Independents' Week 


James Parrish is always tired when I talk to him, because he always just had a child. Seems like another one's on the way every time he picks up the phone. But that's just a trick of the light or something because, as of this writing, he only has two -- a boy and a girl. Well, and that other child — the one that's contributing to his exhaustion and turning 15 this week — the James River Film Festival. Another product of his, ahem, fertility.

Moving on: This year's festival bears the fruit of years of labor, notably an appearance — three years in the making — by Richmond's celluloid son, Richard Kelly, director of 2001's cult hit "Donnie Darko." "Southland Tales," Kelly's follow-up that got booed at Cannes but was re-cut to some critical approval, was released in November nationwide but never showed here. So its Richmond premiere at the Byrd for the festival (Sunday, April 6 at noon) is a homecoming both for the director and his work.

Kelly will be in town the following week shooting footage for his current project, "The Box," another disturbing fantasy (starring Cameron Diaz) set in Richmond but filmed mostly in Boston. That's a whole other story.

But Kelly's reputation as a bit of an outsider filmmaker is in line with the James River Film Festival's own, which generally features lesser-known, art house or avant-garde films, long- and short-form pieces that may be way out of the mainstream.

Ah, what the hell, here's Parrish, expounding by e-mail on the parent/child relationship mentioned above regarding the film festival: "We at [Richmond Moving Image Co-Op] bring films to our community much like a midwife is 'with' the mother (and family) to help bring a child in the world: with great care, we are 'with' the filmmaker/mother/father, supporting them, we take a holistic approach to programming for our community."

Now Parrish isn't all hippy-dippy about this stuff. He, along with festival founders Mike Jones and Trent Nicholas (both film fixtures in this town — Jones ran the Biograph Theatre in its wilder years; Nicholas is a VCU film studies professor) take the filmmaking biz pretty seriously. Their organization, the Richmond Moving Image Co-Op (RMIC), runs the James River Film Festival and the extremely filling Italian Film and Food Festival, as well as Flicker and Attack of the 50-Foot Reels, both dedicated to short work by local filmmakers.

Parrish says the co-op models itself after New York's Anthology Film Archives, an organization that keeps a keen eye out for the genius hidden in the reels.

"They're creating a very important archive of independent cinema," Parrish says.

It was John Mhiripiri at the archives who recommended this year's other big act to come to the festival, father-and-son filmmakers Ken and Azazel Jacobs.

"Ken Jacobs is kind of a lynchpin in the avant-garde film movement," Parrish says.

Ken, along with his wife, Flo, a painter, has been producing experimental works since the 1950s — short films that are regularly screened at international film festivals and the Whitney Museum's Biennial. So it's natural that his son, Azazel, would turn to the arts as well.

"He's making film on his own terms, but certainly with a strong influence from his parents," Parrish says.

Azazel's latest, "Momma's Man," (screening at the Byrd April 6 at 10 a.m.) got heaps of praise at this year's Sundance Film Festival. The story is of a man who comes home to visit his parents and gets so wrapped up in his past life that he refuses to return to his wife and child. Azazel plays with the dysfunctional family trope but takes it a little further — he casts Ken and Flo as the parents. Any relevance to Jacobs' own life is, I'm sure, incidental rather than prophetic.

But, like "Southland Tales," Parrish says "Momma's Man" may not make it to Richmond otherwise: "Could be the only chance to see it, at least in the theater."

For that matter, the JRFF is the only chance to see a lot of really interesting things: the Richmond Indigenous Gourd Orchestra playing live to a screening of the 1922 silent classic documentary "Nanook of the North"; a remembrance of murdered New Orleans animator Helen Hill; and a selection of short films from the quarterly DVD magazine "Wholpin." It seems like a lot packed into that week, but as far as indie film goes, that's about all we get for the year.

It's pretty sad, the trickle of art film that comes through Richmond. RMIC does what it can, but what can I say? We could do better. It's like Parrish says about the Cannes controversy that forced Kelly to re-cut "Southland Tales": "The audience response can often dictate a change." S

The 15th James River Film Festival runs March 31-April 6 at the Firehouse Theatre, the Byrd and elsewhere. For ticket and schedule information, visit www.rmicweb.org or call 232-RMIC.

OK, so that other story I mentioned earlier, about Richard Kelly filming Boston-as-Richmond — that's explained in "Moviemaking in Virginia: Take 3," a documentary by local indie director Robert Griffith that swallows the whole film industry and disgorges an hour-long panorama of its plight and promises.

Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Dave Matthews and Tim Kaine weigh in on where they think we're heading. The documentary is finally coming to the small screen, airing on PBS in Richmond and Charlottesville Monday, April 7 at 10 p.m. If you watch it, I won't have to repeat myself all the time. We'll all be on the same page, maybe.

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