Punk, Funk and Subversive Diversity: Cinedelphia Film Festival casts a wide net for its fifth year
It’s beautiful what Eric Bresler and his team of film aficionados have created with Cinedelphia’s online space, writing features and movie reviews that could hold their own next to The New York Times’ critics. But the organization’s cinematic expertise is best portrayed once a year through the organization’s annual Cinedelphia Film Festival, held April 13-29th at PhilaMOCA.
“Having been in Philly since 1997, I’ve seen so many film screening groups and individuals come and go, so many,” Bresler says, citing long withstanding programs like Exhumed Films, Secret Cinema, and the programs at International House as invaluable exceptions to the local sphere.
“I’ve picked up the slack for the oddball stuff, indie films that would likely be ignored otherwise, music-related films that appeal to a very limited audience, found footage and VHS nostalgia-type stuff,” Bresler explains.
This is how Cinedelphia is different; how PhilaMOCA is different, and it’s the exact mark that Bresler hopes to leave on Philly through forming both. “I’d like to think that I’ve made a difference in the filmgoing habits of locals,” he tells us. “I hope I have, I’d be lying if I said that I do all of this just to entertain myself.”
The mission of the Cinedelphia Film Festival is to showcase lesser known experimental independent films that don’t currently have a place in any other movie spaces in Philly. “It’s what we do year-round,” Bresler says, through screenings and film events at the PhilaMOCA space and through coverage on his blog, “but concentrated in a single month with higher-budgeted events that we usually host.” Research and conversations with guests around the annual spring festival usually start six months prior to kickoff. In previous years, Cinedelphia has hosted everything from a “Best Worst Movie” marathon of questionably ok films, a Double Dare retrospective, and a Point Break screening with a live score.
“It’s a celebration of diversity, just like PhilaMOCA… and despite [that] diversity, there’s a commonality amongst everything we host,” Bresler says. “There’s a DIY or subversive aesthetic to it all.”
Looking through this year’s lineup, which includes everything from a mermaid horror musical (The Lure) to a film about Norwegian Black Metal (BLEKKMETAL), it’s clear that the festival is rich in an assortment. “There are programs that will sell out, like the Sly Stone documentary, and there are programs that are tough sells that will have slimmer crowds due to niche content or content that may not sound appealing at first glance,” Bresler admits. “And while big audiences are always nice, it’s more important that Philadelphians have the opportunity to see these films at all.”
Below, we interviewed two of this year’s guests: Alex Cox, the English director of Sid & Nancy, Repo Man and his newest, a crowdfunded film called Tombstone Rashomon, and Michael Rubenstone, the Philly-bred filmmaker behind the Sly: In Search of the Family Stone, a documentary that took 10 years and 400 hours of footage to make.
Read our interviews to learn about both directors’ personal relationship with music—punk for Alex, funk for Michael—and how that’s influenced, even guided, their own work in film.
Saturday, April 15, 2017, 7:00 PM
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Saturday, April 15, 10:00 PM
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The Key: Alex, how did you come to be a part of The Cinedelphia Film Festival, and what are you most looking forward to?
Alex Cox: I was invited! And since two of the principal actors in Tombstone Rashomon are resident in the City of Brotherly Love, it seemed like a great opportunity to reconnect with them and share our new film with an audience of intelligent cinephiles.
TK: Growing up, did you belong to a strong local film community?
AC: In Liverpool in the 1970s? No way. There was no film community at all back then. It’s grown in the intervening years, thanks to really talented and dedicated local filmmakers like Chris Bernard, Sol Papadopoulos, Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Colin McKeown, but the English film biz is still all about London—a city not everybody in Britain likes.
TK: What originally drew you to punk music?
AC: In 1976 in Bristol I saw a kid with a leather jacket with 1976 written on it. That was it for me!
TK: Many of your characters are punks, outlaws or outcasts. What draws you to creating a narrative around this kind of person?
AC: You might also observe that most of the characters in my films (with the exception of Repo Chick) are proletarians. And proletarians and their rural and provincial equivalents are the despised class of modern society. I identify with them because that’s where I’m from. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
TK: How is Tombstone Rashomon different from your previous films?
AC: It’s the result of a collaboration with a cast and crew of young actors I met at University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Arizona in Tucson. This has been just wonderful. We struggled a bit on Bill The Galactic Hero—filmed and acted entirely by students from CU Boulder—but I think we really found our way on Tombstone.
TK: How does the Western American outlaw compare to the British punk?
AC: I guess that many (though not all) of them come from the non-moneyed class and have to make their own way in the world, whether through crime or Rock and Roll. But Tombstone Rashomon is less about outlaws than about policing strategies, in which one group of the working class dominates another for the benefit of people with money. At the Loft Festival in Tucson, [the film] played on a double bill with a documentary about militarized policing, Do Not Resist. An excellent pairing!
Saturday, April 29, 2017, 6:00 PM + 9:00 PM
CLOSING NIGHT FILM
ON THE SLY: IN SEARCH OF THE FAMILY STONE
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The Key: Michael, did growing up in Philly affect the stories you wanted to tell?
Michael Rubenstone: I went to school at Germantown Friends School, which is a Quaker school, and there was definitely an emphasis on free thinking and the arts. It opened me up to all different kinds of cultures—and music. I was listening to a lot of hip-hop. Right around the time that I was in school, G-Love and the Special Sauce was starting to break out into the scene. I actually remember him performing in school talent shows. He’s your real representation of your classic GFS alumni, with that Germantown influence of being around hip-hop all the time as well as blues music, with its deep, long history. Not to lump me in there, but I was surrounding by those influences—whether it be hip-hop, R&B, [singing in] acapella group and choir. Growing up [in Philly], I felt that street energy and also being at GFS, which was a very progressive school, I was sort of obsessed with ‘60s culture and that period, and it was around that time that I saw the Woodstock documentary for the first time.
For me, that was a revelation in that being so obsessed with this period of history, you really felt what it was like to be there. I was watching that and I was like, “Wow, I feel like I’m here, this is incredible,” and right in the middle of the doc there was Sly and the Family Stone performing “I Wanna Take You Higher.” I had never seen a performance like that in my life. I felt like I was right there in the audience and he was elevating me to a higher ground. He really does steal the show, and we’re talking about a show that was comprised of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Grateful Dead, Santana, but really it was Sly that brought the house down. I mean, the band went on at three or four o’clock in the morning and everyone was asleep and by the end of the second or third song, half a million people were up there screaming “Higher!”
TK: You have years of experience as a professional actor, but this is the first film you’ve directed. How did you know that Sly Stone’s story was the right subject matter?
MS: In sort of my early research, which wasn’t even research, I was just a fan in college, I couldn’t find much about this guy. There really wasn’t much about this band and it boggled my mind. If you’re a music lover, you start digging into rock books and Rolling Stone [magazines] and you can find so much, and I just could not believe there wasn’t anything about Sly.
Anyway, I sort of dropped it and moved to New York to pursue my career as an actor and wasn’t really getting anywhere. So I decided to move out to LA to give it a shot. I remember leaving New York really depressed, jaded and discouraged—I had just broken up with my girlfriend and it was just after 9/11—and I remember I had some Sly tapes in my car that I was listening to on my drive out to the West Coast.
You know there’s sometimes when you hear an artist at a certain time in your life and it just hits you in a certain way? At that moment, at that time, it just gave me hope and relief. And that’s really what Sly and the Family Stone is about to me—this holistic view of America, we are all “Everyday People.” The group was comprised of men and women, black and white, singing songs like “You Can Make it if You Try” and “Thank You (for Being Yourself).” These songs hit me when I really needed some help.
But when I arrived [in LA], I found myself not really doing too much and the roles that I got were not particularly rewarding, and I got it in my head: what happened with Sly Stone? And knowing he was somewhere in LA, wouldn’t it be interesting if I just picked up a camera and started asking people around town if they knew where Sly Stone is? And that’s really how it started.
TK: You spent 10 years on this project. Was it at all a frustrating process? How did you maintain momentum?
MS: Were there times I wanted to quit? Absolutely. Were there times that I was so frustrated that no one seemed to want to get me in touch with this guy, or that there was no way to get to him? Yeah. There were extremely frustrating times in making this. My parents were just like, “What are you doing with your life, son? I thought you moved out there to be an actor?” [laughs]. So, I was feeling that pressure, as well. It was very confusing. But the good thing was I had been an actor, so I knew what rejection was like and I developed very thick skin for going after something and not getting it. So oddly enough, I was built for something as challenging as trying to find Sly Stone. I was the man for the job.
Not only that, but I always believed in the music and I always thought there was something in my story that would resonate with viewers. When in doubt, I’d throw on a track or look at some incredible interview I got, and I’d be like I can’t abandon this thing. It’s too important.
TK: Do you remember capturing the moment you knew would complete the film?
MS: The kicker you’ll see it in the film is that I eventually got to some of Sly’s family members. His brother, Freddie, returned to the church. He’s a pastor in Northern California. That was the first moment: when I stepped into the church and heard his brother and lead guitar player still singing, and playing guitar like a banshee I was like, “Oh my lord. This is some rich stuff.” I became close to Sly’s youngest sister, Vet Stone, who had a tribute band [called Phunk Phamily Affair]. One day she called me and she said, “Book us a gig in Los Angeles, we need to play LA.” I was like, “Look, I’m not a promoter, this is not my bag, I’ve never booked a show before. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.” And she was just like, “Just see if you can do it, trust me, it will be worth it.”
The show was on a Monday, I didn’t even think, like, how am I going to get people to come out on a Monday in the middle of the hot summer in LA to see a cover band? My producer told me I was out of my mind, but I just went for it. I made up flyers, hit the streets, and sure enough, the night of the show on August 15th, 2005, after over a decade in hiding Sly Stone pulls up on a three-wheeler Harley with his sister on the back to bring her to the show. And we got it on camera. And I was like, I have a movie.
TK: What was your biggest takeaway from making this movie?
MS: That this is just a person who has the same struggles with drugs or love or paying their bills or traveling the road. In the end, these are just sensitive—highly, highly sensitive human beings—that are very, very fragile. And I think that’s what I realized in making the film about Sly. You view some of these [public] people, especially after watching “I Wanna Take You Higher” at Woodstock, as these characters that you think are unstoppable, as powerful as any human being in the world, but they’re not. They’re not. And I think that was the huge realization that I made in making this film and realizing what Sly Stone is all about. In the end, he’s just Sylvester Stewart, this little church boy from Vallejo, California.
CINEDELPHIA PICKS: Five More Ways To Mix Music and Film at This Year’s Festival
Mausoleum Dance Party featuring Laurice
Gay garage/punk/disco icon Laurice is performing his first ever show in Philly—a “best of” set of his ‘70s singles—which will also be filmed for PhilaMOCA’s public access show, Mausoleum Party. If you’re not familiar with Laurice’s work, think if Gary Busey was a talented songwriter and he commissioned low-budget music videos from the creative oddball masterminds behind Super Deluxe. Needless to say, it will be a show, it will be entertaining, and I don’t think you will be able to walk away not loving Laurice. He’ll be backed by Philly’s The Pink Angels with their more straight-forward punk rock instrumentals; a perfectly weird pairing that makes perfect sense.
Never Turn Your Back On Sparks
Thursday, April 27, 7:00 PM
The band, formed in the early ‘70s by brothers Russell and Ron Mael, was on to art-pop showmanship well before most of the country, still reeling from Beatlemania and sweet guitar harmonies, caught on. Kids of today: think of Sparks as as a duo as theatrical and complex as PWR BTTM, bursting onto a scene that didn’t recognize that, and therefore didn’t fully appreciate it at the time. Never Turn Your Back on Sparks is a series of interviews with some of the band’s biggest admirers. These fans give us a glimpse into what it was like to be a part of that avant-garde pop scene of the ‘70s and ‘80s and how a band like Sparks influenced it, inspired it, and surpassed it with their 50+ year career. Bresler, also a big fan, will air his own collection of rare band footage after the documentary, which he compiled for the occasion.
Beyond Vaudeville/Oddville, MTV Retrospective + Reunion
Saturday, April 22, 7:30 PM
Bresler says Beyond Vaudeville was the most ambitious program of the year due to the fact that he had to track down everyone involved in the public access TV show, which ran for a decade before it was picked up and rebranded by MTV. He watched hundreds of hours of episodes, and organized and edited them into short montages for the CFF event. The show’s original hosts, Frank Hope and David Greene, will be in attendance, as well as two of the the show’s very first guests, its original director, and a handful of regular visitors. To top it off, Bresler and his team will recreate the set on stage so that viewers can see what Vaudeville was really like in its purest form. “It’s a big undertaking,” he says, “but these are always my favorite types of events.”