exchanging glances with Chris Evans and Jenny Slate, who were having a casual beer downstairs. So much of Hollywood in Savannah all the sudden.
Our last bike trek was a failed mission to find Flannery O’Connor’s birth home. There was Flannery’s voice all over the city. Her humorous look at the embedded hypocrisy, the silliness behind the trumped up pride and the occasional beautiful thing no one sees or notices because it dwells in the shadows. I saw one such thing. A mother with her two kids dressed up for Halloween. The boy was a dinosaur and the girl a princess. They were buying chicken wings to cap off what might have been a fun night here on the edge of town. She opened the door for them and they climbed inside. They were dressed up the way kids are supposed to. Still, it flashed me back to being a single mother with a kid whose Halloweens I wanted to always make the best of memories. It reminded me how hard it was sometimes just to have enough money to buy dinner for the kids at the end of the night. I decided it was a beautiful place, Savannah, in both the seen and unseen ways.
Jeff was nice enough to pay for dinner. We’d spent a few days talking about this or that. I asked him as we got on our bikes and headed back to the hotel, “Do you ever miss being young?” He said no. He was having the time of his life right now. He didn’t much care for being young. As we decided not to ride out to see O’Connor’s home – which was somewhere far away from where were – I thought about it. About how when you’re young you’re always waiting for something, or wanting something more than what you have. When you get older, you are just trying to hold on to what you have.
Leaving Savannah I was grateful for the next year I’ll have back at home, with my daughter still living there. I wish I could wind back the clock and take her trick or treating one more time. But there is no stopping time. It’s her turn to yearn for more.