Another year—another Buffalo Niagara Film Festival complete. 2011 was definitely an evolution for Bill Cowell’s brainchild, bringing in the most filmmakers to promote their work I’ve seen, the inclusion of a new venue with Niagara Falls’ Rapids Theatre, and the first ever ‘Star’ on the BNFF Walk of Fame. The ten-day event smartly coincided with the end of the Buffalo Sabres’ hockey season rather than the start of a playoff run like last year; saw some cold days, but no snow; and did whatever it could to increase audience attendance. The types of films to attract a huge influx of viewers as the ‘big boys’ are still not a priority, but that’s okay. Unique, independently produced artistic programming more than makes up for it.
Countering those screenings with only a handful of people in the seats were some real big sellers like Rideshare, More Than Me—an in-person introduction from the film’s subject, Jim Breuer, definitely helped—and Nickel City Smiler which, although winning the Audience Award, stirred up the most controversy with its portrayal of Buffalo and the programs working to bring refugees to America. The few comments on my review of the film show how hot-button the issue is, bringing great numbers in to watch and contemplate the problem to discover what they can do to help. Either way, big or small, the filmmakers who came to our city in order to meet and talk with cinemagoers always had a smile on their faces and a willing ear.
And it all started with Jia Dong Shuo and his opening night film, The Floating Shadow. A complex look into the mind of an abused young woman, facing her past while in prison, the movie compelled its audience—eventually winning Best Lead Actress, Best Foreign Film, and Best Film—making way for a nice Q&A afterwards, given through translation by the director. Ecstatic to be in America screening the work, Shuo really showed an enthusiasm towards the festival, a want to help it out, and actually stayed straight on through, accepting his awards on closing night. It was a great start that continued on into the night with a doubleheader of The Truth of the Sky and The Beast Pageant, the latter created by two Rochester, NY natives with a touch of David Lynch and Michel Gondry.
The rest of the weekend was full of gems as well, starting with the drama Webdultery from Canada—with a much-deserved Best Supporting Actor win for Kevin Kincaid, the most memorable performance of the festival in my eye—and continuing with quality action in A Lonely Place for Dying and high emotion in White Knuckles, a film that met with technical difficulties towards its end (I can’t wait to finish it soon). A local production Zombie Bankers unfortunately failed to bring the comedic horror I had hoped for, but it’s pre-screening conversations between cast, crew, and family was a joy and rivaled the introduction Breuer gave before his More Than Me. Joking at the expense of his director, William Philbin, Jim showed that he really is just like you’ve seen him on television and movies—a great guy, he made the most of his Buffalo visit and truly appreciated the audience that came out to see the documentary.
In fact, I was so enthralled with Breuer’s story of family, love, and sacrifice that I decided not to leave early in order to catch William Fichtner’s Walk of Fame ceremony. I did get to watch the tail end, however, while he played in the cement with cameras flashing all around him. Touched by the accolade and the people who came to see him honored, the Cheektowaga native, Maryvale graduate was a joy to hear talk and give thanks. Afterwards, he even stayed at the Market Arcade Theatre to sign autographs and pose for photos for quite some time, still there with Mayor Byron Brown when I came back from a quick dinner at Prima Pizza on Chippewa. If the honorees in subsequent years are as gracious as he, this new BNFF tradition will be very successful and hopefully the event to start bringing more attendees down to the festival.
As for the rest of the films I was able to catch, there were a few real gems in the mix. Rideshare was hilarious, Nickel City Smiler a real poignant look at the Karen refugees from Burma now living on Buffalo’s West Side, Zak Forsman’s Heart of Now—a companion piece to White Knuckles, both produced by sabi pictures—was a fantastic journey through humanity’s emotional spectrum, and Der Sandmann was a brilliant way to end things with its existential drama. Director Donovan Cook led a fantastic post-screening talk after Rideshare, Kevin K. Shah from sabi was there to promote his two films, and Hope, Ghana’s director Zheng Wang—who filled in as translator for Shuo during the awards ceremony—traveled all the way from Seattle to watch his documentary and fiction short play in front of an audience. This is the best part of indie festivals, to give artists a venue to show their work and see their passion.
Finding the time to watch 16 films in the 7 days I stopped by, I was still disappointed to miss many others. As Cowell and WKBW’s Jon Summers announced the awards on Sunday, I kept hearing titles I hadn’t seen. A conscious decision on my part to skip short films this year worked against me on this front, but the dueling screens and packed schedule also make it impossible to catch everything. But that only adds to the allure. No matter what you decide to watch, you’re going in blind—it’s all fresh and most likely not coming back to a theatre near you. But everything is worth a look, even the local productions have merit for nothing else but to give the filmmakers an audience to encourage them to keep working and improving. You become more than just an audience member here; you become part of the festival community.
I’d love to one day seek out and view The Desperate (winner of Best Cinematography and Short Film), Mission Rajasthan (Best Director), Sudden Death (Best Comedy), and We Can Shine (Best Documentary)—if any of you producers and/or directors are out there reading this and want to send me a screener to review, please do—but know it probably won’t happen. However, I can still keep the names of the artists in the back of my head and look out for what they do next. You see familiar faces at the festival every year so you know there’s a good chance you’ll catch something new from them in the future. The key is really just going out, keeping an open mind, and having fun.
Because it isn’t all about the films, it’s about the experience. Between the filmmakers, “America’s Got Talent” alum Kaitlyn Maher giving a five-song concert to cap off the festivities, and even having Fichtner calling at the end to give his final thanks, there is an air of excitement surrounding everything. So, a big hand for the Cowell family and the many volunteers and employees who helped put together another event that continues to improve. The talent is here, great art continues to be selected, and with honors such as the Walk of Fame guaranteed to bring a plethora of famous stars, we can only assume the festival will continue to grow. Now it’s up to the residents of the Queen City to put in their support for this unique experience worthy of a deserving audience and possessing the potential to be a cornerstone of our area’s mission to improve and breathe life back into Buffalo.
The Floating Shadow 7/10 – winner Best Lead Actress, Li Jia; Best Foreign Film; Best Feature
La vérité du ciel [The Truth of the Sky] 5/10
The Beast Pageant 6/10 – winner Most Innovative Film; Best WNY Film
Der Sandmann [The Sandman] 8/10 – winner Best Supporting Actress, Florine Elena Deplazes; Best Lead Actor, Fabian Krüger
 Jim Breuer introducing More Than Me
 (left to right) Hope, Ghana director Zheng Wang with Jia Dong Shuo, director of The Floating Shadow, as he receives Best Feature
 Charles Wahl, director of Webdultery
 William Fichtner accepting his star on the BNFF Walk of Fame
 Dina Corsetti, winner of Best Screenplay for Nina
 David Delay, winner Best Music Video for What I’ve Become
 Kaitlyn Maher singing
 Joanne Shenandoah singing