Shaking up the foundation: On Wednesday Cucalorus 26 launches hybrid festival, virtually and at the drive-in

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Cucalorus 26 will feature six films as part of the Curbside Cinema series in UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium parking lot. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Cucalorus)

WILMINGTON—For 26 years Cucalorus has evolved into more than Wilmington’s darling independent film festival. It’s grown into highlighting live theatre, comedy and music in its “Stage” portion, and five years ago launched an entrepreneurship, tech and innovation conference in its “Connect” portion. It even dropped “film” from its official name a few years ago, becoming Cucalorus Festival, as to embrace all of its facets: Film, Stage, Connect.

But 2020 is bringing it back to its roots: Cucalorus Film Festival is honing in on the filmmaker and audience experience more intimately than ever, according to its chief instigating officer, Dan Brawley.

Cucalorus 26 kicks off Wednesday, Nov. 11. 

“We spent five or six years in experimental mode, and this year we explored our values,” Brawley said. “We had to hunker down, close in and reflect.”

Because of Covid-19, Brawley and his staff of 20 decided to plan a festival that would be a hybrid of virtual events and drive-in cinema options.

In the past upward of 1,000 people attended Cucalorus. This year folks won’t be able to gather together at most screenings, or sit side by side at a conference, or join in a cheers at parties across town, or attend the kickoff Dance-a-lorus event.

Well, at least not exactly. They will be gathering mostly online instead. 

Ninety-seven films have been carefully curated, half of which support female, Black, Indigenous and Latinx filmmakers. Though 2020 is a truncated version of the festival content-wise — it previously would screen 250 films or so — Brawley said it’s more thoughtful, more holistic, more healing. It’s also spaced out over two weeks through Nov. 25, rather than taking place five days in a row. 

In essence, it’s a new measure of success.

“I think what we want coming out of this festival — a reset to Cucalorus — is to make a deeper commitment to this core group of people and having long-term relationships instead of one wild party with thousands of people,” Brawley said. 

Cucalorus waived the fee for all Black, Indigenous and Latinx filmmakers. Cucalorus normally would program up to 2,000 films for the festival; this year was less. But, as they saying goes, less means more. In this instance, it allowed Cucalorus to recommit to paying every programmer that helped vet films and every filmmaker who screens a film.

“Everyone wants to get paid and everyone should get paid for every hour they spend working,” Brawley said. “Normally, we would have hired staff to plan all the parties, to figure out where the chicken wings would go and who was gonna make the cocktails. We took that money and paid the people.”

It’s a new policy moving forward that every filmmaker will continue to get paid for their work to be shown at Cucalorus or any of its offshoot events and festivals, like Surfalorus and Lumbee Film Festival. As it stands, many film festivals don’t do this; they often utilize publicity and distribution as value enough. 

“We are trying to cultivate a better creative economy,” Brawley said. 

Though Cucalorus lost funding from regular partners in 2020, its strong connection to the City of Wilmington, New Hanover County, the NC Arts Council, South Arts, and UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship helped.

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“It’s shocking when you look at per capita funding for arts in the South compared to the Northeast or out West,” he said. “It’s $5 per capita everywhere else and 47 cents in the South. So just imagine if you and I went to lunch, and you had $5 and I had 47 cents. How would I do? It would create this mentality of being inferior and begging just to be able to sit here. That’s how artists have been treated.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, Brawley sent a survey to Cucalorus alumnae to find out how the organization may be of help during such precarious times. Most responded in some form or fashion: “Can you spare $5?”

Though Cucalorus has often paid for travel and expenses of some filmmakers annually, paying everyone a screening fee moving forward is a silver lining—a new policy Brawley plans on keeping.

Another change that may carry forward: decreasing prices of passes. Cucalorus has leveled out participation at $10-$15 a ticket, per screening; however, passes normally range from $50 to $250.

“The whole elitist structure of film festivals is so exclusive, and we are really trying to undo all that and rebuild it from the ground up,” Brawley said, “so it’s not closed off to half the community.”

The highest cost this year is $50 for a Pegasorus Pass, which allows access to all screenings—the six at Curbside Cinema, and the other 90-plus streaming online in a digital library or live. The library holds films up for four days around each screening date, many of which are free as well. 

“You can go home and push play any time of day,” he said, “whenever you’re ready, and your popcorn is popped and your snack tray is good to go.”

“Live Online” screenings start sharply at their time slot, and can’t be restarted if joined late in the game. 

Curbside Cinema Drive-In will host films Nov. 12-14 and 19-21. Cucalorus has been utilizing the drive-in platform since July, showing movies every weekend. Tickets are $25 a carload, and before each screening will be a block of shorts, as well as pop-up live performances, like a dance flash mob during one night. 

MCs always have introduced Cucalrous films, another element Brawley is keeping, whether live or virtual. “That’s what distinguishes us from other festivals,” he said. “There’s always an interactive element. Our MCs set the tone and frame the event. Every screening will have an intro the way they always have — some pre-recorded, some live on Zoom.”

Aside from films, there will be seven Stage events to participate in via Zoom, starting Thursday, Nov. 12, as curated by Brighid Greene. Cucalorus’ popular Visual/Sound/Walls, a music video retrospective, will center around the band Sparks on Friday the 13. There will be three Filmmakers’ Lounge meetups focused on various themes, as well as comedic and autobiographical theatrical performances.

Connect begins on Monday, Nov. 16, and focuses on one theme: race (Port City Daily will cover Connect in full on Friday, Nov. 13). Six events will tackle pressing issues faced by our nation and specifically relating to the Black and brown communities. Curated by Wilmington locals Rebecca Trammel and Kevin Maurer, the think-tank of Connect has intentionally shifted from tech and innovation, which, according to Brawley, seems the most natural.

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“In some ways, the timing was good for a shakeup,” he said. “I think that’s why you see this racial reckoning across our nation. There was all this stuff happening underneath the surface that couldn’t continue, and at some point we were all going to break. We want to explore that at Connect.”

The irony of Connect being hosted online isn’t lost on Brawley, who admitted the name may change in the future as well. 

2020 has given him clearer eyes to examine Cucalorus’ foundation and rediscover how it should progress — which could include online streaming beyond 2020. “That doesn’t mean we won’t all get back together again at Thalian Hall to watch movies,” he clarified. “That will happen.”

But the fact is: Online streaming is the most popular way to consume the art form, nowadays — especially thanks to Netflix and Hulu. So Brawley is considering how the Cucalorus brand will utilize it. 

“Every festival will have to consider doing more stuff online,” he said. “That’s where people watch movies now. Without the pandemic, people watch movies on the internet. Wanna be a vibrant film organization? You have to respond to that.”

Though it’s new territory for hosting a virtual festival, Brawley said these transitions, at the very least, are exciting. It’s given him new ambition to keep shaping how Cucalorus adapts and responds to being a part of people’s stories.

“It’s a miracle it’s going to happen at all,” he added. “This is a spaceship that was just created. There is no instructional manual and we’ve never driven it before. We are gonna push all the buttons — some of these events are going to be amazing. Some of them are going to be weird. Who knows what will happen?”

THREE FILMS TO SCREEN

El Father Plays Himself
Wednesday., Nov. 11, Curbside Cinema Drive-in, UNCW Kenan Auditorium parking lot • $25/carload
Cucalorus’ opening night feature, from director Mo Scarpelli, takes viewers across the Amazon jungle to learn about the director’s father, played by … his father. The documentary format takes a turn and leaves viewers immersed in this world as they watch Scarpelli juggle the role of objective filmmaker versus subjective son, who sees up close how alcoholism has rattled his father.

Best Summer Ever
Thursday, Nov. 12, Curbside Cinema Drive-in, UNCW Kenan Auditorium parking lot • $25/carload
This film is one Cucalorus director Dan Brawley said “will leave a smile across your face.” The feel-good flick comes from directors Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelli, and follows the story of high schoolers falling in love at a dance camp. The movie features a cast and crew of people with and without disabilities, including Wilmington’s very own Jeremy Vest (MTV’s “How’s Your News?”, “Bulletproof”) as the high-school mascot. A short film will open the screening from Wilmington’s Theatre for All, which provides arts education for folks with special needs.

Drought
Sat. Nov. 14, 8 p.m. Curbside Cinema Drive-in, UNCW Kenan Auditorium parking lot • $25/carload
Locally produced by Hannah Black and Megan Peterson, this 84-minute film laces humor with drama, and takes viewers on a road trip with Sam and her brother Carl, who is on the autism spectrum and obsessed with weather. Along with their friends, Lewis and Lillian, they chase the biggest storm approaching a small town, as the South undergoes its longest dry spell in history.

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BONUS: Don’t miss the comedy blocks, like Hairy Parachute Shorts, which will provide a good laugh — and, face it, that’s what our brains need more of nowadays. Also, the Witches Butter Shorts feature a block of dance films, with introductions given by The Dance Cooperative performers, as an homage to Cucalorus’ normal opening night kickoff, Dance-a-lorus.

THREE STAGE PERFORMANCES

Visual/Sound/Walls
Fri., Nov. 13, Live Online, 8 p.m. sharp • Free 
The band Sparks traverses all genres of sound, from glam to new wave, art-pop to disco to indie. Their 50-year career has influenced the likes of Pixies, The Smiths and Sonic Youth, and on Friday evening, with host Aaron Willis, they’ll be taking viewers through a musical journey of their own music videos, along with musicians who have influenced them. Brothers Ron and Russell Mael will be the focus of Edgar Wright’s upcoming documentary and have written music for the upcoming Leos Crax film, “Annette” (Adam Driver, Russell Mae).

Kristina Wong: Reality Television, Political Theater and Social Change
Thursday, Nov. 12, Live Online, 8 p.m. sharp • $10-$15 
Haven’t had enough of politics yet? Let Kristina Wong’s brand of comedy and performance art scratch your political itch in “Reality Television, Political Theater and Social Change.” Wong explores how reality TV parallels our lives today, and brings quite a few chuckles while delving into her worldview of activism and politics.

Julie-Ann Scott-Pollock: Gazed At—Stories of a Mortal Body
Nov. 22, 6 p.m., Live Online, 6 p.m. sharp • $10-$15
Having to contend with spastic cerebral palsy, Julie-Ann Scott-Pollock turns her brand of performance art inward. Her autobiographical performance includes storytelling and poetry, and essentially folds in the audience to the experience of living with a body that often fails them.

THREE CONNECT EVENTS

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker
Tuesday, Nov. 17, Live Online, 7 p.m. sharp • Free (must register)
This event will feature four blocks of short films that focus on the Black experience, including humor in Black culture, athlete protests and police intimidation. As well, Damon Young will read excerpts from his award-winning novel, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker.” A question-and-answer session with filmmakers and Young will follow.

From Hardship to Hope
Wednesday, Nov. 18, Live Online, 2 p.m. sharp • Free (must register)
The film from Dorian Emerson tackles issues of youth, activism, police brutality, education and more, as it follows the story of a 14-year-old mining the Miami streets. A short, “Negroes,” will open the block. Afterward, Ebony Garden will facilitate a conversation with viewers.

Leadership: 7 Days, 7 Generations
Tuesday, Nov. 17, Live Online, 2 p.m. sharp • Free (must register)
What does it take for one Indigenous scholar and poet to take a seat in New Mexico’s House of Representatives District 47? Lyla June shows us as she takes over the steps of the Capitol to “fast for the future” for seven days. A conversation with the audience will follow the screening, hosted by Kim Pevia, director of Lumbee Film Festival in Pembroke, NC.

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