I've been saying it for years, and I'm going to keep on saying it: This town is incredible. On any day of the week, a person in the Champaign-Urbana area can see, hear, or do some form of something amazing. There are local films, stand-up comedy nights, karaoke DJs, improvisational comedy shows, academic lectures, live theatre productions, dance troupes, trivia nights, live talk shows, live music performances, burlesque troupes, salsa nights, drag shows, and local DJs. All of these things are cheap or free in this town, and I haven't even mentioned the family-friendly activities that are offered.
On Friday, April 12, from 4:00 p.m. until 11:30 p.m., the Art Theater Co-op is hosting the fourth annual New Art Film Festival, featuring central Midwest film productions. (Lemme pause so you can realize that there's a movie theater co-op here. I would also like for you to absorb how cool that is and consider joining it.) The New Art Film Festival is held at 126 W. Church Street in downtown Champaign, and is a part of the eleventh annual Boneyard Arts Festival sponsored by the 40 North 88 West arts council of Champaign County. The festival starts with introductions of the artists and featured work and a presentation, The Art Theater: 100 Years, by Perry C. Morris.
The first block, “Eclectic Sensations,” starts at 5:00 p.m. It is comprised of seven pieces: a drama-fantasy story, a music video, a couple of comedies and sci-fi films, and an animated film. The music video, "Jump Back," is directed by Lorene Anderson and features one of my favorite local bands, The Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra. I've always described their music as “perfect for listening to while you sip cold lemonade on a hot porch.” They're funky and awesome. I mean, there's a woman in glasses playing the tuba, for Pete's sake. Another film in this block is David Huettner's animated short S & D in the City. I can't improve upon the description from the press release: “Two lost spirits gallivant in the city with sickles, trumpets, and skulls.” Worth seeing, I'd say. Yet another fantastic sounding title is His Own World of Colors, directed by Skye Marcia. Skye hails from Monticello, IL where she worked on her father's film sets, on and off screen. Her film tells the story of a traumatized man who escapes into a fantasy world in order to cope. When he meets an appealing young woman, he must choose between a new start with her and the protective cocoon he has created for himself.
The second block starts at 7:00 p.m. “Real World Experiences” includes documentaries and personal accounts from life. Where the Sky and Earth Speak documents filmmaker Christopher J. Sotelo's recent trip to Italy. He uses time lapse and stop motion, among other things, to capture the beauty of Tuscany, Cortona, Venice, Florence, Asissi, Spello, and Rome. Another film in this block is The Actual, Authentic Version of Who You Say I Am, directed by Mark P. Ring and Robert Anderson. This film includes interviews from three female artists with “strong connections to Champaign-Urbana.” These interviews were used to create a production called And I Remember. Footage of Karen Vaccaro, the actress who plays all three artists, is spliced in with the actual interviews “revisiting major events of the past century from their perspectives.” I want to see this piece, hear these women talk, and perform that play. I urge you fine readers to see this film, and then report back to me, because I am sad to say that I can't attend the festival. I am so sad, everyone, because there is also a documentary called Sexy Scissors, and I'm missing that, too.
You can see the third block, “Ode to the Hysterically Strange,” starting at 9:00 p.m. The titles in this section include The Graveyard Menace, The Famine, Rabbithead, and My Dog the Space Traveler. That last one is only two minutes long and covers a dog's journey to another dimension and a young boy's attempts to get it back. That's ambition, ladies and gentlemen. The Famine is about America's obsession with coffee. It stars local actors including, but not limited to, Matt Fear, Joi Hoffsommer, Eric Sizemore, and Cara Maurizi. The six vignettes in this piece tell the story about a world where the hot, black liquid has become “a scarce commodity.” The Famine is the product of a “mass collaboration” between members of Champaign Movie Makers, a local film-making club. Another film in this block tells the story of a bumbling father making bread while another shows us the fervent wish of a prisoner working on a chain gang.
I talked to volunteer Jason Pankoke about the New Art Film Festival and found, to my embarrassment, how little I knew about my beloved movie theater and this event.
Smile Politely: How long have you been working at/with The Art Theatre, Jason?
Jason Pankoke: I do not work for the Art as an employee. My time spent helping put together the New Art Film Festival each year is time I gladly volunteer for the cause. Part of the concept is to draw from my long-standing connections with local filmmakers, formally local filmmakers, and Midwest regional filmmakers that I cover or have covered through my publications, C-U Confidential and MICRO-FILM, for movie material that might play a film festival geared towards indies. Otherwise, I'm merely a happy customer and share owner of the Art.
SP: When did the New Art Film Festival start?
Pankoke: The first New Art Film Festival took place in 2010. It was a six-day event, which is a lot of time to program for a first-year event. Then-Art owner Sanford Hess thought it would be a good way to support local artists who are filmmakers, especially by staging the NAFF alongside the Boneyard Arts Festival. We had a solid line-up that first year, but audiences were thin, partly due to all the concurrent activities and the 2010 Ebertfest, which began the day after the NAFF wrapped. We learned our lesson. Since then, small has been beautiful with the one-day NAFF format now hosted by the Art. We are grateful for the sizable audiences that it draws.
SP: How did you get involved?
Pankoke: For the 2009 Boneyard Arts Festival, I decided to try an all local-film show at Cafe Paradiso. It consisted of shorts and previews. In that respect, this year's NAFF schedule most resembles that original show. It was this itty bitty C-U Confidential show that inspired Sanford to hit me up for collaborating on a similar show at the Art one year later, but with feature films potentially added to the mix. And that is how the NAFF was born.
If you want to see a true display of cinematic talent, drop by the New Art Film Festival in downtown Champaign. There is a huge variety of subjects and directing styles in this sampling. The Art Theater is a local gem, the value of which cannot be overstated. Do yourself a favor and check it out.
Photo by Sean O'Connor