Tuesday, December 16, 2014

...And That's a Wrap on VFF14

The Valley Film Festival (VFF) closes the curtain on another thought provoking, entertaining lineup of cinema so independent it could only be found in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley.

ODD BRODKSY and THE GREEN GIRL took home the top Narrative and Documentary Jury Awards, respectively, while WINDS AND STRINGS snagged both the Jury and Audience Awards for short film. Additional short film Audience Award winners included: ANY OTHER FRIDAY, SPIDORA, and TRACES OF MEMORY.

Feature – ODD BRODSKY (Cindy Baer) 
Documentary - THE GREEN GIRL (George Pappy) 
Short – WINDS AND STRINGS (Ricardo Ultreras)

ANY OTHER FRIDAY (Peter Paul Basler) 
SPIDORA (Fred Olen Ray) 
WINDS AND STRINGS (Ricardo Ultreras)

The 5-day festival, which ran December 10-14 at Laemmle NoHo7, screened 45 of today’s most provocative films from 17 countries, such as Australia’s FLYBOY, the newest short film produced by Academy Award Nominee Drew Bailey (MIRACLE FISH, 2009) and BAGHDAD MESSI, a UAE-Belgium co-production, currently shortlisted for an Oscar.

With a mission further the education, production, and distribution of filmmaking in The Valley, VFF continues to promote local independent production with over fifteen films made by Angelenos, Vals, and shot in or about the glamorous San Fernando Valley this year. Valley-based filmmakers with an LA premiere were ROUTE 30 THREE, directed by John Putch (Cougar Town, Scrubs), SING YOUR OWN SONG: AN OPERA DOCUMENTARY from Anne O’Neal, and YOU OR A LOVED ONE, directed by Matt Mercer.

Founded in 2000, The Valley Film Festival, a non-profit project of Community Partners ®, is the first and longest continually running film festival in the San Fernando Valley. VFF has screened over 500 shorts, features, documentaries, animated films, experimental works, and music videos from around the world. While emphasizing independent film, the festival also screens studio productions, including BOOGIE NIGHTS, CHINATOWN, ENCINO MAN, FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, MAGNOLIA, TERMINATOR 2, VALLEY GIRL, and WORLD TRADE CENTER. In addition to screenings, the Festival provides educational panels and networking opportunities throughout the year.

Looking ahead, The Valley Film Festival will begin accepting submissions for VFF15 in January. More information available at ValleyFilmFest.com 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The 14th Annual Valley Film Festival Closes Tomorrow

If you weren't in the crowd Friday or Saturday night, you have one more day to catch great indie cinema in the glamorous (818). Take a peak at what you're missing:



Friday, December 12, 2014

Win a DVD Courtesy of 1st Sight Films by Attending The Valley Film Festival

The team behind Love at First Sight is collecting pictures of people wearing Love at First Sight pin badges from around the world and would be over the moon to have VFF14 patrons participate...especially if you're in love! They will pick one photo per month...maybe the most romantic, maybe to the funniest, or just to someone they'd like to surprise. 

(1) Attend The Valley Film Festival, now through December 14, and pick up your pin at our will-call table. 
(2) Take a picture of you with your pin in front of the festival step and repeat
(3) Post the picture on the Love at First Sight Facebook page (don't forget to tagThe Valley Film Festival)

Love at First Sight will re-post the pictures and will send at least one FREE DVD per month.

The 14th Valley Film Festival Is Here!

The 14th Valley Film Festival kicked off Wednesday night with a packed house for Route 30 Three! we could not have asked for a better film, crowd, or cast & crew to share our special night with. 

The fun continued Thursday night with 8 films directed, produced, and/or written by the awesome women in our "Girls on Film" shorts program.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Dreams Deferred and Realized: An Interview with Venkat Krishnan about His Film “Butterfly Dreams”

Butterfly Dreams is one of the terrific films in our Dramatic Shorts program on Saturday, December 13.  This drama, made in India by Loyola Marymount University student Venkat Krishnan, shows problems with poverty and child labor practices, but is not preachy or didactic.  Instead, it brings honesty, subtlety, and humanity to its subject.  It does so via the story of Sumi, a nine-year-old orphan who lives by herself in a hut, works in a garment factory, and dreams of learning to read, write, and become a doctor.  The other main character, Ravi, is an educated man who comes to her village to sell his family’s property.  He befriends and tutors Sumi, and eventually offers to adopt her.  Ultimately, this does not happen, but Sumi continues to hope and work toward a better future. 

After seeing this film, I wanted to talk with Venkat, to go deeper into what it's about.

James Latham:  You have described the “butterfly” in the title as symbolizing Sumi’s dream of transformation.  Maybe it also suggests her desire for freedom and the fragility of that dream.  Anyway, to me, the title also evokes the documentary Hoop Dreams, which follows the lives of two African-American boys struggling to achieve success via basketball.  These are different films, but what do you make of their similarities? 

Venkat Krishnan:  Dreaming is one thing that is common for both rich and poor.  Whether they are attainable or not, every human being has dreams - some big, some small.  In Butterfly Dreams, Sumi, a nine-year-old girl, works in a factory.  She has no parents.  She lives alone and takes care of herself.  At her workplace, she is verbally and physically harassed by her employer. In this oppressive environment, she decides to shed her skin like a caterpillar and yearns to fly free as a butterfly and strive for a more meaningful existence to her life.

Butterfly Dreams is a 22-minute film and Hoop Dreams is almost 3 hours.  However, the underlying themes of both films are the same.  In these two films, the main characters’ real-life struggles unfold on the screen as they strive to find a way to achieve their dreams.  Both films capture the elements of oppression, disappointment, hope, and determination. These films also portray how important society is in shaping one’s life.  Though Butterfly Dreams is fiction, nothing rings false.  The story is based on the real life experiences of working children.  In that sense, both films are real, human dramas.

JL:  I understand you required all the shooting locations in Butterfly Dreams to be authentic, which made it hard to secure a local factory setting, as owners did not want to risk being criticized in the film.  You eventually found a place.  To me, the locations are just part of the broader and deeper authenticity of your film.  The content and style generally seem quite faithful to the characters, their surroundings, and their situations—without slick stylization or common melodramatic techniques for depicting poor people, such as exaggerating or exoticizing their victimization.  Yes, the factory owner is exploitive (though not purely evil) and Sumi has a hard life, but this comes across as sort of matter-of-fact, just the way things are in the everyday lives of a lot of people in the world.  What do you think?

VK: The reality is much more difficult than what was portrayed in the film.  In many cases, children work seven days a week, 18 hours a day in inhuman conditions.  Sometimes they are given no money at all and the only compensation they get is food and shelter.  Most inhuman of all is the bonded labor.  Children are often sold to a buyer as a commodity for a certain period of time by the parents to pay their debts.  Until the parents repay this borrowed money, the children are treated as collateral security and the owners exploit them.  In addition to all of this, statistics say that more than 50% of children report facing one or more forms of sexual abuse.  It is impossible to cover all of this in one short film.  I am now working on a feature film script, which explores all these issues.

JL:  A pivotal and emotionally tough scene is when Ravi leaves the village on a bus and we see Sumi behind him, through the rear window, running toward him and eventually giving up—all in one long take.  We see them both reacting at the same time, and wonder whether he will get off the bus.  Part of what I like about how the film portrays Ravi is that he is generous but ultimately not a heroic savior.  This seems much more authentic than if he just facilitated a happy ending, to make audiences feel good.

VK:   A happy ending is, most of the time, a pretentious ending because in real life, not everything ends happily.  For this story, I always wanted to have a real and plausible ending.  To me, an honest ending justifies the script and respects the characters in the film.

Many times we come across people we want to help, but the situations don’t permit it.  Ravi himself is struggling for money and has his own family to take care of.  As you mentioned, Ravi is not a heroic savior, just an ordinary person who has a good heart.  Sometimes that alone is not enough.

JL:  This scene comes after what, for me, may be the most striking moment in the film.  After Ravi plans to adopt Sumi, the other local families get word and bring their kids to ask for the same thing from him:  to take them away for a presumably better life.  Shocked and overwhelmed, Ravi changes his mind.  For me, there is a lot packed into that scene, including what it says about impoverished families and the complex dynamics and ethics of adoption.  With literally millions of children living in these conditions in India, what options do these families have?

VK:   Some families have been working as child laborers for more than two generations.  Poverty is the biggest reason for this.  Other reasons are the lack of implementation of child labor laws, the absence of compulsory education, and the non-accessibility of schools, to name a few.  It is estimated that it would take at least $500 billion over a 20-year period to end child labor, if it happens at all.  The Indian government has strict laws regarding child labor, but the factory owners know how to get around them.  For example, children under 14 years of age are considered as child laborers.  Many children don’t have birth certificates as they were not born in the hospital, and changing birth certificates for the purpose of working is not that difficult. Children are threatened by exploiters in many ways and are forced to lie about their ages to the officials to keep their jobs.  Only if factories decide not to hire children, can child labor be stopped completely.  But what is the probability they will do this when they are making a ton of money by exploiting children?  Another way to end child labor is through educational awareness of this issue.  Parents also have to understand that only a good education can lead to a better life for their children and to realize that the current income from their children is only a temporary solution to their problems.

JL:  I like that Sumi is portrayed as a strong, sensible, capable, optimistic, and resilient person.  What particular challenges are there for girls living in these conditions, versus boys?  What hopes can they realistically have?

VK:   Children who live in these conditions learn to take care of themselves sooner than most other children.  They face struggles everyday in their lives and that makes them stronger, more capable and more mature.

The most difficult problem girls face after a certain age is sexual abuse.  In some cases, unfortunately, girls are trafficked into the sex industry.

India is a huge country and child labor is practiced in many places from roadside stalls to big manufacturing industries.  The government has strict laws against child labor, but still has to go further to make sure the laws are applied and strictly monitored.  Even though it is impossible to stop this child labor immediately, frequent monitoring and severe punishment of those who employ these children would definitely bring the count down.  The government is also trying its best to help some of the children go to school, by providing free education and free food.  There are some non-governmental organizations that perform these services too.  They also provide some stipends to families, whose children go to school, to compensate for the missed income.  At the end of the day, it all comes down to money.  The more money spent, the more children can be saved.

Child labor in India is not just a national issue, it is a global issue.  Thefts or murders cannot be completely stopped by laws; they can be stopped only by the people who commit them.  Similarly, child labor can be stopped only by the people who hire children.

JL:  For an adoptive parent of a young girl from rural Ethiopia, this film resonated for me on many levels.  Though my daughter is being raised American, we are fortunate to live in a place where there are great ongoing opportunities for her to connect with other adoptees, immigrants, Ethiopians, and people of color generally.  As an adult immigrant to the U.S., how has that transition worked for you?

VK:  When I came to the US, I had to admit that I had cultural shock.  I was raised in a typical Indian family and was used to Indian customs only.  Indian culture is very different from Western culture.  But eventually I learned how people do things here.

America is very diverse, particularly Los Angeles.  Most of the time, I hang out with filmmakers, some of whom came from different countries.  Mostly we talk about films, but we also talk about each of our cultures, our food, and the languages we speak.  The more I interact with people of other cultures, the more I come to know that, deep inside, humans are the same.

JL:  I understand you came from rural India, where as a child you had no TV and could go to the movies only once a year, so instead read a lot.  There are obvious parallels between your youth and Sumi’s.  So how did you manage to come here and attend film school at LMU? 

VK:  In the town where I grew up, child labor is not that common.  My parents strongly believed that education is a must for a promising and secure future and a stable life.  In India, the more educated we are, the better career options we have.  With my parents’ support, I was able to complete my bachelor’s degree in India.

I never thought I would come to the US and study film.  Even though the film schools here are excellent and have cutting edge technologies, they are expensive.  When I was admitted into Loyola Marymount University for my MFA, I didn’t want to miss this great opportunity for financial reasons.  I worked and saved money for my education.  I am glad I went to LMU and trained to be a professional filmmaker.

JL:  I’m sure you know that filmmaking is a tough field to enter and stay, much less succeed.  Hard work, talent, a strong education, and an award-winning student film all provide a good start.  Looking ahead, if you were to fulfill your long-term dreams in filmmaking, what would that look like?

VK:  Even for accomplished filmmakers, making movies and marketing them has become more challenging these days.  So, obviously for beginning filmmakers like me, it is not going to be easy. Everyday I attempt to complete five pages of work on my new screenplay.  Every week I participate in a filmmakers group to discuss films and new opportunities in the business.  I also constantly read film-related articles and learn something new every day.  After all, success comes from a daily routine and only today’s efforts will pay off tomorrow.

JL:  Is there anything you’d like to mention that we haven’t already covered?

VK:  The main reason I made this short film is to show the world how children are exploited in poor working conditions in these places and to bring awareness to the public, global governments and other non-profit agencies throughout the world so that they may consider contributing to protect these children.  I sincerely thank The Valley Film Festival for screening this film and being a part of spreading the awareness.

JL:  OK, thanks for your time, and for sending us your film. 

VK:  Thank you.  For more information on the film, please visit: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2973224/


The 14th annual Valley Film Festival takes place December 10-14, 2014, at the all-digital Laemmle NoHo 7 in North Hollywood.  For more info, visit our website or Facebook page.  Butterfly Dreams screens with our Dramatic Shorts program at 12:00 noon, Saturday, December 13.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Volunteers - They're What's Behind The Valley Film Festival's Longevity

Everyone is familiar with the saying, "It Takes a Village...," well, at The Valley Film Festival, it's our volunteers. VFF is a 501(c)(3) non-profit volunteer run organization and everyone involved donates their time, talent, and passion to supporting our mission of furthering the education, production, and distribution of filmmaking in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. 

From film lovers to filmmakers, living in The Valley to the Westside, and in countries near and far, VFF volunteers power The Valley Film Festival year after year. We'd like to take a moment to say THANK YOU and recognize those involved:

Tracey Adlai, Founder
Benoit BĂ©ringer, Filmmaker Liaison
Community Partners, Administration
Hillary Hon, Volunteer Coordinator
Paul Hough, Editor
James Latham, Editorial Coordinator
Natalie Ann Lehigh, Editorial
Georgia Menides, Filmmaker Liaison
Marciana Saint-Jean, In-Kind Sponsorship
Ilja von Nagel, Developer

VFF14 CREATIVE (Print & Web)
Blake McWhirter: iblakestudio.com
Ivan Mungia: eyevin.com
Van Urfalian: urfalian.com

Elisabeth Fies (Festival Trailer)
Alexa Lesnewich (Festival PSA)

Ricardo Aldape
Robert Amico
Joan Blair
Afton Boggiano
Tim Bonner
Brad Bucklin
Aaron Caine
Daniel Chaves
A.J. Cosmo
Marie Cote
Maria Dziubla
Erik Engman
Noe Espinoza
Frank Giarmona
Melissa Greenberg
Sahag Gureghian
Gemma Jimenez
Tanya Katchouni
James Latham
Meredith Lee
Denny Logan
Francis Mascarenhas
Georgia Menides
Jeanine Natale
Jon Neus
Jennifer Price
Mark Prior
Dennis Przwara
Ron Rogge
Alina Vasilenko
Joan Walsh

Ronni Bloch (’02)
Tim Bonner (’11)
Brad Bucklin (’11, ’12)
Billy DaMota (’13)
Warren Davis (’11)
Elisabeth Fies (’10)
Blaine Gray (’06)
Saeed Khoze (’13)
Ross H. Martin (’01)
Roon Moon (’05)
Jeffrey Williams (’11, ’12, ’13)

Jelena Zlatkovic

Robert Amico
Ben Boodman
Brad Bucklin
Laura Chirnios
Elisabeth Fies
Toy Lei
Vickie Sampson

Jill Einhorn
Kim Estes
Leanna Gasparyan
Patrick Jackson
Gemma Jimenez
Katya Kan
Rudy Marin
Norma Phillips
Sonja Randall
Kimberly Saenz
Carolyn Sirof
Justine Visone
Yolanda Warren

Ben Boodman
Aaron Matthew Kaiser

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Sideshows, Sharks, and Working in the Valley: An Interview with Fred Olen Ray

This year we have the pleasure of showing Spidora, the first short film made by Fred Olen Ray, who has had an extensive career in film and TV production, with some 135 credits for directing feature-length projects as well as many credits for producing, writing, and acting.   

Fred has worked steadily and proudly in what might be called the trashier genres, including low-budget horror, science fiction, erotic comedy, and crime drama —though lately his credits actually include some mainstream Christmas films that have played on cable TV.  “Suddenly,” he says, “I’ve become Mr. Christmas.”  Consistent with his work in film, Fred also has been a professional wrestler, with the name Fabulous Freddie Valentine.  Maybe these lines of work are not so surprising for someone who grew up in the circus town of Sarasota, Florida; who almost joined the circus as a teenager; who later owned and operated his own carnival sideshow; and who eventually married the Electric Girl.

Some of Fred’s films have been released theatrically, but he is really an expert on independent distribution, from drive-ins to DVD and cable TV.  Fred has his own distribution company, Retromedia, and has written the book The New Poverty Row: Independent Filmmakers as Distributors.

Also, for much of his colorful career, Fred has worked here in the San Fernando Valley.  Yet another reason I wanted to talk with him.

James Latham:  Spidora is consistent in some ways with your previous work, even perhaps your own youth—as with the sideshow setting.  But the film also is a pretty youthfully earnest and innocent romance.  And it’s a short, following a long list of features.  So my first question is why Spidora, why now?

Fred Olen Ray: I had always wanted to make this film in one form or another, but I never felt that it would survive as a feature film where a profit must be generated or a significant cash loss would occur. I wanted to explore crowd-funding, but felt uncomfortable taking what are basically “donations” to make a feature film that hopes to make money without your funders being able to participate, so it seemed like a great opportunity to make a short film and lose money all at the same time! 

I loved the old Sideshow illusions like the Headless Woman and Spidora, but always felt uncomfortable looking at performers with real deformities because our parents teach us as children not to stare… but here we are, being encouraged to not only stare, but to pay for the privilege.  And he’s not just a guy with a terrible deformity… he’s a “Prince” or she’s a “Penguin Girl”… always something fanciful to help take the curse off it.  Like Tod Browning, I wanted to use real sideshow performers in any role I could and I think they all did very well.

JL:  Watching Spidora reminded me of emotionally powerful classic films like Freaks and The Elephant Man, or even Star Wars—where the freakish or non-human characters tend to be more human, likeable, and memorable than the “normal” ones.  Spidora puts us on the side of the freak, or outsider, rooting for her to find happiness.  With all of your work in exploitation films, as a professional wrestler, as an independent filmmaker and distributor—can you speak to the theme of being eccentric, or an outsider?  What’s scary about being an outsider, and what’s exciting or fun about it?

FOR:  Growing up, I never wanted to be “normal” or ordinary. I figured you only go around once, why not try things that you might otherwise regret having passed on later?  I grew up in Sarasota, Florida where your classmates were aerialists or their dads were clowns (literally). My math teacher was a retired member of the Flying Wallendas.  When the family drove to Tampa to see my grandparents we always passed right through Gibsonton where the carnival people wintered.  People called it Freaktown.  As a kid, I played on a cross-country traveling football team, the Ringling Redskins, sponsored by Ringling Bros.  It all seemed pretty normal at the time.  Everything was just the way it was. It only occurred to me later what “being different” was all about…when I got away from what my “normal” world was. 

JL:  Over the years, you’ve had some experience working with the Hollywood studios.  The upsides of that obviously can be great, but I suspect you see many more downsides.  What are some of the main reasons you haven’t gone that route?

FOR:  The further up you go the further down you go.  But the big money is in the Studios.  As I see more and more in TV, you have little or no say at all about who the cast will be.  Directors are, but not always, viewed as a necessary evil.  Once you’ve done your cut, your services are no longer required.  Obviously, most of us would like to be more involved in the final process, but in order to truly have control over your project you have to risk the money (or raise the money) yourself.  But, it can be worthwhile in keeping your sanity.  I’ve certainly risked a lot of my own money over the years.

JL:  When I look at your film career, the person who most comes to mind is Roger Corman, though he is primarily a producer.  I notice that both of you have worked in the recent monster shark genre, in your case with Super Shark.  How do you explain the popularity of those particular films?  

FOR:  A producer friend of mine once told me “Sharks always work”.  People just have a rooted fear of them.  We did SUPER SHARK because we wanted to produce our own Syfy Channel type film and this was the model we chose.  We raised the money ourselves so we could have creative control over the project.  Obviously, I had made this kind of film before with SEA SNAKES and JERSEY SHORE SHARK ATTACK.  The trick was how to do it on a budget.

JL:  The cartoonish violence in these films is similar to that of professional wrestling.  I bet you could tell a lot of stories about your experiences in that world.  What are some things you can tell about wrestling that we amateurs may not know?

FOR:  Wrestling reminds me a lot of theater in the round.  You wait in the wings and every night you have butterflies in your stomach.  It’s like performing in some kind of free flowing play.  No one hangs their head in depression backstage waiting for an envelope with fifty bucks in it like in the movie THE WRESTLER.  The workers are excited.  It’s their time to shine.  Everybody goes out of their way to try to not injure their opponent, but it’s understood that there are those moments where you simply HAVE to lay it in there…the audience is too close to you not to.  A steel chair to the head is exactly what it looks like.  In that, there’s no holding back.  You just have to hit the guy…the one thing you WILL see, though—every time—is that you’ll only get hit with the “seat” side of the chair…if a guy’s not holding it right you’ll see him flip the chair over before he hits his opponent.   

JL:  You’ve done a lot of your filmmaking work in the San Fernando Valley.  As you say, “I live in Studio City and hate traffic, so I generally try to force all locations to be filmed in the 818.”  Besides an easy commute, can you discuss what aspects of the Valley make it appealing to filmmakers?

FOR:  I love the Valley because you can get around in it from so many ways… if you don’t want to take the Freeway you don’t have to.  Its layout is pretty uncomplicated and there aren’t many areas that I would be nervous about filming in late at night.  It also features a wide variety of looks from city streets to the rocky expanse of the old Iverson Movie Ranch that plays for Africa or Mars, or beyond.

JL:  As I understand it, the recent condom law has caused much of the porn industry’s production to relocate from the Valley to Las Vegas or elsewhere.  Though this may be the underside of the entertainment industry, it also is a huge moneymaker, and I assume was generating a lot of money and jobs for people in the Valley.  Can you comment on that?

FOR:  I’m not involved in that arena, but I do know that it caused a drop off in Studio and site location rentals.  Kind of the same way the over abundance of Reality Shows vs. Scripted TV killed the big prop houses…and soon the costume houses too, I think.

JL:  A film we screened many years ago at VFF, Boogie Nights, is partly about how new technologies in the 1970s and 80s would change the business and culture of porn film, from tacky theaters to the home.  From what you’ve seen, how have more recent technological developments—Internet, social media, etc.—further changed this part of the entertainment industry, for better or worse?

FOR:  I think VHS killed the Drive-In theaters for sure.  As we’ve seen, the viewer suddenly became the programmer.  Able to select what films would play, at what time the films would start (or pause) and they could kill the movie completely and move on to the next one when it suited them.  I think the Internet has caused a huge up shift in film piracy.  As soon as a film becomes legally available, someone will start stealing it.  My movie, AFTER MIDNIGHT, premiered on PPV and VOD on October 28th. Within six hours there were illegal uploads all over the internet. It’s maddening.

JL:  Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

FOR:  Well, when people think of me they think of the horror films I’ve made.  People expect SPIDORA to be a horror film, and the poster, which I love, might foster that notion. They are equally surprised to discover that the movie is a love story with an uplifting message.  I needed to condense everything I wanted to do into a few short minutes. My goal, ultimately, was to try to move people.  I wanted the audience to feel the incredible sadness and then the incredible happiness of the characters.  That’s what it’s all about.  It’s about being different and finding love.

JL:  OK, thanks for your time, and for sending us your film.  


The 14th annual Valley Film Festival takes place December 10-14, 2014, at the all-digital Laemmle NoHo 7 in North Hollywood.  For more info, visit our website or Facebook page.  Spidora screens as part of our “Flights of Fantasy” short film program, at 10:00 pm on Saturday, December 13.