When filmmaker/insurance agent Stephen Allen began laying out the blueprints for the Houston Multicultural Independent Film Festival late last year, his intent was to show moviegoers -- African-American moviegoers, especially -- that they could enjoy an independent film as much as a big-budget Hollywood popcorn movie.
"If a moviegoer looks at a low-budget movie, they would probably not like it," says the 50-year-old former Chicagoan. But "they don't see the kind of things that a filmmaker would see."
Allen hopes his festival, which takes its maiden voyage this weekend, opens people's eyes to not just independent film but inde- pendent minority films. If the name of his event seems a little pointed -- the term "multicultural" must feel like a cold slap across the face to the folks at WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival -- it's not entirely by accident. Allen actively looks to give minority filmmakers a break.
"Our festival isn't attracting those people that would go to their festival," says Allen. "They don't show that many multicultural films like what we're showing. The films that we selected WorldFest wouldn't show." There's a hint of resentment in Allen's voice when he mentions Houston's more established film festival, which launches later this month. And perhaps for good reason. Allen and his company, Crescent Films, submitted their debut feature, Red Ink, to WorldFest a couple of times, only to have it rejected.
Allen isn't the only person who feels this way. Greg Carter, a Lufkin-born filmmaker who will screen his latest work, the chopsocky, quasi-campy 'hood melodrama Thug Life (think The Warriors as if directed by Kurosawa) at the festival, also feels that WorldFest has ignored DIY auteurs in favor of making a name for itself.
"I think Hunter [Todd, WorldFest chairman] had a great thing a couple of years ago," says Carter, "and that film festival could've been so much more if his staff would've embraced that. You know, running a film festival is about the filmmaker and not about the festival itself."
Todd, who says he's never heard of HMIFF, claims that WorldFest doesn't disrespect local and/or minority filmmakers. He claims his 34-year-old festival -- 23 years of which have been held in Houston [see "The World(Fest) Is Not Enough," by Joe Leydon, April 6, 2000] -- is a highly competitive one, and all selected films must follow the festival's "standards of excellence." "It must be a good story well told," says Todd. "We show movies because they are good. We don't show them because they're from a certain group. We shouldn't show a movie just because it's made in Houston or it's from a minority filmmaker."
But it's not that Allen and his HMIFF crew are letting in just any independent flick. They do have to fit some criteria. Allen says that he plowed through his fair share of celluloid claptrap before coming up with some tolerable selections. He recalls one particularly amateur film that sought entry. The script, the acting and the sound were just one step removed from home movies. "They had good props, good location. They put some money in the movie, but it was a horrible movie, and it's unfortunate that it turned out like that."
As a result, five movies (including a 22-minute documentary) and four shorts have been chosen, a number that doesn't exactly qualify HMIFF as a major player on the film festival circuit. (WorldFest, by comparison, is screening more than 50 flicks between April 20 and 29.) But it's a start. The festival launches with a mixer on Thursday night at the Mercury Room, 1001 Prairie, and then begins in earnest Friday and Saturday at the Landmark Greenway 3 Theatre. Screenings at the Greenway will alternate with workshops and panel discussions at the nearby Renaissance Houston Hotel, 6 Greenway Plaza East.
As for the flicks, there are some worthy entries. Soodabeh Babcock's The Circuit is an exquisitely shot video documentary on a few Houston stand-up comics who are currently working the scene. The shorts include Martin Delon's silent-short homage New Toy and Gordon S. Williams's shot-on-video romance The Story of Marcus & Reyna. Greg Morgan's The Court is perhaps the best film at the festival, a tense, well-done drama (kind of like an inner-city Rashomon) featuring notable names like rapper Sticky Fingaz and former Night Court co-star (and Houston native) Charlie Robinson, who will be here to teach a workshop and accept a special award.
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All of this will culminate in a closing ceremony at the Gatsby Social Club, 2540 University in the Village, where awards will be given out in feature, documentary, short and student film categories.
Among his many, sometimes lofty goals -- the festival's original subtitle is "Bringing Our World Together" -- Allen wants audiences to see that local and regional filmmakers can produce stories that involve more than guns cocked sideways in brothas' hands. "The one thing I've noticed about Houston movies is that -- and we were guilty of this when we did Red Ink -- it's the degree of violence," says Allen. "I spoke with the distributor that Greg Carter and I use, and unfortunately that's what's in demand. But it really takes away from what we want to be approaching as filmmakers."
Carter feels it all depends on minority moviegoers to step away from their stereotypes of what constitutes cinematic entertainment. "It's very funny, because you take a movie like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That movie itself was an art-house film, and it spilled over into the mainstream because of the [action]. I see brothas, you know, that go, 'I'm gonna go see the movie,' and they can't vibe with it because they're trying to read the subtext and watch the action. They can't do two things at one time, but at the same time, you know, they can appreciate it. I think the audience just has to be mature to a certain level to be able to understand it and be cultivated for it."
"I think we need to cultivate the black palate," he adds. "We haven't really cultivated the palate in our community for independent-like films .If it ain't got the big stars and the big-budget production values, then we think it's no good. So I think that's a problem that we gotta correct. We gotta get our shit correct."