If there’s one thing I learned at the Rappahannock Film Festival this past weekend, besides that sitting too close to a projector screen for an extended period of time will make you nauseous, it’s that, compared to the other art forms, film making is hard work.
A lifetime of exposure to flawlessly edited Hollywood productions, despite honing my appreciation for the art of blowing stuff up, has left me spoiled with a blissful ignorance of the elbow grease necessary to produce an independent movie.
Thankfully, this year’s crop of RIFF filmmakers expanded my rather narrow view of cinema with a variety of different approaches to the dilemma of making movies on a shoestring budget.
Car crash scenes were edited down to a single shot of an upside-down, spinning wheel. Surprisingly effective original music replaced expensive, copyrighted songs. Not surprisingly, the same names cropped up over and over again during the credits.
Alex Van Horn, writer and director of this year’s Audience Choice Winner, “One Time Me and My Friends Robbed a Store!” took filmmaking to a humorously thrifty level, arming actors with plastic toy guns, overdubbing gunshots with the sound of cast members yelling “bangity-bang,” and depicting the ensuing violence with sheets of paper labeled “blood” in black Sharpie.
In contrast, the festival’s Best in Show winner, “Shadows,” written and directed by Alexander Lang, aimed for a bigger-budget feel, utilizing a large cast, tricky camera work that included a memorable train-mounted shot, and a feature-length format to achieve an atmosphere of suspense.
However, both films featured qualities—humor and suspense, respectively—that resonated with festival audiences. Without this resonant appeal, even the most expensive Hollywood blockbusters come up short, never adding up to more than the sum of a few cool panning crane shots or a schizophrenic editing sequence.
Highlights of this year’s RIFF extended beyond just the projector screen at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library though. Events also included a free show on Friday night at the University Cafe featuring musical acts Carlos I’m Pregnant, The Aquarium and Benjy Ferree. Ferree, a D.C. musician whose last album dealt with the downfall and eventual death of child actor Bobby Driscoll (Peter Pan), had a few thoughts about the connections between music and film.
“My all-time favorite movie is ‘Shadows’ by John Cassavetes,” Ferree said. “The acting in that movie was just as good as any Sam Cooke vocal, because it was the truth and everyone in the audience knew it.”
When your pockets aren’t as deep at Steven Spielberg’s and half of your cast is still in high school, capturing that moment of truth becomes a testament to not only a filmmakers’s skill and patience, but to their real palpable love of film. RIFF makes a case for this amateur filmmaker, the perennial underdog in a big-budget industry.