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Florida filmmakers embrace their local festival 


As one of the nation's most prestigious movie events, the Florida Film Festival has international scope. But there's no denying its name, and this year's festival includes roughly 40 films with some form of Florida connection.

But because the festival concentrates on quality, variety, diversity and premiere status, its focus is not necessarily on movies from the Sunshine State. Some Orlando filmmakers have even labeled the festival unfriendly toward local talent. But don't tell that to the Florida moviemakers whose films were accepted this year.

"We're very excited to be in the festival, and the main reason for that is because it is the festival we attended when we were in high school," says Ric Serena, who directed the documentary My Indiana Muse with his wife, Jen. Both filmmakers were born and raised in Sanford and met while attending Seminole High School.

"Part of me is excited about the potential of sharing this with all my friends and family in the Central Florida area, and then there's this part of me that [is] nostalgic about being in the festival that was the first film festival that I ever attended," he says. "Even aside from the festival, the Enzian is a place we would typically go to see independent cinema. I have such a nostalgic memory of how beautiful the theater is."

Nostalgia also runs deep for Randall Christopher. Not only is the Orlando native proud to have his award-winning animated documentary The Driver Is Red – which he calls his "first proper film" – in Shorts Program No. 5, but he's happy to return to the festival that crowned his Backyard Jam the Grand Jury winner for animation in 2013.

Typical of born-and-bred Florida moviemakers, both Serena and Christopher are now living in California. Though it wasn't specifically filmmaking that precipitated the moves, there's no denying that Florida – through a lack of tax breaks for the movie industry – isn't the easiest place to film. Sure, if you're an amateur working with no budget, you will certainly find resources, such as Full Sail University and the Orlando Film Commission. But if you have loftier goals, your road will be rockier.

"When I started working at Disney in the late '80s, there was a huge push ... where Orlando was trying to get the film industry," Christopher says. "Tax incentives are really important, and there just needs to be support from the government and from the people."

Though the Florida film dream of 30 years ago was never fully realized, Orlando filmmakers can make a living. For instance, Jason Murphy sees success sans festivals with his unique brand of direct-to-video family films; Brendan Rogers, Will Phillips and Aléa Figueroa of And You Films produce direct-to-internet parody mash-up movies; and Stephen Stull is again bringing his twisted cinema to the Florida Film Festival's Midnight Shorts program with The Jerry Show. Other locals enjoy seeing their short films play Enzian's monthly FilmSlam and annual Brouhaha Film & Video Showcase. Those two mini-festivals are filled exclusively with films made in Florida, as is the Florida Film Festival's "Best of Brouhaha," which this year includes 13 short films. (Among them is In a Heartbeat, an animated gem from Sarasota's Ringling College of Art & Design that was shortlisted for an Academy Award.)

And don't tell director Kirk Murray that locals can't succeed, as his A Mediocre Documentary With Tom and Dan is getting its world premiere at this year's festival. Not only is the documentary set and filmed in Orlando with an almost entirely local crew, but its subjects (radio legends Tom Vann and Daniel Dennis) are local too. And Murray's movie is not a festival anomaly, as Prison Logic (a comedy directed by Romany Malco) and Long Time Coming (a documentary feature directed by Jon Strong, about one of the first integrated Little League baseball games in the South) are also set and filmed partially in Central Florida.

Another topic close to Floridians' hearts is voting, and at least two festival films address that topic: Let My People Vote (a short documentary directed by Gilda Ann Brasch, about re-enfranchising felons) and A Greater Society (a feature doc about "super voters" in a South Florida retirement community).

"Everybody was telling us you've really gotta screen at the Florida Film Festival. It's one of the best," says Stacy Goldate, co-director of A Greater Society. "It's just really exciting to be able to premiere in Florida our film that is about Florida, [and] we really want to reach out beyond the festival, into the community to help people get out and vote."

Oh, and while you're at your polling place, why not vote for candidates who support filmmaking tax breaks? Local moviemakers will surely thank you. Until those financial incentives arrive, the Florida Film Festival will continue to prove how much the state has to offer the world of cinema.

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