Credit: Film Fest Knox
by Alex Fields Feature Articles Featured Festival Coverage Film

Film Fest Knox 2023

November 16, 2023

When critic Darren Hughes and filmmaker Paul Harrill founded The Public Cinema in 2015, their goal was to bring important works of world cinema and experimental film to Knoxville, TN. Over the next seven years, they worked with the Big Ears Festival and local theaters to organize over 200 screenings and bring major artists to town, including Jodie Mack, Kevin Jerome Everson, and Albert Serra. Now, in 2023, they’ve partnered with Visit Knoxville and Regal Cinemas (who are headquartered in Knoxville) to organize the first edition of a new local film festival. Knoxville has had a local festival for years, but the previous iteration focused almost entirely on locally produced short and documentary works. When that festival announced last year that it would be ceasing operations, Hughes and Harrill saw an opportunity to build a new one on the more robust, classic model of a festival that promoted and gave opportunities to local artists while also highlighting major works from the international festival circuit.

Film Fest Knox ran from November 9-12 and featured three competition sections. The first, Elev8or Pitch, was a call for new, eight-minute proof of concept films from aspiring local filmmakers, the winners receiving funding and a workshop to help develop their pitch into a feature film project. These works show the immaturity you’d expect from such a category, but no more so than many of the shorts that play at larger festivals. Not surprisingly, many of the submissions worked within horror or other genres, and the winning film — a paranormal horror set in a prison called Catacombs — could easily slide into a Midnight shorts program at a major festival without missing a beat. This speaks to the need for local institutions across the country that encourage and assist would-be filmmakers to develop their visions independently of the commercial film industry.

The other competition category for local films, titled Made In Tennessee, contained three features and eight shorts. Though this writer wasn’t able to catch most of these works, Country Brawlers is undeniably notable, the first feature film directed by Knoxville local Curren Sheldon, who has previously worked as producer and cinematographer on several features, including most recently King Coal, which was directed by Sheldon’s wife Elaine McMillion Sheldon and premiered in 2023 at Sundance. Brawlers follows boxers and boxing coaches in northern Kentucky, a regional sport probably unfamiliar to most, but like Sheldon’s previous projects, the film focuses on the region’s culture and economy as much as the sport itself. Sheldon works through the details of the boxers’ earnings and family lives, and it becomes clear that boxers balance the violence and risks of the sport — which are serious; one of the film’s subjects has since died from related injuries — against the violence of poverty and drug addiction and lack of other opportunities. 

Less impressive is the category’s winning film, A Hard Problem, from L.A. directing duo hazart, a near-future science fiction film that uses a familiar premise about an android achieving self-recognition as a basis for quiet reflections on identity, AI, and loss. Think After Yang, but unlike Kogonada’s film, A Hard Problem never finds its own aesthetic voice or any insightful commentary on its themes. Instead, the film goes through the generic motions as though we’ve never seen them before, ending with a long climactic sequence about the fate of the android protagonist that lacks any emotional punch both because the film up to that point hasn’t done the legwork to earn it, and because the sequence itself is undermined by the embarrassingly cheesy soundtrack choice to use a strings arrangement of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android.” The tone of the entire sequence leaves one wondering if this is the directors’ attempt at being moving or just witty; it’s neither.

Film Fest Knox’s largest competition, American Regional Film, was designed to “showcase and advocate for personal and ambitious regional filmmaking.” It was open to any film made in the U.S. outside the metropolitan areas of New York City and Los Angeles, but the programming clearly reflects the idea of regional film. This writer didn’t manage to see Lousy Carter, but the other five entries are all rooted in a strong sense of place, beginning with Henry Loevner and Steven Kanter’s Peak Season, which won the top prize. It’s a romantic drama set in a wealthy Wyoming resort town where a woman, Amy (Claudia Restrepo), goes on vacation with her wealthy, hyper-organized and workaholic fiancee Max (Ben Coleman). She’s already questioning the engagement and various aspects of their relationship — most to do with class and professional vs. personal priorities — when Max has to fly back to New York for a work emergency. Amy is left to spend several days alone with hired fishing and hiking guide Loren (Derrick DeBlasis), a stereotypically free-spirited type who lives out of the back of his car and works several gigs to make ends meet, and they hit it off. The film’s core is built on the chemistry between these two, which works well. The dialogue is naturalistic and sharply written, sometimes genuinely funny, and the lead performance from Restrepo offers quite a solid center. The film also contains some clever insights into the obviously skewed class dynamics of this place, seen in sequences such as when a vacationing investor dressed in absurd cowboy attire claims you can’t tell the wealthy and the locals apart by their clothing, despite the fact that we’ve clearly seen that it’s only the pretentious visitors who dress this way while the actual locals look like normal people and are instead simply invisible to outsiders. The exposition at the film’s beginning and its conclusion are weaker, incorporating a number of clichéd scenes that feel like they could’ve been copied and pasted from countless similar films: a man is sleeping in his car and woken by a knock on the window; a woman sits in an airport wondering if she’s made the right decision. These devices are used economically to establish characters and themes, but they don’t rise above feeling like products of a screenwriting workshop, and the themes themselves are too obvious, approaching an essentializing and romanticized view of the divide between Loren’s natural and authentic life and Max’s overmanaged and capital-dominated one.

Credit: Tribeca Film Festival

Olivia West Lloyd’s Somewhere Quiet similarly fails to rise entirely above genre clichés. The film is a psychological thriller about a woman, Meg (Jennifer Kim), dealing with trauma from having been kidnapped and held hostage for several months. She now doubts her own sanity and is gaslit by her husband and his cousin, whom they meet up with after retreating to the family’s rural vacation home. Many films have explored this territory in the past few years, some of them straightforward but quite successfully (Watcher) and some that take a more memorably singular approach to genre (Resurrection). Somewhere Quiet, meanwhile, does deploy its thriller elements effectively and maintains tension throughout, but it sensationalizes trauma in the way the genre so often does, prioritizing the entertainment of an exaggerated conspiracy over a more careful exploration of theme and psychology.

Kick Me is far more excessive as a genre exercise, and also far less insightful about its characters or setting, which seem to be a means to an end for director Gary Huggins, whose intent is merely to take us on a wild ride. That he does, with the narrative following a guidance counselor’s nocturnal quest to get a parent’s signatures on a demerit form, which then escalates into a gangland tale of murder, theft, sex work, and rabid three-legged dogs. Some of this is fun as long as we stick to the surface, but in overall impression feels like listening to some cops tell exaggerated stories about the things they see on their beat in the poor part of town, an external point of view uncharitable to the actual residents of Kansas City and uncritical of structural forces at play. This is a perspective likely to cross the mind of many viewers, and one reinforced in the screening’s Q&A when it was disclosed that the lead actor was in fact an undercover cop and that some of the film’s material came from his experiences; it’s an interesting bit of context that drives home what it is about the film that doesn’t sit well.

On the opposite end of the spectrum of narrative modes and political care is Mountains, the first feature from Monica Sorelle. It follows a family in the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami as they deal with a cramped living space, a son who can’t afford to move out, and the demolition happening all around as gentrification sweeps the area. The film excels in its smallest moments, conversations between family and friends which treat the subtleties of class and generational divides with a light touch. The son is pursuing his stand-up comedy career while his father works overtime at construction; the mother’s brother owns a car dealership and earns considerably more than his sister’s family. Sorelle explores these conflicts sensitively and doesn’t try to bring them to any unnecessarily explosive climax, aided by a cast that carries these aims through with care (which earned the film a special jury prize). But Mountains falters when it reaches beyond these family dynamics, as is the case in several scenes that take place at the father’s construction site, all of them shaped around racial tensions between Haitian workers and the Cuban foreman, and which feel too forced and obvious in their construction.

The best and certainly most distinctive film in the main competition was An Evening Song (for three voices), which won the Best Director prize for filmmaker Graham Swon, who has produced a number of films by major emerging artists like Ricky d’Ambrose, Gina Telaroli, and Ted Fendt, and who directed one previous feature, The World Is Full of Secrets. Like that earlier film, An Evening Song is a fairly radical experiment in narrative storytelling which is more easily compared to early 20th-century modernist novels — especially Virginia Woolf’s experiments in multi-voice stream of consciousness. The three voices of the title are three characters, a married couple in rural Iowa and the housekeeper they hire, but in formal terms, it’s arguably six voices, as this trio’s on-screen presence and their three voiceover narratives are treated separately and in various contrapuntal arrangements. An Evening Song follows the evolving relationships between its characters, but the film is far more concerned with how its formal devices can illuminate those relationships than with plot, and the relationships are as much about how the characters’ internal monologues reflect and impact each other as with what happens on screen. It’s all shot with a textured filter and very soft lighting, which often acts to emphasize the presence of a particular character or voice by isolating them in a sort of spotlight surrounded by dramatic vignetting, and Swon further complicates his technique with long takes of circling camera movement and double-exposed images.

Credit: Erik De Cnodder

The festival’s other centerpiece, International Currents, contains six features and two shorts, which highlight some of the best, most ambitious work on the recent festival circuit. Intentionally or not, the programming in this section feels like a natural extension of the regional competition, and nearly all of these films possess a very clear sense of place. This is perhaps most obvious in Bas Devos’ Here, one of the year’s very best films. Like Mountains, it features an immigrant construction worker as one of its protagonists, and like several of the regional competition films, it boasts a compelling focus on the natural environment. In fact, Devos constructs an almost unbelievably well-judged web of thematic relations about “environment,” in the most expansive sense: natural, urban, cultural. Every choice of composition and sound design adds to the ambition of the film’s ideas, but what could easily feel precious or overstuffed instead feels miraculously understated and wise. Here is a marvelous work about how every aspect of our existence informs every other, and about how much there is to see around us if we learn how to look.

Angela Schanelec’s Music is even more ambitious, continuing her project of eliding every bit of excess narrative and distilling her images into their most concentrated form such that every frame and gesture takes on mythic proportions. Schanelec’s use of the Oedipus myth therefore feels very appropriate, as does her emphasis on features of the Greek landscape, both of which help to couch her austere images in associative meaning even where details of literal narrative may defy understanding. Unfortunately, the bizarre musical choices in the film’s final third undermine Music’s conclusion and prevent it from rising to the level masterpiece it otherwise could have achieved; it’s not that what’s presented is bad, but rather that the whole section relies on the musical numbers to deliver its climactic ideas and emphasize its departure from mythological foundations, and they simply don’t work to these ends. Still, Music is a considerably impressive film from one of the greatest contemporary European artists, and well worth seeking out.

Schanelec wasn’t the only established auteur in the program. The latest film by Wim Wenders, Anselm, is a study of German artist Anselm Kiefer shot in native 3D. It’s a loose-form documentary which combines some relatively traditional biographical commentary with more abstract spatial explorations and fantasy sequences, and the result is accordingly uneven. Anselm is at its best when leaning on the strengths of the 3D format to explore Kiefer’s sculpture and installation works in massive factory spaces. The camera wanders freely through these environments and generates a sort of adventure that feels much closer to a physical visit than a 2D film could achieve. The fantasy sequences, where actors play younger versions of Kiefer and where Kiefer himself walks on a tightrope, for instance, are less productive, and the bits of commentary in more conventional documentary form feel out of place. There’s too little of the text to analyze Kiefer’s work in any detail, and this thread ends up feeling shallow and throwaway, at times even trite. Formally, some of these sequences are more interesting than the text itself, as Wenders finds a variety of ways to incorporate two-dimensional archival material into his 3D landscape, for example by setting up a vintage TV set inside one of Kiefer’s workspaces and playing the material on the set. This device hints at Brechtian formal play that recalls the early days of the New German Cinema, but it’s underdeveloped in Anselm. A richer version of the film could have expanded on these ideas, and also developed some of the obvious but unspoken similarities between Kiefer’s prodding at the “open wounds of German history” and the New German Cinema’s project of doing the same and critiquing the ongoing Nazi influence in postwar German society, but sadly no such connections are made with any substance.

The festival’s other 3D film is a much shorter but much more significant work. Laberint Sequences is the latest from Blake Williams, who is arguably the most important exponent of the 3D format in experimental film. Williams said in his post-screening commentary that he liked the labyrinth as a model of his filmmaking because it’s a space where familiar signifiers lose their grounding through repetition and similarity, and that also describes this film, which begins with a sequence of images and pans shot in a maze in Barcelona. At first, it recalls the structural films of Michael Snow or Hollis Frampton, but Williams is not tied to that sort of exacting formalism, and his film finds its structure by gradually introducing variations or “errors” into the sequence which expand its scope. It moves outside of and over the maze into lift cars, then into a parallel maze of found footage borrowed from a ‘50s 3D film called The Maze. It steps further beyond that footage to reveal actress Deragh Campbell (also the star of An Evening Song) recording voicework over the footage we had just been watching. By the end, Williams is in territory closer to Peter Tscherkassky or Martin Arnold than Snow and Frampton, but all of these comparisons are inadequate to describe a work as original as Laberint Sequences, which contains a couple of breathtaking passages that feel like genuinely new visual territory. It’s a major work that expands our notions of how film can study place and construct spatial patterns.

The other short film in the International program is Pedro Costa’s The Daughters of Fire. Visually ravishing, the film is a three-panel work that treats each singer as a separate element. It bears the clear influence of the musical works of Straub-Huillet, even directly quoting their Black Sin in the composition of the center panel. It’s further proof (as if any is needed) that Costa is one of the world’s most singular visual artists, but its actual content is mostly empty signification of the misery of poverty. The short is reportedly a proof of concept work for a feature-length musical that Costa is planning, so it makes sense that it would feel incomplete, and the nine minutes here offer plenty of hope for the feature even if this doesn’t quite register as a complete work in its own right.

Credit: MUBI

The concluding film of the festival on Sunday night was Aki Kaurismäki’s latest feature, Fallen Leaves. It’s everything we’ve come to expect from Kaurismaki: there’s a dreary proletarian setting, wry deadpan humor, sharp class commentary. As familiar as the mold may be, his work somehow always feels fresh, and this may be Kaurismäki’s best film to date. It’s certainly one of his funniest, and the magic of his style is that the politics are as loud and clear as they’ve ever been — including repeated, all-too-relevant references to bombings of hospitals and other war crimes on the radio — and yet the film still feels light and charming. Kaurismaki achieves this in part by playing on the tropes of classic technicolor romances, tweaking them perfectly to his own tonal universe. When a filmmaker is so consistent in style and output, it can be easy to take their work for granted, but anyone who likes Kaurismäki’s work — or has yet to discover it — should prioritize this one.

In addition to these new works by established artists, the International Currents program highlighted a couple of newer and lesser-known artists as well. One of these, Martin Shanly, directs and stars in About Thirty, a comedy about a 30-year-old’s delayed coming of age. It’s a smart film that lands some of the very few effective Covid jokes that have graced a screen. Elsewhere, Rosine Mbakam had two films programmed at the festival. This writer wasn’t able to see her first feature, a 2018 documentary titled The Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman that played in the Revival section, but her latest is a narrative feature titled Mambar Pierrette, after its protagonist. It’s a small-scale neorealist drama in the tradition of Sembene’s Mandabi, which paints life in Cameroon as ceaseless management of small crises, but avoids the trap of misery tourism by focusing heavily on the solidarity among women in the community and how they support each other. It’s a lovely film with a strong sense of humor.

The last and smallest section of the program, Revival, contained four screenings intended to promote restored works and underseen filmmakers. One was a program of new digital scans of films by experimental NYC artist Jim Jennings, who died last year. An artist who deserves to be known as a major figure in the avant-garde, Jennings combines the playfully austere formalist sensibilities of structural film — Ken Jacobs and Ernie Gehr were among his teachers, and the influence of Gehr in particular is clear on his works — with the more embodied human perspective of the tradition running from Brakahge to Dorsky. The films work within familiar settings — an apartment with a cat, the NYC streetscape, railcars — and defamiliarize them into formal patterns of lines and light, at their best rewiring our vision of the patterns around us. The program was uniformly strong, but the best were Close Quarters, Painting the Town, and Wall Street. The other Revival film this writer took in was the restoration of Peter Kaas’s 1961 film Time of the Heathen. For most of its length, the film is an expressionist-leaning drama about racial violence, with echoes of Night of the Hunter. Closer to the end, it becomes something else entirely, with an extended hallucination sequence fully situated in the territory of ’50s avant-garde film. Kaas collaborated here with experimental filmmaker Ed Emshwiller, who served as cinematographer and art director for the film, his first film credit beyond his own solo work; it also boasts the only film score from serialist composer Lejaren Hiller, who was one of the earliest pioneers of computer-based composition. But Time of the Heathen is truly a unique film beyond even these historical details, one that deserves considerably wider exposure.

If it isn’t already clear from this writer’s survey of Film Fest Knox, the loaded program on offer feels far closer to what one might expect to find from a prestigious screening series, not the first iteration of a small Appalachian city’s local festival. If future years maintain this pace and quality, Film Fest Knox stands to become one of the Southeast’s premiere cinephile destinations and celebrations.