| Wilmington StarNews
In a normal year, Wilmington’s Cucalorus Festival would be gearing up for five days worth of film screenings, performances, parties and panel discussions.
For this year’s festival, most in-person activities have been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic — with the notable exception of six drive-in movie screenings. But Cucalorus 2020, which starts Wednesday, Nov. 11, and runs through Nov. 25, will soldier on for what will be its 26th annual event.
These days, Cucalorus is a year-round endeavor, with not only the annual festival in Wilmington but multiple other screenings elsewhere around North Carolina. When the pandemic hit in March, “We kind of hit pause and decided to do some experiments,” said longtime Cucalorus director Dan Brawley. “We decided the healthiest thing would be to plan things that we were 100 percent sure we could pull off.”
In the face of the pandemic, other film festivals have turned to online screenings, or drive-ins, or both, which is exactly what Cucalorus has done with this year’s festival. Six drive-in screenings will be held Nov. 12-14 and 19-21 at UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium as part of the Curbside Cinema series that launched in July.
“We want to capture the energy and excitement from the early days of Cucalorus. Now, you have to bring that to a parking lot,” Brawley said. “There’s a new metric for success, and it’s not encouraging 700 people to show up for a blow-out screening.”
Many of the drive-in films will be preceded by socially distanced dance performances, stand-up comedians or other forms of performance art. The theme of many of this year’s feature films center on coming-of-age stories, including producer Ben Weisner’s teen drama “Beast Beast,” which screens Friday, Nov. 13, and which Brawley calls “probably the most important film we’re showing this year.”
Most of the 100 or so films in this year’s festival will be screened online only, and while the features and blocks of short films will debut on certain days, most can be viewed on demand for four days after they first appear. A number of live, online performances will happen as well, and tickets to some online events will be limited.
“The way people are living right now, it’s not possible to step away from your everyday life and just spend three or four days at a film festival,” Brawley said. “The new way to do Cucalorus this year is to do maybe three or four hours a day, a little more spread out.”
The drive-in screenings are generally directed at a more general audience, while the online-only films are meant for “getting the right people together to watch something together online that’s a little bit weirder than normal.”
Cucalorus is also known for making connections between filmmakers and other artists, and the festival isn’t giving up its social gatherings just because it’s 2020, even if all of the official Cucalorus meet-ups will be online.
“It’s the place where I’m most excited to see what happens,” Brawley said, and the offerings include free “filmmakers’ lounges” via Zoom hosted by different performers, as well as a number of panel discussions that will make up this year’s Cucalorus Connect offerings. For the past few years Connect has focused on business, innovation and entrepreneurship, but this year the focus has shifted to racial justice, with a variety of short film and documentaries used to drive the discussion.
“Connect is the thing that’s transformed the most,” Brawley said. .”We’ve re-imagined what it is. Feels much more authentic to Cucalorus. Almost a continuation of the the community conversations” the festival has had via Zoom in recent months. It’ll be a chance for folks to talk and share stories, or even to have challenging discussions.
“If we don’t get uncomfortable talking about these things, we’re not doing it correctly,” Brawley said.
Delivering just the right mix of comfortable and challenging entertainment is what Cucalorus is all about. Here, in no particular order, are seven surefire suggestions for things to see and do at the 26th annual Cucalorus Festival.
This one’s bound to be one of the hottest tickets of Cucalorus. A hit on the COVID-altered 2020 festival circuit, “Drought” was made by Wilmington filmmakers Hannah Black and Megan Petersen — Black wrote the script, and they co-directed and play sisters in the film. In 2017, the project got a huge boost when it won the Hometown Heroes Rally, a contest put on by the crowdfunding site Seed&Spark. The package came with assistance from indie filmmaking heroes Jay and Mark Duplass (“Baghead”), who served as executive producers.
Filled with Wilmington actors, “Drought” is about three siblings and their friend who take a cross-country road trip in an ice cream truck in hopes of witnessing an epic storm. One of the siblings is on the autism spectrum, and he’s played by an actor, Owen Scheid, who is on the spectrum as well. 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14, at the Curbside Cinema drive-in
If you only pay for one online Cucalorus event this year, I can promise you that the performance artist/comic Kristina Wong will not leave you feeling shortchanged. Wong has a way with bringing comedy to even the darkest topics, like suicide, which was the subject of her gripping one-woman show “Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which addressed the high rates of depression among Asian-American women. Wong’s online performance for Cucalorus will be a collection of new material she’s calling “Reality Television, Political Theater, and Social Change,” in which she uses reality TV to help figure out whatever the heck it is that’s happened to our society. 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12, online only
Cucalorus director Brawley says that “if you want to leave a movie (at the festival) feeling good,” see this one. A take on the high school musical genre, the film from Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelliis notable for its inclusivity: The cast is made up of actors with and without disabilities, and includes Wilmington’s own Jeremy Vest, who plays the school mascot. 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12, at the Curbside Cinema drive-in.
Daddy issues can be tough to deal with but they can also make for some compelling viewing. At least it would seem that way in “El Father Plays Himself,” the Cucalorus-opening documentary from Mo Scarpelli, who follows a young filmmaker into the Venezuelan Amazon as the filmmaker attempts to make a movie starring his own actively alcoholic father. A virtual Q&A with Scarpelli will follow the screening. 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 11, online only.
There are no in-person events at Cucalorus this year, so the normally jumpin’ filmmakers lounge is moving online for three separate sessions. (Free, registration required.) What that means, exactly, no one’s really 100 percent sure, which means it will likely be the most experimental part of Cucalorus this year. A filmmakers’ lounge hosted by the artist Sophie Traub will include breakout rooms, as well as journaling and “dance party” breaks, while one hosted by Byron Hurt and Anna Ray-Smith “is geared towards Black filmmakers interested in activism through the medium of narrative and documentary filmmaking.” No festival pass needed, just bring yourself and an open mind.
When Cucalorus started back in 1994 it was all short films, and it remained that way for the first two or three years. Shorts are still the life blood of the festival, and the highest-profile shorts this year are the comic Hairy Parachute shorts (all shorts blocks this year are named after types of exotic mushrooms). In “The Price of Cheap Rent,” a young artist has to settle for living with some creepy new roommates, while “Tampoo” centers on “a young woman on a hot date (despite) having the worst period of her life.” 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 20, at the Curbside Cinema drive-in.
The Cucalorus Connect conference usually focuses on business and entrepreneurship, but this year’s focus is shifting to six separate conversations around racial justice. In “What Doesn’t Kill You, Makes You Blacker,” for example, host Michelle Materre and special guest Damon Young explore themes from Young’s memoir as illustrated by four short films. The 90-minute program will include the films, readings by Young, a discussion of the films and a Q&A with the filmmakers. All of the Connect events are free, but registration is required.
Contact John Staton at 910-343-2343 or John.Staton@StarNewsOnline.com.
Want to go?
What: The 26th annual Cucalorus Festival
When: Nov. 11-25
Where: UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium parking lot (for drive-in screenings) and online
Info: Individual screenings range from $10 to $25. Festival passes range from $50 to $125;
Details: 910-343-5995 or Cucalorus.org
Drive-ins (full schedule)
All drive-ins start at 8 p.m., parking lot opens at 7 p.m. Drive-in are $25 plus taxes and fees, or with festival pass.
Nov. 12: “Best Summer Ever,” a heartwarming take on the teen musical with a cast of differently abled actors.
Nov. 13: “Beast Beast,” director Danny Madden’s coming-of-age drama about young love, gun violence and the troubling impact of social media on teens. Preceded by an opening dance performance by Kate Mulstein and Rachael Goolsby.
Nov. 14: “Drought,” homecoming screening for this festival hit by Wilmington filmmakers Megan Petersen and Hannah Black about an epic road trip taken by an autistic teen, his sisters and their friend.
Nov. 19: “Freeland,” an aging pot farmer (Krisha Fairchild) finds her livelihood threatened by the growing legalization of marijuana. Preceded by an opening dance performance by Tracey Varga.
Nov. 20: Hairy Parachute Shorts Block, nine comedic short films, includes opening stand-up performance by Allon Nir and a dance performance by Sue Meier.
Nov. 21: “Dramarama,” set in 1994 about, a group of conservative teens throws a murder mystery comedy before heading off to college. One teen wants to come out as gay but is afraid of his friends’ reaction. Preceded by an opening performance by longtime Cucalorus emcee Matt Malloy.
Online film highlights
For full schedule of online screenings, go to Cucalorus.org
8 p.m. Nov. 11: Opening night feature “El Father Plays Himself,” a documentary from Mo Scarpelli about a filmmaker who uses his own father as the lead actor in a film about his troubled relationship with … his own father.
Shorts blocks: With fungal-inspired names like Weeping Toothcrust, Witches Butter, Gassy Webcap and Powdery Piggyback, multiple blocks of short films run the gamut from comedy and drama to documentary and animation.
10:30 p.m. Nov. 15, 18 and 22: Secret Convulsions screenings, a sure-to-be-shocking film from longtime Cucalorus programmer Aaron Hillis, the online equivalent of walking into a movie theater with no idea what you’ll see. Free, registration required.
8 p.m. Nov. 22: In closing night feature “Unapologetic,” Ashley O’Shay’s documentary looks at two young activists fighting police violence against Black people in Chicago. A product of the 2017 Cucalorus Works-in-Progress Lab.
Online performance highlights
8 p.m. Nov. 12: Kristina Wong’s “Reality Television, Political Theater, and Social Change,” a program of new material from the California performance artist, comic and activist. $10-$15, or with festival pass.
10:30 p.m. Nov. 13: Visual/Sound/Walls with SPARKS, an evening of videos, performance and conversation with the influential 50-year art-pop band. Free, registration required.
Virtual filmmakers’ lounge: Get your Cucalorus social fix with this free, online mix of performance and conversation, 10:30 p.m. Nov. 14 and 21, 4 p.m. Nov. 16. Free, registration required.
Cucalorus Connect highlights
2 p.m. Nov. 16: “StoryShift: Accountability in Documentary,” workshop with documentary filmmakers about how they shape their narratives in a way that respects the lives of the people and communities they depict. Free, registration required.
2 p.m. Nov. 20: “Impolite Conversations” about race, education, justice and health with leaders from around the Cape Fear region. Free, registration required.