By Devin D. O'Leary
APRIL 19, 1999: Since 1995, The Taos Talking Picture Film Festival has grown from a tiny source of homegrown pride to a bustling moviegoing destination with an international reputation. Earlier this year, The Ultimate Film Fest Survival Guide by Chris Gore, the founder and editor-in-chief of Film Threat magazine, named Taos Talking Picture one of the 10 best festivals in the world. Five years ago, the festival felt lucky to pack 1,000 attendees into a handful of Taos area venues. Last year, the Talking Picture ticket sales topped 8,000. This year, the festival hopes to guide some 9,000 happy filmgoers through its turnstiles. But, as the festival's press officer Dancer Dearing points out, "We can't grow too much more, because we don't have any more venues!"
Despite pressures to become yet another "industry" festival where deals are made, contracts are signed and rabid competition is the backbone of it all, the Taos festival has held tight to its humble roots. Scrappy independence still wins out over Hollywood gloss. Awards are given to mavericks instead of moneymakers. And the easygoing charm of northern New Mexico still dictates the pace of the proceedings.
In his book, Gore describes TTPFF as "the wild card entry," and goes on to say that "attending is like visiting an old friend once a year." Perhaps that's why the organizers of the Taos Festival received over 11,000 submissions from eager filmmakers this year. As a result, the 1999 Talking Picture Festival will feature 140 works--both film and video, feature-length and short, fiction and documentary. Works from 23 countries are represented with an amazing 13 world premieres and eight U.S. premieres.
So what is it that makes this tiny New Mexico resort town such a destination for filmmakers and film lovers from around the world? Along with the beautiful atmosphere and top-flight content, Taos is noted for its deeply interactive bent. Nearly every film and video in the festival is introduced by a director, writer or actor involved in the film's creation.
"It's one of our priorities to have somebody here from each film," reports Kelly Clement, the festival's director of programming. "I think that's what makes the event special. And luckily we don't have to twist too many arms to do it."
Among the filmmakers who required little armtwisting to attend this year's festival are Mexican documentarian Lourdes Portillo and Scottish writer/director Bill Forsyth.
Portillo will be on hand to receive the Cineaste Award, honoring a filmmaker whose work furthers understanding between cultures. Portillo will also be presenting her latest film Corpus, exploring the death of Latin pop singer Selena. The film is being included as part of the festival's Teen Media Conference. A post-film discussion with young viewers will be filmed and broadcast later this year as part of the nationally-syndicated PBS show "P.O.V."
Forsyth, on the other hand, will be given the Storyteller Award, previously passed out to Jim Jarmusch, Philip Kaufman and Paul Schrader. Noted for his quirky, small-town, slice-of-life comedies like Gregory's Girl, Housekeeping and Local Hero, Forsyth is the kind of eclectic auteur that Taos relishes. "He's kind of a mythic figure to me," admits Clement.
Actor/director Dennis Hopper is also supposed to be on hand to receive the Maverick Award, but according to Clement, "It's kind of touch and go. We just recently heard he may have a movie conflict over in Europe that might be unavoidable. So it's something we're working on, dealing with. We're no strangers to this. We had (American character actor) Ben Johnson die the week before the festival a few years back. But we just found out exciting news that Dean Stockwell is coming."
Stockwell is a long-time friend of Hopper and co-starred in his experimental 1971 film The Last Movie, which will be shown at this year's Taos festival. A newly restored print of Hopper's New Mexico-shot counterculture classic Easy Rider will also be screened this year.
Other special highlights of the festival include a tribute to "The Simpsons" with comedian Harry Shearer, The Taos Media Forum (featuring interactive media criticism by social historians, authors, film critics and magazine editors) and a multi media performance by a group of avant-garde film projectionists, sound engineers and performance artists.
Among the prominent film premieres this year will be: Swing, an energetic musical about a ex-con who pulls together a band of misfits to start a swing band; Oxygen, an intense thriller about a kidnapped woman trapped in an underground tomb; This Is My Father, a collaboration between the three Quinn brothers--Aidan, Paul and Declan--who starred in, directed and produced this Irish family drama; and The Source, Chuck Workman's documentary on the Beat poets, featuring readings by Johnny Depp, John Turturro and Dennis Hopper.
Oxygen and The Source are both up for Taos' unique and prestigious Land Grant Award, which gives the director of the best new film in the festival five acres of land on Taos Mesa. But these films will also face stiff competition this year from La Ciudad, a poetic exploration of life in New York's Latin American community and On the Ropes, an emotional documentary about young boxers in Brooklyn's rough, inner city neighborhoods. Last year's Land Grant winner Chris Eyre (director of Smoke Signals) will be back to help out with the judging.
In the end, Taos' director of programming attributes his festival's success to filmmakers like Eyre who have come and experienced it firsthand and gone out into the world to spread the gospel, as it were.
"A lot of filmmakers come here and are transformed, in a way, by the experience." Clement says. "In fact, I had one filmmaker call me about a month ago when we were still locking down the program and say, 'Oh, please let me in this festival. I just want to experience a real festival.' He had just been to Sundance, and he just said that was nuts. He had heard that ours was a real live festival experience."
As festivals such as Cannes, Sundance and Toronto persist in building themselves beyond the reach of casual filmgoers and smaller filmmakers, the importance of an intimate venue like Taos will continue to grow. As its strong word-of-mouth reputation builds, Taos' transformation into a glad-handing, cellphone-toting, deal-making Hollywood feeding frenzy may become inevitable. For now, though, Taos Talking Picture Film Festival remains a pleasant, picture-packed party in the pines. Get your tickets now!
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