After the 3,729-mile journey from Scotland, I woke up in Wilmington, North Carolina on November 8 in a country that global media outlets told me was climaxing in a frantic political endgame.
But even in a key swing state, that famous Southern pace of life didn’t seem to miss a beat. Votes were cast, counted and called. The next day was a new world.
And so began the 22nd edition of the Cucalorus Film Festival, taking place November 9-13 in Wilmington. I was there to show my film The Gaze as part of a silent film + live music event that had grown from the festival’s international artist residency program.
It’s impossible to ignore the political context in which more than 300 visiting filmmakers like myself attended Cucalorus. As a festival organizer, you’re not going to program for the outcome of an election—especially not this one. And yet with this year’s program, Cucalorus’ Executive Director Dan Brawley and his magnificently buoyant team gave voice to a quiet revolution that goes on beyond the political campaigning and media hype. It’s about community, it’s about an industry… and it’s about karaoke.
For starters, there was pride about the success Wilmington has had in attracting productions, studios and talent to the area. Screening former Wilmingtonian Ingrid Jungermann’s brilliant queer dark comedy Women Who Kill to a packed 500-seater Thalian Hall highlighted the trust and respect Cucalorus has from hugely enthusiastic local audiences. This was reinforced with a celebration of local legend and cinematography pioneer Joe Dunton, complete with a screening of The Shining and a post-film Q&A with Dunton, Kubrick’s daughter Vivian and Steadicam inventor/Dunton collaborator Garrett Brown. And if you didn’t know that David Lynch filmed Blue Velvet in Wilmington, then you need to get yourself along to the annual cult installation tribute Bus to Lumberton.
This ain’t no provincial film festival. In spite of the state government’s recent damaging halt on tax incentives, Cucalorus looks at the bigger picture: the international exchange of creative ideas connecting filmmakers from around the world with a vibrant NC film community. It’s not often you end up talking about cannibalism, spiritual mysticism and pigeons with animated short filmmakers. As for the compelling line-up, even after networking over gin cocktails until 5 a.m. in the festival’s backyard (complete with fire pit), I couldn’t miss Keith Maitland’s feature doc Tower the next morning.
Cucalorus is actually doing what we’re talking about in the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election and Brexit in the U.K.: creating opportunities (50 percent of this year’s program was directed and produced by women) and supporting politically challenging voices in films like Farmer/Veteran and Olympic Pride, American Prejudice. And innovation is at the heart of the Connect Conference running in parallel, uniting film across industries like marine sciences, healthcare and financial services with the aim of producing what it calls “bold, scalable endeavors in an expanding entrepreneurial community.” Cucalorus is leading an industry renewal and looking forward.
And the karaoke? Well, maybe it’s time we lower our inhibitions, make some noise and confront this new world with a little bit of Cucalorus-inspired boldness. MM
Cucalorus Film Festival 22 ran November 9-13, 2016. This article originally appears in MovieMaker’s Winter 2017 issue. Photograph by Andrew Bunting.
Shona Thomson is a Scottish filmmaker and curator/producer with a predilection for archive and silent film with live performance (akindofseeing.co.uk).