Look in Jeff Roll’s bathroom for a clue about what sparked his passion for film and you’ll find a photograph of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
When he was 4, his aunt took him and a cousin to a Saturday matinee of “3 Ring Circus,” a Martin and Lewis romp. “My first memory of the big screen is Jerry Lewis having a big match-up with the frozen custard machine,” Roll says. He was hooked.
That love of film now finds an outlet through the James River Filmmakers Forum, a quarterly screening of local shorts that celebrates its sixth anniversary Saturday with films, a panel discussion and Washington shoe-gaze band, These Quiet Colours.
In 2000, Roll spotted a flyer for Flicker, the James River Film Society’s monthly screening event. He met with Flicker organizer James Parrish, bonding over a shared devotion to movies. Before long, Roll was volunteering at the society’s events. Filmmaking was next.
Although his degree was in graphic design, his minor was in photography. Parrish pushed him to try filmmaking, certain that with his eye for composing a photograph he’d probably excel at composing film. Using a 1964 Kodak Super 8 camera, Roll shot a short.
“But when I looked at the images,” he says, “they were boring.” His solution was to chemically manipulate the film to create something more interesting. “Then I dyed it with iodine straight off the drugstore shelf,” he says. The result, “Emotional Juxtaposition,” premiered at Flicker in 2003.
“Back then, Flicker pulled in a couple hundred people to the Canal Club,” he recalls. “I was so nervous showing something I had to destroy to make interesting.” But after the screening, people approached him, eager to know how he accomplished the effects.
By 2007, he’d worked his way up in the film society and was asked to curate a show for the annual film fest. A diehard music fan, he chose Anton Corbijn’s “Control” about singer Ian Curtis of Joy Division. Never screened here, the biopic was a huge hit for the festival.
During the next two years, he worked on an avant-garde sci-fi series marrying Super 8 and digital technology to create “Open Space Trilogy,” three films about people interacting with a puncture in the space-time continuum. Each short screened at Flicker.
When Parrish and James River Film Society co-founder Mike Jones decided to close down Flicker, Roll approached them with an idea. What if they created a Q&A interview-based program for artists to screen their films, interact with the audience and network with other filmmakers?
The James River Filmmakers Forum debuted in February 2009 at the Carver Healing Arts Gallery. The films ran the gamut from pure experimental to straight documentaries, but all offered the 90-plus attendees a peek into the mind of the filmmaker.
Sci-fi horror, XXX-rated parody, Richmond’s canal boats, French new wave-inspirations, and a documentary about Ground Zero set the tone for the variety to come, with Roll moderating discussion afterward.
“It was the best turnout we’ve ever had for a forum,” Roll says. “It was something new. Some people liked it and came back, others found it too formal and didn’t.”
The forum’s current home is the Visual Arts Center, where filmmakers can network with actors, musicians and editors looking for work. “It goes on after every forum,” Roll says. “That’s what makes it such a positive thing.”
With two films completed last year, his filmmaking continues unabated. The first, “Doppelganger,” was a dark fable with the look of 1920s German expressionism.
The second, “Wallpapers,” a collaboration with choreographer Jennifer Tarazzi-Scully shot in Atlanta, used a group of modern dancers for what he calls a nondance film. The first person he showed it to said it moved her to tears.
“I never had that reaction,” Roll says. “I knew then I had something good.”
His goal was an out-of-state screening. A week later, it debuted in Istanbul. It’s also scheduled to be shown in Houston, San Francisco, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and at this year’s James River Filmmakers Forum.
“I’m pursuing a legacy,” Roll says. “I want to be remembered as a film curator and a filmmaker at the same time.” S
James River Filmmakers Forum holds its sixth anniversary event March 7 at the Visual Arts Center, 1812 W. Main St. Start time is 7 p.m. and entry costs $5. There is also a cash bar and free popcorn. Information on Facebook by searching “James River Filmmakers Forum.”