NYC 1: Film Festivals / by Karl Dixon

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At the end of 2016 I directed two independent narrative music videos. The first (Pleiades - Only Second Cousin) was set in a cage built from 2000+ cassette tapes and was released online in late January, while the second (Jenny Got Famous - Loneliest Hour) was set in a giant colourful cardboard spaceship and had a brief appearance online before being submitted to a variety of film festivals. 

Loneliest Hour exists in a strange kind of limbo; as a short film cut to the duration of a single track it is ostensibly a music video. However, the track itself was recorded back in 2011 by an unsigned band who are now no longer together and at all stages of production I approached the idea simply as a short drama that happened to be cut to music (you can read a detailed account of the production process in my blog series ONLY THE LONELY).

Submitting this film to festivals was a very interesting experience. I had no idea how festivals might program it (or if they would even want to screen it), so I was very relieved and excited when five US festivals accepted it into their schedules:

Most of these included the film as part of a block of shorts which is the most common (and most sensible) way of scheduling short content. However one festival in particular programmed it in a very astute way...

 

KEW GARDENS

The Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema was a brand new festival that I applied to for one simple reasons: it took place in NYC while I had planned to be in NYC. I knew nothing about it and as an inaugural event, neither did anyone else.

Film Festivals can be wildly unpredictable. The 'big' events are well-known, but as a filmmaker considering the thousands of smaller events available it can be very difficult to work out which ones are worthy of the time, effort and fee to enter. The best festivals are run by passionate creative people, excited to curate interesting work and share it with their audience. The worst examples are hastily put together, badly organised and not particularly interested in filmmakers or their work. Fortunately the Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema fell very much in the former.

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My girlfriend and I landed on a Thursday evening, the night before the festival's opening night party. After failing to adjust our internal-clocks to Eastern Time Zone we woke up at 5am. Like excited schoolchildren we bounced out of our Hell's Kitchen Air BnB apartment into the early summer morning...and proceeded to walk the length of Manhattan in awe at our surroundings. We hadn't planned to walk 39,000 steps (thank you Android) but then NYC is a city that seems to just invite you further and further in. After a long day walking we returned to our apartment just in time to get ready and head over to Austin's Ale House in Queens for the party.

I say 'just in time' like we had to get changed in a hurry. We didn't. Anyone who has had the displeasure of being with me before a formal event knows how slow I am to get ready. It's not that I take time grooming or preening myself...it's that having worked in an industry that doesn't expect me to dress smart for over 8 years the process of working out how to dress does not come easy to me. Combine this near-psychosis with a rucksack full of screwed up clothes and an Air BnB apartment with no ironing board and you might start to understand the struggle I had to make myself look presentable. After an inordinate amount of time running the catwalk before my girlfriend I settled on the daring choice of a mildly-creased shirt and trousers.

I needn't have bothered.

Descending the steps into the fiery pit of our nearby subway station I was hit by a thick wall of heat the likes of which I hadn't felt since I saw Skindred in a sweaty Nuneaton pub in 2011. Oppressive, inescapable and all-consuming, the still air around me seemed to be making a mockery of my earlier attempts to look presentable, instead turning my mildly-creased shirt into a mildly-sodden shirt.  

Moist but undeterred we boarded a subway train as it slowly shuffled off Manhattan over towards Queens. Manhattan was every bit as busy, chaotic and exciting as we expected, so it was a surprising and enjoyable change of pace to get off in Kew Gardens and step into a beautiful, quiet and leafy suburb with houses, shops and pubs modelled in an English Tudor style. 

We headed over to the party and watched as the festival Executive Director and actor Jayson Simba revealed a memorial plaque to the late Hollywood actor and Queens resident Rodney Dangerfield before the drinks began to flow and people began to mingle.

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It was not only a brilliant introduction to the festival, but a brilliant introduction to the country as a whole. We met plenty of inspiring and gregarious filmmakers, but even more local Queens residents who enthusiastically threw sight-seeing, eating and drinking recommendations our way, giving us a unique real-New Yorker's insight into the city we were exploring.

And with that we made our goodbyes, hopped on the subway and did what we could to keep our exhausted eyes open after a very long but very enjoyable day.

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SCREENING

The aforementioned clever programming of Loneliest Hour came courtesy of this festival. We were paired with the Canadian feature film Grand Unified Theory, a movie about a brilliant astrophysicist with radical theories about the behaviour of the universe. He is a fabulous intellect with fantastic knowledge about the outer reaches of space...but lacking any real understanding of the people right in front of him; his family. 

Loneliest Hour teed this film up, playing like a Pixar short at the top of the main feature. Our films both occupied similar territory (using outer space to explore inner space and domestic relationships) in a lighthearted tone; it was a very clever and satisfying pairing and I'm very proud to have been the support-act to such an enjoyable headliner. Grand Unified Theory was touching, thought-provoking and very funny and with any luck we will be able to see it on some platform in the UK soon.

Afterwards I was invited to the front for a Q+A alongside the actor Scott Bellis who played the lead role of Albert in the main feature. The organisers were very gracious in the attention they bestowed on our work and it was a slightly absurd and humbling experience being given the same amount of focus as a much much larger piece of work. The brilliantly receptive audience were then invited to ask us their questions and it was illuminating to hear what elements of the piece had stuck in their minds.

AWARDS CEREMONY

The week-long festival closed with an amazing Gala event on the roof of the Terrace on the Park, a raised event venue on the edge of the rolling greenery of Flushing Meadows Park. We had been nominated in the category of Best Experimental/Animation but were mainly just looking forward to the five-course-meal and the views of the NYC skyline...both of which proved spectacular.

Beforehand we had the small issue of moving all of our belongings out of our Air BnB apartment, picking up our hire car (an absolutely gorgeous Camaro) and driving through the busy New York streets to the Gala venue. Another inevitably sweaty experience ensued, first from the combined heat of carrying rucksacks through NYC subways, second from the absolute terror of driving a powerful muscle car through the chaotic Brooklyn streets. However cool we may have looked from the outside (which I'm hoping we did...) we certainly were not on the inside as we attempted to drive on the wrong side of the road in one of the biggest cities in the world, with two not-so-smartphones that had not stored the maps we had previously downloaded.

When finally we made it to our destination we had the dubious reward of having to change out of our dirty daytime clothes (now soaked in terror) into our smart clothes for the evening...all from inside the refuge of our hire car. We hurriedly changed whilst parked in a busy lot, trying our hardest not to look like we had just been up to no good. 

Fortunately the daytime trauma had been more than worth it, as we proceeded to spend an amazing evening meeting fellow filmmakers, event organisers and local residents, many of whom were keen to find out how our first week in the US had treated us. They all seemed amused at our stories of English faux-pas (what do you mean tax isn't included in the price?!) and many were eager to recommend places we should visit on our upcoming road-trip to Philadelphia and Washington D.C. 

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Loneliest Hour didn't win in the category it was nominated for, but after an amazing night meeting other filmmakers, eating great food and watching the most spectacular of sunsets an award couldn't have been further from my mind; simply being there was more than enough on this occasion. The only thing that would have made the experience sweeter would have been having the rest of the team that helped create Loneliest Hour with me. 

The organisers finished the night with moving speeches about their journey in staging the inaugural Kew iGardens Festival of Cinema and they were right to be proud; it was a truly brilliant event and one that  will always remember. 

It was about midnight as we climbed into back into our hire car and hit the road to our hotel in Philadelphia. As we headed over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and out of NYC the only thing I could think about was returning with another film soon...

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