I only attended two in-person screenings at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival: local premieres of the New Orleans drag scene documentary Last Dance and the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning horror film Nanny. Everything else I caught at this year’s festival was presented on its Virtual Cinema platform, streamed at home on my laptop & TV. Logistical obstacles kept me from catching more titles in person, which is a shame, since one of the major joys of NOFF is being immersed in microbudget, niche-interest cinema alongside huge, enthusiastic audiences that those movies would not reach otherwise. After a week of rushing from screening to screening trying to cram in as many personal, handcrafted pictures as I can before they disappear into the distribution ether, I tend to lose track of the textures & standards of professional, corporate filmmaking. It’s a low-key, intimate headspace I never want to emerge from, and there’s something especially cool about dwelling there with the sizeable crowds that are missing from arthouse theaters every other week of the year. I obviously couldn’t simulate that experience attending the festival’s Virtual Cinema at home, but I did still get to see some pretty great movies.
Last year, I wrote a quick-takes roundup of the higher-profile Spotlight Films I caught at NOFF, but this year I’m flipping it around. Stay tuned for standalone reviews of Last Dance & Nanny, as well as an audio recap of the full #NOFF2022 experience on an upcoming episode of The Swampflix Podcast. In the meantime, here’s a brief round-up of all the smaller, more esoteric NOFF titles I watched at home – the closest I could get to full immersion in indie-budget Festival Brain.
Three Headed Beast
The first film I watched on NOFF’s Virtual Cinema platform this year ended up being my clear favorite. The intimate, largely dialogue free drama Three Headed Beast got me excited to spend a week watching nothing but microbudget indies with no commercial appeal, and I was surprised that each subsequent virtual “screening” was a case of diminishing returns. A small, quiet dispatch from our sister city Austin (where one central Swampflix contributor currently dwells), it’s got an infectious D.I.Y. spirit that’ll convince you the only resources you need to make a great film is a few free friends & weekends and a halfway decent script. It’s cute, it’s stylish, it’s sexy, and it’s a more emotionally involving drama than most Awards Season weepies with 1000x its budget.
In Three Headed Beast, a loving bisexual couple struggles with their open relationship when one of them catches feelings for a younger third. The historical details of their relationship dynamic—how long they’ve been together, how long they’ve been open, who suggested the change, etc.—aren’t spelled out until late in the runtime, when the wordless montages of their various romantic trysts are put on pause for the film’s first lengthy exchange of dialogue. It’s all clearly communicated in their body language before that late-in-the-game explainer, though, and a tryptic split screen editing technique helps pack as much of that visual information into the frame as possible in an intricate, exciting way. The tension of who’s putting more logistical & theoretical work into their polyamory (through podcast & literature research) vs. who’s actually committing to that lifestyle with a full heart is complexly mapped out using very simple, straightforward tools of the editing room – pulling a great, low-key romance drama out of very limited resources. Plus, it’s the only film I saw at this year’s festival that includes a tender act of analingus, which has got to count for something.
Friday I’m in Love
I’m embarrassed to admit that my two favorite selections at this proudly local film festival were both imports from Texas. The pop culture documentary Friday I’m Love is a detailed hagiography of the locally infamous Numbers nightclub in Houston, which opened as a dinner-theatre cabaret before converting to an immensely popular gay disco, then mutating once again into a new wave & industrial music venue. Decorated with the tape warp & pre-loaded fonts of a vintage home camcorder, the movie presents “Houston’s CBGBs” as a Totally 80s™ nostalgia pit, one filled to the brim with half-remembered anecdotes about counterculture legends as varied as Divine, Ministry, Grace Jones, Nine Inch Nails, and Siouxie Sioux. The doc is primarily a time capsule record for people who happened to live near the gay Houston neighborhood Montrose when the club was its cultural epicenter, but anyone with a decent sense of taste in music would find something worthwhile in that hazy stroll down memory lane.
Friday I’m In Love commits the worst crimes of a low-budget pop culture doc. It invites talking heads to endlessly daydream about the glory days; its director makes themself a part of the story for no particular reason; it could have easily been reduced to a short. And yet it’s got so much great archival footage of the loveable freaks who ran wild in the pre-internet world that it easily transcends those petty quibbles. It turns out I’m willing to overlook a lot of gruel & glut as long as you throw in some anecdotes about drag queens, goths, and Björk, and there’s something especially charming about seeing those beautiful freaks party in the Texas heat. It turns out I wasn’t the only one so easily charmed, either; the movie won this year’s Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature.
While the one truly local film I caught on the Virtual Cinema platform wasn’t my favorite of the fest, it was maybe the best suited for the fest. Street Punx is perfect NOFF programming in that it’s a flippant satire about the petty, logistical frustrations of making the exact kinds of movies that never make it past the film festival circuit. You get to laugh at the ludicrous, aimless hipsters who don’t even know why they’re making art in the first place, then immediately dance with them at the afterparty. It’s self-critical about the entire enterprise of making niche-interest, microbudget films about “the real world” instead of genuinely engaging with it, while also never taking that to-the-mirror indictment all that seriously.
In this low-key slacker comedy, a pair of directionless New Orleans filmmakers attempt to scrape together funds to make a movie about street punks in Myanmar. Hiding behind moodboard comparisons to the unscripted No Wave influences of filmmakers like Jarmusch, they’re never straightforward to potential investors about why they want to make a movie in Myanmar, mostly because they don’t even know the reasons themselves. The studded jackets and spiked mohawks of their potential subjects look great on camera, especially in contrast to the ceremonial Buddhist robes worn by local monks & nuns. They’re not even really interested in those surface-level aesthetics, though; nor are they are interested in the violent military coups that give those punk-culture rebels a political purpose. Their concerns are selfish & petty well past the point of parody (including the director using the potential location shoot as an excuse to bang her Myanmarese crush), and most of the movie is a comedy about attempts to justify the project as anything other than a grotesque personal indulgence. It’s a funny joke too, even if Street Punx itself feels a little messy & aimless in the exact ways it’s critiquing its would-be film-within-a-film for being.
My least favorite film of my Virtual Cinema selections was also the one with the highest ambitions, one that has a much clearer political purpose than the fictional Myanmar punk culture film in Street Punx. In Wetiko, an Indigenous youth gets tangled up in a spiritualist turf war between authentic Maya shamans and their phony Euro initiators in the Yucatan, since his family’s pet store supplies hallucinogenic toads needed for their rituals. It’s sharply critical of druggy white colonizers coopting Maya shaman traditions for recreational & self-aggrandizing purposes, recalling the criticisms of ayahuasca tourism in the overlooked, underloved drama Icaros: A Vision. Featuring performances in the English, Spanish, Mayan, Afrikaans, and (fictional) Empire of Love languages, it’s got an impressively broad scope for such a tiny production, and the New Orleans Film Festival should feel proud to have hosted its World Premiere.
I just couldn’t shake the feeling that Wetiko isn’t as great as it could have been. It’s shot on film, so it’s automatically got a leg up over most modern festival programming in terms of texture, color, and warmth. It’s a shame, then, that it loses some of that ground in its choppy, “trippy”, CG-laced editing techniques during its hallucination sequences, which often feel cliché when they need to feel darkly magical. Thinking back to the way this year’s magnificent Neptune Frost updated its own ancient mystique with the string lights & glowsticks of modern urban living, it’s easy to find Wetiko lacking in comparison. I still found plenty to enjoy about it though, from the eyeroll-worthy cult members of the Empire of Love Conscious Community Center’s awe for “the universal hum of connectedness” to their satisfying violent overthrow at the hands of true local shamans who actually know what they’re talking about. If its stoney-baloney trip-outs had just looked a little more uniquely uncanny & nightmarish, it likely would’ve been my favorite screening on this list. “Impressive but flawed” is far from the worst thing you could say about a film festival title, though, and it was cool to see one of these low-profile movies punch above its weight class.