Arts Desk

The D.C. Independent Film Festival Tightens Its Belt, but Not Its Approach


A scene from the film Ghosts Don't Exist.

For Carol Bidault, the founder and executive director of the D.C. Independent Film Festival, the last few years have been rough. Miramax and Warner Independent, major pipelines between small filmmakers and the mainstream, have been shut down by their corporate parents. They were both sponsors of her festival, as were NBC, Cablevision, JVC, and Avid—all of which balked this year, distancing themselves from the indie world they fought for a piece of a decade ago.

So cut, cut, cut. Cheaper printers. A cheaper venue than last year (the Naval Heritage Center instead of Union Station). And Bidault’s had to fill the sponsorship hole with private donations—the film-fest equivalent of a bake sale.

But those are the only ways the festival is downsizing. It’s still presenting lots of pictures—100 and change, with 27 foreign countries represented. This year’s themed sessions, meanwhile, cover a typical swath: You’ve got your Latin cinema, your comedies, and your horror—the latter noteworthy for one glorious absurdity in particular, Ghosts Don’t Exist. But there’s also Urban-omics, a slate of films on inner-city issues, and Senior Moments, a cluster that pokes fun at the elderly. Then there are individual joys: The Be All End All, in which a terminally ill teen looks to get laid; Poi Dogs, a genre exercise tracing a love affair between two plus-size Hawaiians; and Odysseus and the Cyclops, a two-minute cartoon by the festival’s youngest entrant, 7-year-old Emily Salva. It’s a testament to the inclusive vibe DCIFF maintains, even in straitened times.

"Filmmakers already get marginalized," Bidault says. "Why should we for budgetary reasons or thematic reasons, or even age-related reasons, add to that?" —Ted Scheinman

The festival runs March 4 to 14; films show at the Naval Heritage Center, 701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. See for times and Arts Desk for more reviews.

With an appropriately spare $200 budget, Dive! explores freeganism, a subculture of people who eat food others consider trash. Director Jeremy Seifert and his family live almost entirely on discarded goods. He grapples with the consumer culture that leads to widespread food waste, contacting stores to ask why so much usable food ends up in Dumpsters. —Ryan Little

Odysseus and the Cyclops
Seven-year-old Emily Salva’s Odysseus and the Cyclops is a surprisingly watchable two-minute cartoon that retells the well-known Greek myth. Emily’s father, Mike Salva, animated her drawings, and her narration is adorable. —Ryan Little

Heartland Transport
This documentary follows several queer couples as they rush to Iowa to get hitched while the law still allows it. Cody Stokes’ subjects are genuine, and the post-trip marital ceremonies are touching. Still, with only seven minutes of footage, the film leaves you wondering what happens next. —Ryan Little

Ghosts Don’t Exist
If you’re a fan of so-bad-they’re-good flicks like The Room, the poorly executed horror that is Ghosts Don’t Exist might be up your alley. Eric Espejo’s directorial debut depicts a retiring ghost hunter who gets the call to go on one last job with the promise he’ll both make contact with his dead wife and finally have proof of the supernatural. The dialogue is corny enough to make George Lucas cringe, and the melodramatic score only reinforces the over-the-top acting. The awkwardly long shots and too-dark cinematography are like a CSI episode gone wrong, but the plot is unpredictable enough to keep you watching this train wreck until the end. —Ryan Little

I Am a Man: From Memphis, A Lesson in Life
Elmore Nickleberry has a dirty job. A Memphis, Tenn., sanitation worker, he’s hauled the city’s trash for more than four decades. Nickleberry raised his family in the ’60s, amid the civil rights struggle. Fed up with discrimination and dangerous working conditions, he joined his fellow workers in Memphis’ 1968 sanitation strike—letting the trash pile up for 64 days until city officials acquiesced to sanitation workers’ demands for union membership and wage increases. Don’t call him a garbage man, though. He’s a man, plain and simple, and he fought hard to be known as such. —Aaron Leitko

The Be All End All
Equal parts humorous and heartwarming, Bruce Webb’s The Be All End All is the story of Robbie, a terminally ill British 15-year-old desperately trying to jettison his virginity even though he can’t leave the hospital. But as his best friend, Ziggy, jumps through absurd hoops to find the right girl for the job, it’s their friendship, not Robbie’s goal, that’s a joy to watch. —Ryan Little

Poi Dogs
In writer-director Joel Moffatt’s cutesy, slightly scattershot short, two heavyset Hawaiian teenagers—he a football player on a busted moped, she a tuba player with some engineering chops—flirt, kind of, following a game. The setting is spacious and post-industrial and shot from low angles in a high-gravity frame; the tone, meanwhile, is light, inhabiting that early moment of adolescence that’s lured by romance but defensively too cool for it. More tone-poem than narrative exercise, Poi Dogs angles for both the playfulness of Jacques Tati—hence a recurring, circuslike tuba vamp—and the harsh realism of, say, a David Gordon Green or Ramin Bahrani. The coda, though, is all Wes Anderson: hence that tuba theme set to the pop-punk gang vocals of "Hey Baby," which send the vintage moped, shot in twee-dramatic slow-mo, riding toward its destiny. —Jonathan L. Fischer

Agnes Day

Stryder Simms’ short is the sort of thing cinéastes describe as "impressionistic": a series of starkly wrought images whose flimsy relation to one another audiences will forgive because the story, insofar as it is one, involves the death of a child. Witness here a pony-tailed priest blessing a jar of bees; cold breezes flitting through Southwestern fields; bare bedrooms lit by autumnal daylight; and wide-eyed twin siblings, around ages 7 or 8, who make for exquisitely cute mourner and corpse. The music, a ghostly chorale by Samuel Barber, suggests the kind of art-house exercise frequently satirized by smarter filmmakers working in comedy. I was reminded of another painfully overwrought film that said far too little to merit its masturbatory aesthetic, The Desert Within, a Mexican title from 2008 that took two hours to murder all but one of its many underage characters, all in the service of proving that God is dead. There’s a reason you haven’t heard of either film. —Jonathan L. Fischer

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  • Sarah Crawford

    Shame on you, City Paper. You talk about how cash-starved the D.C. Independent Film Festival is, then go out of your way to trash the one locally-made film that promises to earn it the most money: the sold-out Ghosts Don't Exist. Kudos to fans and filmmakers who continue to support indie film in DC, in spite of articles like this.

  • Project Meatball

    The Dad of the girl who made "Odysseus and the Cyclops" also has a cartoon in the festival. The animated short "Back To Life," directed by Mike Salva, will be shown before "Ghosts Don't Exist." It stars comedians Ryan Williams and Sean Parrott. Lots of yucks!

  • J.E.

    I'll admit I'm a fan of Ghosts Don't Exist, and if Ryan Little doesn't like it then so be it, but to be mean-spirited shows his inexperience in journalism. The George Lucas cringing line has been used a few times by bigger critics than him. Try to be original you hack. Something like "Tereu Tereu's music is so bad it makes Yanni cringe."

    Ryan's band:

  • Nunya

    Ryan Little,

    I'm IN Ghosts Don't Exist and I have a very tough skin. However, your "review" is quite simply rude and a little ignorant. Are you possibly a Dallas fan living amongst the enemy? CSI spends more on wardrobe PER EPISODE than GDE cost to make. For an ultra low budget film, I feel it looks incredible. The film was made 100% employing local actors to the DC metro area, we need more of this and while you may not like the movie, a little more support for locally made films would be nice. While everyone is obviously not going to be delivering their lines with the aplomb of Meryl Streep, I feel the acting, overall, was quite good. Good job GDE family!

  • Ironic…
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  • Joe P.

    Went to the closing night of the DCIFF and Ryan Little was wrong about the closing film.

  • FilmLover23

    I've been hearing a lot of amazing things about Ken Loach's film "Looking For Eric" and I cannot wait until it comes to D.C this weekend. I feel like it will bring some much needed culture to the D.C indie film scene. It promises to have the right balance of comedy and drama. Featuring Eric Cantona, it also ties in really well with the World Cup just around the corner for any soccer fans. NPR's Jeannette Catsoulis says “Cantona lends the film an aura of fantasy that balances the flintiness of its location”. Everyone should check it out!

  • Greatpost

    I have seen Ghosts Don’t Exist and your review is right on the mark. It plays like The Room, but does not command the respect of the film. Like the previous post mentions "Looking For Eric" has garnered a lot of attention over the past year. I keep coming across this film in my daily review readings. Filmlover you did not mention where in D.C. it was showing; do you know where?

  • icantturnleft

    Perfect summation of I Am a Man: From Memphis, A Lesson in Life, I couldn't have said it better myself. I noticed a few of you discussing "Looking for Eric" and I have only read good things about this "fairy tale(Elizabeth Weitzman, NY Daily Post)" Hey, "Greatpost," I reside in DC and I'm checking it out at the E Street Cinema, here's the address

    555 11th Street NW
    Washington, DC 20004
    (entrance on E Street between 10th and 11th Street)
    (202) 452-7672

    see you there on Friday the 21st ;)

  • mistermovieman

    I just saw Looking For Eric out in New York this past weekend, It's definitely one you wanna check out. I didn't know much about it going in, but I'm a Ken Loach fan now. It's one of the funniest movies I've seen in a long time, Eric Cantona is hilarious, and the rest of the cast is really talented. If it comes to your town you should see it, no excuses.