“If you go visit the French Quarter, don’t go down any alleys.”

From the moment that I arrived at Louis Armstrong airport for the New Orleans Film Festival (October 14-22, 2015), I knew I was in for something unique. As the Saints game blared from the van radio, my advice-dispensing driver was quick to recommend a cross-section of food and entertainment to go along with my busy itinerary of film-watching. “Make sure to stop by Felix’s for some oysters,” he told me. “It’s been there forever.” As I was to discover throughout my time in New Orleans, local hospitality is everywhere.

After checking in at the Hotel Modern, I wandered over to the Rebellion Bar for a meet-and-greet with the filmmakers and NOFF staff. Wine, whiskey, film and football were the watchwords at this party: Filmmakers stood shoulder to shoulder, sharing stories and business cards, and occasionally glancing to check the score of the Saints game.

As a part of my visit, I had been asked to help adjudicate the Louisiana Features category, a selection of features and documentaries made by Louisiana filmmakers. From the trials of a New Orleans taxi driver to a story of desegregation in Yazoo City, Mississippi, the 10 films I watched set the stage for my visit, each of them a window into the atmosphere and culture of this region.

The morning of Friday, October 16, started with a self-guided walking tour of New Orleans. Since the festival didn’t get going for me until the afternoon, I patrolled Canal Street, and took a moment to pay tribute at a statue for one of New Orleans favorite sons—Ignatius J. Reilly, the protagonist of A Confederacy of Dunces. I pressed a quarter into the bronze hand of Ignatius, and wished for good luck.

That evening, I met with my fellow film jurors and sat down to hash out who would take home the top prize. While I’ve served on film juries before, this one took some extensive discussion before we chose the winner. In the end, we felt the choice came down to whom would benefit the most from the $10,000 Panavision camera package. While my favorite selection wasn’t overall winner, I think the three of us came to right decision: Consequence, directed by Jonathan Nguyen and Ashley George.

IMG_0656_Jonathan Ngyen

A biomedical engineering student at Tulane by day, Jonathan Nguyen is co-director of Louisiana Feature winner Consequence

After catching a screening of The Man in the Machine, Alex Gibney’s documentary on Steve Jobs, I swung over to the filmmaker welcome party, hosted at an old historic mansion famously frequented by Mark Twain. Amongst the throng of filmmakers and industry folk, huge trays of jambalaya and chocolate pudding dressed the tables as attendees listened to live music and sipped custom made cocktails from the standing room-only bar. Without a doubt, NOFF knows how to treat its people right.

On Saturday, I stopped by a panel focused on the creation and production of music for film. Among the panelists was Robert Budreau, director of NOFF’s opening night film Born to Be Blue, and Oscar-winning composer Donald Markowitz. Like many of the panels hosted by NOFF, the discussions explored creative conception to final production with a reflection on best practices and creative flow.

The afternoon was spent at the gloriously renovated Orpheum Theatre, which featured the NOFF debut of Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, followed by a Q&A with producer Laurens Grant. One of the highlights of the feature line-up, the film crackles with historical outrage and vividly lays out the impact the Black Panthers had on civil rights and American culture. Not since the 1987-1990 Eyes on the Prize PBS series has there been such a potent documentary on the Black Panther movement. It’s definitely worth viewing.

A Black Panther rally in Sacramento from the documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution

A Black Panther rally in Sacramento from the documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

The pinnacle of the weekend’s festival parties happened Saturday night, across the Mississippi River in a warehouse previously used for housing Mardi Gras parade floats. As my Uber driver wound underneath the bridges on the potholed industrial road, I could see brightly colored costumes pouring into the street out of a nearby building. A Superman here, a warrior princess there, like Comic-Con had exploded on the waterfront—but oops, this wasn’t the right party!

Filing through the wild assortment of characters, I slipped in the side door and found my party in a huge room filled with a dancing throng caught up in the DJ beats of Arcade Fire’s Win Butler, in town to help celebrate the NOFF screening of The Reflektor Tapes, a documentary on the band. Off to the side, vendors dished out boozy sno-cones, beer and cocktails to a thirsty crowd that throbbed to the beat until the wee hours of the morning. It was brilliant.

Festival-goers dance to Win Butler's DJing at a party for The Reflektor Tapes

Festival-goers dance to Win Butler’s DJing at a party for The Reflektor Tapes

Sunday saw the culmination of the film competition, with everyone gathering for brunch and the NOFF awards ceremony. Braced with a sturdy brunch of mimosas, eggs, grits and a delicious shrimp gravy, each jury rose to the stage to present their findings. Winning directors and their teams stepped up to claim their festival prizes, and the audience of fellow filmmakers showered them with applause. When it came time to present for the Louisiana Features category, we did so with some fanfare, though sadly the directors of both our winning film and special jury recipient (The King of New Orleans) were absent.

The remainder of Sunday was devoted to watching films and squeezing in as much of New Orleans as possible.  Thankfully the Louisiana Short films program fulfilled both of these goals handily. One of my favorite parts of the festival, this 90-minute compilation was full of delicious portraits from the Crescent City. Whether it was a glittering look at the tradition of costuming in New Orleans with “The Exceptionally Extraordinary Emporium” or the memories of a 96 year-old sharecropper’s son in “Mr. Joe Lives Alone,” the stories were beautifully rendered and intimate in scope. Having many of the directors and their subjects in attendance made it even more special.

A quick trip back to the French Quarter for some blackened shrimp and oysters at Felix’s helped steel me for the final hours of my festival experience. Wandering over to the bustle of Canal Street, I caught the St. Charles streetcar and road the rails through the Garden District and over to the Prytania Theater, one of New Orleans oldest theatrical venues. Here I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening, sitting back and taking in two excellent films.

Oysters at Felix's

Oysters at Felix’s

First up, The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, a breathtaking documentary portrait of the photographer-documentarian who captured hundreds of moments with jazz pioneers Thelonious Monk, Ronnie Free, Hall Overton and many others. Directed by Sara Fishko of the radio station WNYC, this film is a gem of jazz and photographic history, the story of a quiet genius who documented the world from his NYC apartment. Following that, the story of the murderous Kray twins in Brian Helgeland’s Legend. Tom Hardy delivers bravura performances as Reggie and Ronnie Kray, two of the most notorious criminals in British history. Helgeland’s nose for great dialogue and character make this an easy recommendation for those who love a good crime story.

Like a delicious pot of gumbo, the New Orleans Film Festival is a colorful mix of cinema, workshops, panels and parties, steeped in southern charm and simmering with a flavor all its own. MM

The 26th New Orleans Film Festival took place October 14-22, 2015.