"For the first time in 38 years, we're opening with a local production," says longtime festival director Hunter Todd of the low-budget film Dancing in Twilight. "And it's got some stars, it's got Louise Fletcher in it, and it's directed by a Hollywood director. Mimi Rogers is starring in it, and Mimi and the director are supposed to be coming in for the premiere." The feature, written by Houston resident Rishi Vij and directed by Bob Roe, was shot entirely in Houston. It examines the mysterious, sudden death of an Indian immigrant's wife.
Todd explains his decision to go all indie: "We've not been able to show Houston productions before because they weren't up to the standards of the other entries, but this year they're good enough."
Of course, indie doesn't always mean obscure. "You know, last year we did open with a big Hollywood film" -- Laws of Attraction -- "and of course, you know, we closed with an unknown little sleeper called Napoleon Dynamite." The film had premiered at Sundance and later had a wide release. "That thing ran for four months! Napoleon is a perfect example of an unknown film by an unknown director starring nobody."
Unlike sprawling fests such as Sundance and South By Southwest, Todd sequestered his -- which also includes 100 shorts -- in a single multiplex. With shrewd planning, it's possible to catch every film. "We'd really like to be at the Greenway and the Angelika, but 15 years ago we were all over the place -- the Greenway, the MFA, Saks Center -- and our patrons basically said, 'Hunter, this is awful. I see a film at the museum, and then I want to see a film at Saks Center, and I can't possibly get over there in 15 minutes.' " Today, patrons at the AMC Meyer Park 16 theater simply stroll past the concessions to their next indie escapade.
Every good festival needs a big closing night, and Todd is quick to recommend this one. "It's a Japanese film called Frontier Dream. It's done in the Kurosawa tradition, and it's just great." Director Tetsuya Matsushima's story, set after the dissolution of the samurai system, follows a group of 30 people to Japan's harsh, unforgiving northern frontier. The festival also features special screenings of two iconic Catherine Deneuve movies, Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour.
Contrary to speculation that Todd's all-indie fest features rejects from Sundance and SXSW, WorldFest's films are largely ahead of the curve. Napoleon Dynamite aside, Todd tries to avoid subsisting on films already riding the festival circuit. "By the time Houston gets them, they're old," he explains, "so most of our films are either world premieres or North American premieres, and let me tell you, most every film has a director that is just smiling happily. We realize, you know, that we're not Sundance, and we never will be, because we don't have Robert Redford as our chairman," Todd says with the slightest hint of bitterness. And pride.