From a diminutive selection of locally grown and internationally touring film festivals screening in Idaho each year, True West Cinema Festival has climbed to the top of the heap to emerge as a filmmaker's film festival. While similar events in the valley have a reputation for being overblown productions catering to the masses, True West, by comparison, strikes a more modest note as the festival for the local film community, by the local film community.
Since 2004, True West has annually accepted submissions that, simply put, celebrate the pioneering spirit of the West for filmmakers who, as the submission guidelines explain, "like to go it their own way." Past festival lineups have ranged broadly on that spectrum of pioneering freedom, with films like Cannes and Sundance successes You, Me and Everyone We Know and The Hawk is Dying on one end, to sneak preview snippets of works-in-progress from local filmmakers Travis Swartz and Greg Bayne. In this, its fourth year, nine feature films, 18 shorts, four discussions in the now-annual Loft Sessions, a panel discussion and four official parties make a strong argument that True West has evolved from its own pioneering roots into something beyond blazing a new path. Now the festival is entering new territory: a vast unexplored and unleashed social and artistic realm, a place where film is free from the constraints of not going it your own way. History may have tamed a West that was once wild, but in its own microcosmic way, True West invites filmmakers to get back to those roots metaphorically by challenging the security a well-funded Hollywood studio can offer, to instead create a community of tight-knit filmmakers in this little corner of the West.
This year, rather than chat with its founders about the creation of the festival and the year's selection process, we chose four films to preview and highlight in anticipation of the big weekend. We hope these selections are just enough to whet your appetite and get you ready for all the surprises this year's films have in store.
The Guatemalan Handshake
A first feature film from writer and director Todd Rohal, The Guatemalan Handshake is the kind of movie that refuses to be buried in the middle of the festival lineup. Unfortunately for those that come after it, Handshake makes for a hard act to follow. Boil Rohal's film down to two words applied cosmically, socially, metaphorically, literally and you get "demolition derby." If your film diet of late has consisted of empty entertainment calories and blockbuster substitutes, it's possible to walk out of this screening feeling like the hood ornament on Sadie's hot pink derby-winning hunk of junk (a lean, mean crashing machine of which she took command following the disappearance of her boyfriend after a massive power outage caused by an explosive power plant employee, who later takes a job at the local roller skating rink, is the bearer of unrequited love for her sister and, eventually, becomes her potential suitor in her pregnant, abandoned, broken-arm existence—a state of being she shares, however ambiguously, with a lone female camper named Turkeylegs, a slightly deranged friend of her boyfriend's father, her uber-macho derby champion father, a silent former yodeler, a woman who attends her own funeral, and the firecracker-crazy, car-obsessed father of her missing boyfriend). Deep breath ... yep, that's pretty much what it's like to sit through the film.
Purple State of Mind
What happens on the socio-political color scale when two former college roommates force together blue and red? Purple. At least, that's the general idea in Purple State of Mind when author, Christian, filmmaker and professor Craig Detweiler and journalist, former Christian and self-described non-believer John Marks sit down and throw out the oldest rule of polite cocktail party conversation, which is to refrain from talk of religion and politics.
During their years as college roommates, Detweiler and Marks so profoundly affected one another's lives that Marks, who went to college as a Christian, left the church, while Detweiler, who had never been a part of the church, pursued it on personal and professional levels. In a series of candid conversations more than 20 years later, each defends their present stance on Christianity, and together, they examine how perceived religious differences between conservatives and liberals have translated into broader political strife.
The Memory Thief
Gil Kofman's film is likely the most intense feature film of the entire weekend for both its scrutiny of the lingering present-day effects of the Holocaust, as well as the unconventional peephole through which the film peers at the world. After a chance encounter leads Southern California tollbooth worker Lukas into studying the Holocaust, he begins recreating his past by replacing his own irretrievable memories with those of Holocaust survivors. Lukas, who isn't Jewish, doesn't simply become interested in the genocide and persecutions of World War II, he becomes a victim himself, mentally and physically.
The film's subject matter itself tends to warrant a delicate approach by mainstream Hollywood, but Kofman takes off the kid gloves and spins history in the same cycle as the present such that what comes out of the hopper is a work of audacious cultural commentary.
Nothing says ridiculous like a couple of actors in groundhog costumes trekking from Mexico to Pennsylvania. Groundhog Crossing's most immediately redeeming quality is the narrator, who saves the audience from actually having to succumb to conversations between The Groundhog and The Shadow. And yet, the absurdity of it all—rife with narrative and plot cliches—flushes out tiny gold nuggets (and a little shake of diamond dust) by the film's end.
As the dark messenger who annually predicts another six weeks of winter each year on the second of February in the weather capital of Punxsutawney, Penn., The Shadow feels the weight of his responsibility is too much to handle and runs off to bask in the eternal summer of Tijuana, Mexico. When The Groundhog discovers the absence of his shadow (his friend, The Shadow, that is, because on camera—thanks to some fierce sunlight and bright indoor lights—The Groundhog's actual shadow is dramatically present), he's in hot pursuit. Together, the two embark on a journey that's often led by the ignoble impulses of The Shadow, but one, nonetheless, that's an evolution toward a life of responsibility.
True West Cinema Festival opens Thu., Aug. 12. For information on all the featured films, a description of the shorts programs and a list of locations and topics covered at discussions, see this week's True West insert in Boise Weekly or visit TrueWestCinema.org.