Dance with Films in Los Angeles this June

Time was, people wondered why Los Angeles, the movie capital of the world, didn’t have a flagship film festival. Some argued it had many. In other years, there has been a Los Angeles Film Festival, a Hollywood Film Festival and many others that have fallen by the wayside; a number of smaller festivals remain.

But now, for 2022, Los Angeles has an unlikely, doughty survivor: Dances with Films, unspooling its 25th edition starting June 9. Hiding in plain sight at the TCL Chinese Theatre, DWF 25 has become among the country’s pre-eminent showcases of new or unusual talent across all media. Viewers will get a first chance to see filmed entertainment that might move on to a number of other festivals or to distributors.

The indie festival with the peculiar name was created at a time when the Park City scene—aka Sundance—had so many mini fests gathering around it—like DigiDance; SlamDunk; Slamdance; TromaDance,” says co-founder Leslee Scallon. “We thought it would be funny to be the summer film festival in Hollywood called Dances With Films. To be honest, we were only planning on doing it for one time in 1998. Not twenty-five!”

Filmmakers Michael Trent and Leslee Scallon, after writing, filming and finishing their own independent film, INDEMNITY, quickly realized they didn’t have the “connections” to get their film into the industry fests that existed in those days. “So with a brilliant idea from Michael to bring together other filmmakers like ourselves for a week-long event in Los Angeles,” Scallon recalls, “the power of the ‘unknown’ filmmakers came together to present something other than ‘star-studded’ films to the industry and the public.”

So what about the fest’s “no stars” policy? “In the beginning we were very strict about it,” Scallon explains. “However, moving into year 25, we realize that we have alumni that are doing more and more ‘name’ involved work and so we have evolved as well. That said, we will never program a film because it has a celebrity in it. In fact, when it has a ‘name’ it really has to be that much better. However, as we have grown in size and reputation, we receive more and more ‘name’ films and is why we created our ‘UNLEASHED’ section.”

DWF is supposed to show 200 films, shorts, pilots and music videos presented this year—all in person and too many to preview them all—but a baker’s dozen—five of them world premieres—collectively show the range of projects on offer.

So here we go.

Two of transformative documentaries in DWF took a fairly long road to the screen: REWILDING, which makes its world premiere appropriately enough Juneteenth, Sunday, June 19 and MY FRIEND TOMMY, which has its world premiere June 12. Both films started pre-production as far back as 2015. REWILDING follows Anthony Dejesus, a 27-year-old budding Black artist and former Rikers Island inmate, as he leaves New York City for the first time with rock climbers and wilderness guides Jesse Spiegel (the film’s director) and Vitek Linhart, determined to field test a program to take formerly incarcerated men into the wild. Aside from its immersive story, the film captures footage of Kalief Browder, the young Black man who took his own life following years of incarceration without charge whom Spiegel interviewed as a candidate for the program.

“The filming of REWILDING was a rich experience that bonded us, as we climbed, slept, ate, and lived in a van together,” Spiegel says. “We each had troubled pasts and our ability to connect over both our differences and similarities was truly special. I hope that our story gives a voice to the often-underrepresented experiences of individuals in the criminal justice system, as well as offering a new approach to healing its negative effects with increased access to nature through programs like ours.” Spiegel hopes to develop the successful proof of concept if REWILDING into a series.

Nem Stankovic’s MY FRIEND TOMMY is about a different kind of transformation: the romantic and sexual education of a real-life 40 year old virgin, Tommy Lee. Tommy has never so much as kissed or dated a woman, lives at home with his parents, and subsists on an allowance; he doesn’t even have a bank account. With the help of his wingman, athlete and actor Nem Stankovic, Tommy wants to change that. The film follows a cross-continental quest from Toronto to Las Vegas, New York, Los Angeles, and Miami to discover the adulthood Tommy never had, alongside his “wolfpack” of wild, younger friends.

Initially, MY FRIEND TOMMY plays more like a buddy comedy than a documentary. But its slapstick road trip belies the film’s other side: there are dramatic, and often hilarious, twists and turns as an actual person’s life changes drastically in real time. Fun fact: according to Stankovic, 3% of the US population over the age of 25 have never had sex—many not by choice, but due to the social or religious constructs they faced when growing up. Tommy’s story is a revealing one from this massive, yet quiet, minority.

With the success of Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Oscarâ-nominated FLEE, animation has found firm footing in the documentary genre, and nowhere do the two techniques combine to transport the viewer into a brave and heroic world than in ETERNAL SPRING ( 長春), making its West Coast premiere Saturday, June 18. Canadian Jason Loftus tells a hell of a story: in March 2002, a state TV station in China was hijacked by members of outlawed spiritual group Falun Gong. Their goal was to counter the government narrative about their practice. In the aftermath, police raids sweep Changchun City, and pre-eminent comic book illustrator Daxiong (Justice League, Star Wars), a Falun Gong practitioner, is forced to flee. Live action and 3-D animation bring the story back to life.

But Daxion cautions: “History has taught Chinese people a lesson: dare to stand up to the Party, and you will suffer.” There’s a good reason its most recent screening was at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

Two feature selections come to DWF after marquee debuts at other festivals: 2022 Slamdance Audience Award (a festival inspiring DWF’s name devoted to first-time directors) winner IRON FAMILY, directed by Patrick Longstreth,makes its West Coast premiere on Sunday July 12. The heartwarming documentary follows Jazmine Faries, a young woman with Down Syndrome, whose fecund imagination—fueled by her obsession with soap operas, Barbie dolls, and Matthew McConaughey—has supported five summers’ worth of stage plays in her hometown of Iron River, a small former mining town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Her brother and co-performer Chad, says, “She’s either an incredible genius or she just has amazing luck.”

In practice, it’s large measures of both: family ties are challenged AND strengthened by the difficulties of producing a play limited resources—what every producer faces. Along the way the audience sees Jazmine’s personal struggle for independence, her yearning for a romantic partner, and how a single spark of creativity can spread joy throughout a community.

Meanwhile, Santa Barbara Film Festival debut 1-800-HOT NITE is director Nick Richey’s second feature and he’s already proved he’s a master of looking inside the minds and troubles of young people with a combination of pathos, introspection and humor. While his first film, LOW, LOW, followed four girls as they finish high school, 1-800-HOT-NITE starts with 13-year old Tommy (Dallas Dupree Young, who’s on the cusp of stardom with appearances in COBRA KAI, READY PLAYER ONE, and recurring on The Good Place) loses his family to a police raid, he escapes custody (and foster care) with his friends, Steve and O’Neill.

Misadventures ensue. “We don’t even need parents,” Tommy says. “Fuck parents!” his buddies echo. Their urban odyssey is packed with men trying to rob them, cops, a python, a fist fight, a first kiss and phone sex. Their brotherhood breaks as they cross the threshold into adulthood and Tommy turns himself in to the police, reuniting him with his toddler step-brother, ready to face their future together as a family. Finally: Why tell you what 1-800-HOT-NITE rings to? You know you already tried it.

A COVID-19 love story? Maybe not as rare as one might think, since love did isolate along with the tens of millions of virus sufferers. One narrative to watch is COVID-19 GROUND ZERO makes its West Coast premiere Saturday, June 18, with laurels and awards from a number of festivals in its wake. A synthesis of true stories from frontline hospital workers in New York City, the film is a courageous, heart-wrenching account of a dedicated hospital nurse and her boyfriend as they try to make sense of the pandemic that engulfed New York and the nation amid the Black Lives Matter protests.

This film is tense. It evokes a visceral response not unlike being transfixed on the train tracks as the locomotive approaches. Two things emerge from watching: how much we didn’t know when the pandemic started, and how frustrating that is to see that writ large on the screen. People who have lost loved ones to Covid will find it both tough to watch yet uplifting as Laura Weissbecker’s Jesse and Cyril Durel’s Andy find their way haltingly forward as the city closes in on them. But it’s gotten to the point where most people have had the virus, so the challenges they face feel familiar, and the audience identifies with them and roots for them. And, rare among DWF Films, COVID 19 is starting distribution along with the Festival screening: it premiered on Pay Per View, inDEMAND, on most US cable systems, June 1.

“Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning ‘humanity to others’. It is often described as reminding us that ‘I am what I am because of who we all are.’” That description came from the open-source operating system page. UBUNTU is also an impact documentary film making its world premiere Monday, June 13. The documentary shines a light on the Mamas of Cape Town, a group of heroic women whose tenacity allowed them to survive and even triumph over the cruel hand they were dealt. Together, against the odds and all through Apartheid, they transformed their communities and became the backbone upon which South Africa was built.

Oscarâ-nominated director Adam Pertosky met Loren Levine about 4 years ago and upon hearing her story he immediately wanted to help in any way he could. “For the last 20 years Levine has been working with Helen Lieberman and the Mamas of Cape Town. The Mamas have created pre-schools, daycares, soup kitchens, senior clubs, and just about anything that was needed for their communities. They dedicated themselves to their communities all through Apartheid and even today, yet they have never been acknowledged, and most of them still live in poverty. Even if Apartheid has ended, its ramifications have not. To understand the plight of Black people in South Africa is to understand how racism and its ramifications are unfortunately universal.” The film has a companion non-profit viewers can donate to, ikamva labantu, here.

“You need to go to Paris.” Don’t we all? Rounding out the features is the June 12 world premiere of Nicola Rose’s GOODBYE PETRUSHKA, which comes to DWF with an award from Worldfest Houston in tow. Claire (Lizzie Kehoe), a starry-eyed, awkward young puppeteer, moves impulsively from NYC to Paris, where she nannies for the family from hell, battles wacky French bureaucrats, embarrasses herself in front of her Parisian crush and navigates a toxic relationship — among other faux pas. But as Claire’s best friend tells her, “life is far too short, and true passion is far too rare.”

Alongside the features, Dances with Films celebrates the short film. Like the short story, short films require rigor, discipline and economy of expression. Basically, short filmmakers have to tell their story walking. Now might be the best time ever for short filmmakers to screen their films at film festivals, which become de facto advance distribution platforms for movies that everyone can watch—from anywhere at hybrid or digital festivals. Dances with Films had only one digital outing—2020—and went back to in-person only last year. “We do not want to do it again,” says Scallon. “It is not the same, we don’t care what they say.” However, except for the world premieres, viewers can find some of DWF’s programming online or at other festivals, if they know where to look.

One of those films is EL CARRITO, by activist and community organizer Zahida Pirani, screening Monday June 13. A concept that first saw light as a documentary, EL CARRITO follows Nelly, who lives with her elderly father Rico in Queens. She is determined to improve her circumstances as she slogs through day after unsuccessful day of street vending. After taking a risky business decision that quickly backfires, Nelly wrongly accosts a fellow vendor for her misfortune and is stunned to discover how the community responds to her distrust. A world premiere last year at AFI Fest, EL CARRITO played SXSW and has the additional heft of production designer Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, Deputy Director of New York’s Street Vendor Project. In June, viewers can find EL CARRITO at no less than five festivals: DWF, The Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, The Palm Springs Shortfest, The Brooklyn Film Festival, and Brooklyn’s Rooftop Summer Series.

How many times has someone heard the expression: “[film name] defies easy description?” Well, with SWEAT OF HIS COW, with a West Coast premiere Wednesday June 15, words may come easily but more than that is possibly too much to expect. It’s VHS, it’s Beta; it’s cheap, it’s cheesy; it’s reassuring while being out on a limb. It’s a little bit sexier, because it’s a little bit saxier. The film’s liner notes go a little further: “this is the story of an impossibly gorgeous doctor lawyer who runs out of gas next to a barn where an impossibly sweaty man is milking a cow. A sexy relationship ensues where they learn that gas is just the beginning, milk is always the end.” A role-bending effort by renowned indie film PR—and rancher and animal savior—John Stuart Wildman. Turns out he’s a film producer. Who knew?

Stigmatized since childhood by her love of the rock band Journey, Maya (producer/writer/actress Erika Hamilton) finds her voice in a world where she doesn’t always feel “Black enough.” That premise takes us through OUT OF TUNE, an uncomfortable journey of self-acceptance making its West Coast premiere June 17. From adolescence to adulthood, Maya has wrestled with the often narrow boundaries of racial identity. She wants to be rooted in but not restricted by her Blackness. But instead of being a liberated fangirl, Maya feels boxed in by the Black gaze. As she stands on karaoke stage, the first notes reverberate and the pressure begins to mount, will Maya finally stop denying her own authentic voice to fit in? 

In Frank Kelly’s THE CRITIC, making its world premiere Friday June 17, a reserved and cosmopolitan hotel critic checks into Coral Gables’ famed Biltmore Hotel for what appears to be just another routine review. Her stay quickly spirals into an adventure of a lifetime when she meets a charming and mysterious golfer who discovers her true identity and offers her a proposition she cannot refuse. Their reluctant encounter turns into a romantic adventure that ends with an unforgettable stay and a surprising reveal. THE CRITIC is also a film with two faces: on the one, it’s a slick, polished, warm South Florida psychological mystery with a surprise ending that captures new and Old Florida’s hearts beating side by side. It bounces. it’s fun. On the other, it could be—but doesn’t HAVE to be—a tour de force of branded entertainment of the ilk of BMW’s THE HIRE or Marriott’s TWO BELLMEN, and begs for development as a series.

The desert’s full of weird shit, right? That’s why it’s a rich seam of cinematic gold and the short doc INSIDE THE BEAUTY BUBBLE follows in the august tradition of outrageous American roadside attractions. The Beauty Bubble Salon & Museum in Joshua Tree is the magical and kitsch-filled brainchild of “hairstorian,” artist, hairstylist, musician and renowned collector of hair artifacts Jeff Hafler. One of his staff recalls, “he gave my very first hairstyle in fifth grade. That was the first time I can remember feeling beautiful.” BEAUTY BUBBLE, screening Tuesday June 14, covers a year in the life of this beloved Joshua Tree community member and his roadside attraction as he copes with lockdowns and prepare for a spectacular hairsterical exhibition of his hair sculptures at the SFO Museum in San Francisco, where they were seen by 50 million travelers.

The festival has four other sections: Downbeat (for music videos); Global (world shorts); Midnight (horror features and shorts); TV pilots; and Kidz!

In conclusion, now’s the time to welcome DWF for what it is: a world-class showcase of new and undiscovered talent that should sit atop the firmament of Los Angeles film festivals. Looking back over the last 25 years, Scallon recalls what has changed: “Technology and distribution obviously. Other than that though, the spirit of the independent filmmaker remains as strong now as in the beginning. And let’s face it – good films start with good stories by great writers with good execution. “Since we are not a genre specific festival, we look to the heart, the voice, the style of a film, the filmmaker themselves. There is no one specific thing” in their programming regimen, Scallon concludes. “The fact is any film can become an important one, because if making a hit film was a formula, the studios would have already figured it out. There is always a bit of pixie magic dust that has to be there.”

Dances with Films (DWF 25)

Where: TCL Chinese Theatre, 6801 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood, CA 90028

When: June 9-19, 2022

Info: https://danceswithfilms.com/schedule/


Brad Auerbach has been covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.

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