What are the moments that make an event memorable? It really all depends on the part one plays in the proceedings. This year’s White Sands International Film Festival will prove memorable to many in the local filmmaking industry, because it marks the first year that the festival has included a 48-hour film competition to kick the week off right. In a sense, it places the spotlight on the people who make film festivals possible: the filmmakers themselves.
It’s a gorgeous, sunny morning at the Bean Café in Mesilla, on Saturday, August 31. The courtyard is filled with eager filmmakers, awaiting the word to begin a grueling two-day stretch in which all of their skills will be put to the test. Prizes have been announced, but there’s more to this competition than cash and software for the winners. It’s a chance to showcase their talents in a friendly game of one-upmanship with their peers. Needless to say, the excitement is palpable.
At a little before 9 a.m., WSIFF board president Rob Sharp calls for attention and begins announcing the official rules. 12 teams have signed up for the competition and each will be responsible for creating, from scratch, a short film running between five and ten minutes long. There are three festival-approved requirements that each must incorporate into their films: a prop, a line of dialog and a scene. Finally, because it is a 48-hour shoot out, all completed entries must be delivered no later than 9 a.m. on Monday, September 2.
As the clock ticks slowly toward 9 a.m. and the official kick off of the competition, Sharp goes over a few boundaries, to the amusement of the assembled filmmakers. “Use your best judgment,” he says. “In today’s creative climate, it seems like violence and gore is fine. Sex should be done tastefully. No really graphic full-frontal stuff. We won’t disqualify a film if it has that, but we may ask you to edit it before we show it. Language shouldn’t be much of a concern. I think everybody expects language to be a bit raw.”
One representative from each team is asked to come forward to receive an official copy of the film requirements. Sharp reminds the crowd, one last time, that all three requirements must be included. “You have to have all three of these aspects in your films, or you will be disqualified and I don’t want to disqualify anybody.”
The clock strikes 9 a.m. and the tension breaks. Sharp sends them off with one final plea. “Go, be safe, don’t hurt anybody and please shower. Have a good time!”
Within minutes the crowd has completely dispersed and the game is on.
Two days later, Sharp is set up and waiting at the Starbucks on Valley Drive in southwest Las Cruces. He’s eager to see what comes in and worries that some of the filmmakers may not make the deadline. At around 8:30 a.m. the first of the competitors begin to arrive. Some drag in looking like they haven’t slept in days, others are surprisingly alert.
Stephanie Slater, team leader for Gamma Pops is the first to drop off her entry, appropriately titled “Tortilla Love,” because of the festival requirements. “This is my first shoot out and we all had a blast,” she says, smiling. When asked why she looks so chipper, she replies, “We all got eight hours of sleep each night. We weren’t going to go full out, because it was our first time, so we thought we’d do it short and sweet and to the point.”
On the other end of that spectrum is David Montes, director of the LC52 entry “Intervention.” Whereas the other teams used their 48 hour allotment to create a single film, LC52 ended up doing two. It wasn’t planned, according to Montes, it just happened that way.
“We probably shot our first scene within an hour of getting our assignment,” he says. “The thing is, the movie we were shooting yesterday is not the movie we turned in. What happened was, the movie we were shooting was already over ten minutes and we weren’t finished. If we had finished it, it probably would have been around 20 minutes. We deliberated on it and decided we really wanted to make that movie, but we’ll finish it later. So, we started over last night. After writing a quick script, doing some blocking and rehearsal, we ended up shooting at midnight. We finished editing at 6:30 a.m. and we just finished burning the discs about ten minute ago. We’re tired, but we got so much done, so quickly. Yesterday was dynamite!”
Dave Witt, director of “The Bastard,” produced by team Hot Points, claims his group also got very little sleep, but theirs was a more methodical approach.
“We dedicated about five to seven hours to prep, development, getting the script ready and pre-production,” he says. “Production itself took about 12 hours, over two days. We spent a good 15 hours editing. Then we had to record our own music and make all of the elements come together and, of course, we had a few obstacles we had to overcome. We slept maybe two hours. Actually, I didn’t really sleep. It was more a two hour diffuse time, where I got to lay down and think about the project for a while.”
Witt and his collaborators are veterans of the competition circuit, having been involved in three other shoot-outs before this one. He attributes his success to teamwork.
“I knew I had to have a strong team that has a good handle on stress and anxiety,” he says. “Everybody kept their cool and I’m extremely happy with the outcome. This is like a test for us. That’s why these 48-hour competitions are so popular. It’s a test that pushes you. It’s a great exercise in adaptive filmmaking.”
Arriving looking exhausted and a little disoriented, D. John Young delivers his film “Rape For Dinner,” close to the cut off. He’s happy to know that he’s not the last. “It’s been a slammer,” he says. “I was running so fast that first day that I left out the line of dialog. I had every intention of putting it in the script, but I didn’t really have time to review it. Luckily, the cast caught it and found a good place to throw it in. I had a lot of really great teamwork on this shoot.”
The last filmmaker to arrive is Joe Widmer, of team Camera Hogs. With only two minutes to spare, Widmer whips into the parking lot and bounds from his car, running across the lot to drop off his entry, “Milton,” while other filmmakers cheer him on.
“I made it by the skin of my teeth,” he says. “This is my first time ever doing anything like this. I’ve been working in television and video for a long time, but this is my first time entering a film festival, especially a 48-hour film competition. It certainly was a frenzy. It’s been a lot of fun and I wish great success to everybody.”
In the end, only one team doesn’t make the deadline. The eleven that do will have their entries go on to be judged on quality and adherence to festival rules. All entries will then be screened in one block at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7 as part of the film festival at the Allen Theatres Cineport 10 in the Mesilla Valley Mall. The winner of the competition will be announced at the awards ceremony at 8 p.m. that evening, at the Rio Grande Theatre.
Sharp, whose regular gig is as partner and creative director of Wilson Binkley Advertising & Marketing, beams proudly at the assembled filmmakers, some coming down from at two-day adrenaline rush, others powering up again with coffee. Though it is his first time organizing a competition like this, he is already looking forward to organizing next year’s event, which he would like to see more involvement in by the public schools, many of which have media programs.
“This is amazing,” he says, as he gathers up the entries and prepares to hand them off to the judges. “I was really impressed with the professionalism and the dedication of the teams that participated. These guys obviously burned the oil and did everything they needed to do to get us a film within 48 hours. I’m very impressed. It really speaks well of the dedication of our local filmmaking community.”
Kicking the film festival off on a high note, Sharp believes the success of the Film Frenzy bodes well for the five day event, which has its opening reception on Wednesday, September 4. “Given the interest and the participation, I would definitely call this event a success,” he says. “Based on that, I think it’s going to be a great week.”