Focus In, a trade paper for the Florida entertainment industry, recently reported that an article in the Sept. 30, 1998, Wall Street Journal appeared to sound the death knell for our state as a serious film-producing community. The Journal story was quoted as calling the area a "bargain basement" of second-rate projects -- a breeding ground for infomercials, not Oscar winners.
This weekend at Maitland's Enzian Theater, the new generation of Florida filmmakers mounts a counterargument, as the Brouhaha Film and Video Festival provides its yearly platform for emerging Sunshine State directors and producers. Two days' worth of independent offerings test the Southeast's mettle as a hotbed of artistic vision.
While the other events that define the Orlando film buff's year -- the Florida Film Festival and the Central Florida Film & Video Festival chief among them -- include homegrown efforts, Brouhaha alone devotes 100 percent of its running time to projects cooked up in our own backyard. As a result, the works are often a good deal humbler than the average festival feature, and quite a bit shorter: Of the 42 films being shown this year, none is longer than 44 minutes, and more than half clock in at less than 10.
As with the old adage about 1,000 monkeys with 1,000 typewriters, putting cameras in the hands of students and other budget-strapped visionaries is bound to result in a combined output that bounces from one end of the quality scale to the other. But if none of the submissions we've been able to preview have quite approached Shakespeare, there appear to be at least a few works of eloquence waiting to be discovered among the inevitable gibberish.
Let loose on an unnamed university, DeLand's John Wilton quizzes a battery of students on the connotations of "Saying the "N" Word." The use of grainy, black-and-white Pixelvision helps to initially obscure the racial identities of the subjects as they weigh in with their opinions. Though most of their responses are predictably colored by the presence of the camera, the provocative discourse nonetheless paints an engaging portrait of a society still fumbling toward tolerance.
Racist argot is thrown around a lot more casually in "The Brothers," Jonathan Figg's lame comedy about two white rappers who attempt a heist that will pay for a recording session. The fun of spotting some Orlando landmarks doesn't distract from the realization that material this unambitious is better suited to an Adam Sandler vehicle.
Hannah Goldman takes a much higher road in "Bluebird," a short that effectively employs delicate visuals and poetic recitations to follow a little girl's dreams from childhood trauma to adult emancipation. In a mere eight minutes, it makes moving fodder out of a familiar subject that, if handled more clumsily, might pack as much revelatory emotional punch as a Jewel poem.
Many of the finer entries hew to the notion that Florida filmmakers are at their best telling Southern stories. The wonderfully named "Slow Dancin' Down the Aisles of the Quickcheck" -- a Florida State University production that was a winner at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival -- wittily depicts the romantic awakening of a shy grocery-store manager whose honky-tonk angel of a checkout girl is in danger of being lured away from Aisle 6 by her country-crooning ex-boyfriend. The more self-effacing members of the Eight Seconds crowd will love this one.
FSU's Diego Colombo tackles Dixie history head-on in "The Road to Charlottesville," a beautifully acted period piece that brings an escaping slave into contact with a Confederate Army deserter. It's the one festival entry we've seen that contains enough narrative substance to warrant a full-length feature. Better, its portrayal of the slave-master dynamic sheds more light on racial conflict than Wilson's determinedly modern, but less insightful, "'N' Word" documentary.
The ugly stains of our past, however, refuse to go away. For proof, cast your horrified eyes on "Old Remedies," a cinematic orgy of reactionary conservatism. Obscenely capitalizing on the very real problem of child molestation, this sick fantasy shows a pedophile kidnapped and tortured by an outraged, supposedly heroic friend of the victim's family. The fact that it's a hopelessly amateurish melodrama of revenge doesn't make its proud assertion that vigilante justice is an honorable holdover from "the old Florida" any less outrageous. Hopefully, there will be a lot of dropped jaws and angry hoots when this film receives its screening. If there aren't any, we'll have witnessed a sobering testimony to just how far we still have to go as a people, and how right the Wall Street Journal is in its belief that our work is undeserving of any attention but our own.