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Highlights of the 2021 Film Fest 919 Include King Richard, Passing, and More

The Film Fest 919 takes place in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and offers wide-ranging, buzz-worthy films along with on-site talent, discussions, events, and awards. This year's iteration ran from October 18-24, with 23 movies shown at Spotlight Cinema or Carraway Village Drive-In. The festival is now in its fourth year of celebrating the finest in new feature films while showcasing the artists behind them.

Founders Randi Emerman and Carol Marshall are both women who have decades of experience working in the film business. Emerman has experience in film marketing, publicity, production, exhibition, and distribution; Marshall has expertise in public relations and promoting Hollywood talent and publicity. (Notably, Academy Award-winning writer/director/producer Peter Jackson is one of her clients.) Their combined film expertise of 15 years working together on the Palm Beach International Film Festival has paved their way in the movie industry, elevating Film Fest 919 as a noteworthy event on the awards circuit.

The buzz-worthy movies that played the festival this year included "King Richard," "Passing," "Mass," "The French Dispatch," "Red Rocket," "C'mon C'mon," "The Lost Daughter," "The Hand of God," and "Spencer." 

Beginning on a spectacular note, invitees gathered on October 18 to honor songwriter Diane Warren at Carraway Village Drive-In as she received the Film Fest 919 Spotlight Award. The crisp, twinkling-star fall night was the perfect venue to view a discussion with Warren, followed by a laser light show produced to correlate with Warren's hits songs.

We learned through the discussion before the show that while writing her hit song "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," sung by Steven Tyler of the band Aerosmith, Warren had actually imaged a woman singing the song to her lover. Tyler saw it differently, and sang it as a love song to his daughter Liv Tyler. During my interview with Warren, she talked about the key to her longevity, which is that she stays current by listening to all kinds of music, saying, "I'm like a sponge. I listen to everything."

The laser light show was produced by Optic Laser Media, and owner Sean Populorum shared his enlightening approach to choreographing ten of Warren's songs. For instance, what vibe was he hoping to create with the song "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing"? 

"'I Don't Want to Miss a Thing' is a great ballad, and I wanted a dreamy look with single color chases to match the feel of the heart beating in the beginning, then adding a subtle increase in energy as the song progresses. As a musician, I am able to single out certain elements of a song to create a visual according to the vocals, instruments, and rhythm. Those tracks choreographed and layered together created a visual 'orchestra' of everything in the song," Populorum explained.

When asking Warren how she was feeling during the Film Fest 919 laser show and hearing her songs, she said, "It was great—I've never experienced anything like that before. It gave me chills."

In comparing the programming with past years, Carol Marshall said, "Randi and I were really pleased with the program this year. We had a wide variety of stories, films that featured some remarkable performances ... something for everyone. Many of the films are already being mentioned as frontrunners, including three international films which have since been named as official submissions for their respective countries!"

A packed opening night crowd was in attendance for "King Richard," directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, written by Zach Baylin, and starring Will Smith. Randi Emerman was instrumental in the development of the new Drive-In at Carraway Village a year ago, and she was pleased to be able to provide a different moviegoing experience for festival audiences. It should be noted that "King Richard" tied as the Audience Award winner for the festival, and is certainly one of my favorites as this inspirational story serves as a role model for all in parenting. (Editor’s Note: Watch for our review and two interviews for the film running tomorrow.)

Randi Emerman and Carol Marshall

On October 20, the documentary film, "Oleg: The Oleg Vidov Story," directed by Nadia Tass, narrated by Brian Cox and featuring Joan Borsten Vidov, opened at Spotlight Cinema. Oleg's Vidov's widow Joan Borsten, a journalist, was in attendance. From the discussion, we heard stories about Russian actor Oleg Vidov, nick-named ‘Russia's Robert Redford,’ including his life in America after his daring escape. When I asked Borsten during our Q&A what message she hopes viewers will gain from his story, Borsten replied, "Courage—believing in yourself is the story of many immigrants who come to America wanting freedom to make their own decisions. I think Oleg proved that in this country, if you have enough talent, energy, and the will, you can become something you weren't before."

The Centerpiece movie, "C'mon C'mon," was screened on October 21. The film was written and directed by Mike Mills and stars Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann, and newcomer Woody Norman. The audience buzz was positive toward the film's in-depth look at mental illness and empathy for family members who manage their loved ones. Upon viewing, my own thoughts were flooded with emotions; the heavy subject matter is lifted by the outstanding, instinctive performance by Phoenix. The film tied as the Audience Award winner for the festival.

The Distinguished Screenwriter Award was presented on October 22 to co-screenwriters Sean Baker (virtually) and Chris Bergoch (in attendance) for their film, "Red Rocket." Bergoch and Baker continue to stay true to their storytelling interests of poverty, outcasts, and different American environments. Following the screening, audiences were able to participate in a conversation with Bergoch.

Bergoch has written four movies with Sean Baker: "Starlet," "Tangerine," "The Florida Project," and "Red Rocket." When asked about the genres of his films, Chris explained, "Sean and I have always gravitated toward a mix between drama and comedy, although it's sometimes hard to gauge how an audience will react." It should also be noted that "Red Rocket" has been nominated for five Gotham Independent Film Awards. Having viewed the film twice now, I can truly say that all of the accolades "Red Rocket" is receiving are on target.

The closing night movie, "Spencer," debuted on October 24. Directed by Pablo Larraín, the film stars Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, and the premiere was held at the Silverspot Cinema and the Drive-in at Carraway Village. "Spencer" star Stewart will receive an actor tribute award during the Gotham Awards ceremony.

“Spencer” is a biographical and psychological drama by writer Steven Knight. The film is a fictionalized account of Princess Diana's decision to end her marriage to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) and leave the British royal family. Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins, and Sean Harris also star. Stewart gives a performance of a lifetime as the film demonstrates the determination Diana had for her own mental health and happiness, despite the pressures of her royal life.

In covering the festival, a few connections to RogerEbert.com transpired, like when Chris Bergoch recalled his association with Roger Ebert as the recipient of a movie review. The film "Passing" finds Chaz Ebert wearing her producer's hat for the film as she's an executive producer, a fact that I discovered after screening the film.

Before screening "Red Rocket," I had a chance to speak with Bergoch; he told me that Roger Ebert had reviewed the first movie he co-wrote with Sean Baker, "Starlet" in 2012. "It was an honor, like a dream I had growing up," he said. The young Chris would think to himself, "Someday I want to make movies, and maybe Siskel and Ebert will review them! And so, when 'the' Roger Ebert reviewed 'Starlet,' and it was a positive review, I thought it was just amazing! I would've been thrilled even getting a horrible review from him," Bergoch recalled.

The movie "Passing" stars Ruth Negga, Tessa Thompson, and Alexander Skarsgård. Directed and written by debut filmmaker Rebecca Hall, it is closely based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen. "Passing" tells the story of an African-American woman who has lied to her husband about her heritage and is living her life passing as a white person. The black and white film captures the essence of the late twenties, during Prohibition. The movie centers on two high school friends in their thirties; their hopes and dreams are explored, along with their renewed friendship. "Passing" has been nominated for five Gotham Independent Film Awards.

I truly loved this film. Its texture is rich in tone and visually appealing, and the score is also outstanding. To date, Negga and Thompson's performances are some of my favorites of the year; the ladies stepped back in time while immersing themselves in their roles. Hall has created a beautiful movie that centers on friendship and love.

Emerman and Marshall were pleased with the quality of the films, the great turnout, and the generous sponsors who stepped up, saying, "We were thrilled to welcome new partnerships this year with such companies as Damn Good Food and Snark Media and increased participation from Coca-Cola Durham and more. These types of partnerships will be key as we move into our fifth year in creating new exciting programs and events."

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