June 12, 2007 
 Your Sneak Peek into the 2007 LA Film Festival!
Volume 109


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 Billy the Kid - An Engaging Look at Outsider's Perspective
 Written by: Naomi Wiggins

LAFF In a small but elegant theater tucked away in the glitz and glamour of Beverly Hills, early press screenings of selected LA Film Festival features and documentaries got under way last week with the Eight Films, Isotope Films and IndiePix presentation of Jennifer Venditti's documentary Billy the Kid.

The story of Billy the Kid is as serendipitous as that of Producer/Director Jennifer Venditti's discovery of Billy himself. On a search for non-actor extras to cast in a short film, Venditti was making the rounds at local high schools in rural Maine when she came across the quirky and honest Billy Price. Inspired by this young boy, Venditti followed Billy through the highs and lows of his sophomore year of high school, ultimately making a film that addresses the age old question - Does art imitate life or does life imitate art? Billy the Kid answers a resounding yes.

Billy Price is a typical teenage boy. He enjoys playing the guitar, loves rock n' roll and has devoured the Harry Potter books. But in one way, Billy is not typical. With, as he puts it, "different brains" in his head, Billy has a unique outlook on life that is both inspiring and isolating - "I'm not black, I'm not white, not foreign...just different in the mind. Different brains, that's all."

Refusing a direct label for his condition, the film seeks to treat Billy as an average teen with a uniqueness that transcends normality. His story has peaks and valleys that are all the more intriguing as they are not a part of a crafted script but the results of a unique boy living an average life.

While filming, Director Jennifer Venditti and her crew had to simply go with the flow. As they follow Billy through the halls of his high school, on a bike through the streets of his city and into a local dinner to talk with his crush, it is clear that the crew was waiting to see what would happen just as much as the audience is. More than just a star, Billy himself is equally director, producer and editor of this film. His choices on what to say, when to say it, how he says it or whether he says it all determine the course, ebb and flow of this sensitive documentary.

Billy has no problem carrying the burden of the film. Whether he fully feels its weight is another question completely. His honest, forthright descriptions of the world around him prove on more than one occasion to be both wise and humble. His "different brains" have not rendered him incapable of living life but have instead brought him an insight most only dream of.

At eighty-five minutes the film is at times long winded and a bit trying to the patience but much like Billy himself, it still manages to inspire and engage. Venditti's faithfulness to showing Billy exactly as he is, without limitation or judgment, gives the audience freedom to explore the meaning of love and life right alongside Billy. The result is a vibrantly real film that both imitates and creates art, a film that only the most jaded and cynical could deem rubbish.

Billy the Kid 

 Cat Dancers - Surprisingly Impressive
 Written by: Naomi Wiggins

LAFF With a less than inspiring title and little available production information, Cat Dancers, a 75 minute documentary set to show in the LA Film Festival at the end of the month, does not evoke high expectations. However within seconds of flickering to life upon the screen, the film's vibrant visuals, impressive editing and awe-inspiring story slink seductively into the theater and hook themselves securely into the collective audience consciousness.

It is easy to think that a film about tiger trainers will be far from interesting. But within the confines of self- imposed danger and a truly unconventional lifestyle, Director/Producer Harris Fishman begs us to think differently. Weaving together a documentary that is every bit as entertaining as a Hollywood blockbuster film, Fishman couples the narcissistic charisma of Ron Holiday with his tragedy-riddled history to provide an aggressively intimate look into the dangerous and defiant lives of three famous tiger trainers.

In the late seventies, Ron and Joy Holiday had an adagio dance act that wowed the world. For several glorious years, they lit up the stage, toured the world and rubbed shoulders with some of the industries best and brightest. For Ron however, taking to the stage with Joy wasn't enough. He dreamed of something more, something greater, something dangerous. He dreamed of dancing with exotic cats.

After putting together a cat act that quickly became more popular than their dance routines, the Holidays knew that with their blossoming fan base and an ever growing family of cats they could not continue this wonder of dream alone. Thus, in the late eighties the duo teamed up with young and handsome Chuck Lizza. Chuck fit in seamlessly with their unconventional family, easily becoming both the son the Holiday's never had and a shared lover to both Ron and Joy. Seemingly living a charmed life full of tigers, success and love, tragedy struck in 1998 when both Chuck and Joy were killed by the trio's white Bengal tiger, Jupiter.

Within the realm of animal/trainer stories, things are colored either black or white - Life is wonderful, smooth and full of commercial success or someone is dead. With just two options, audiences have been conditioned to expect the worse, to expect events to turn sour and then drop into some sort of moral lesson - Animals should be allowed to roam free. . . We shouldn't attempt to domesticate something that is naturally wild . . . Animals are neither children nor pets. This is the story we have seen many times before and to expect Cat Dancers to hold to this tradition and cliché is reasonable . . . reasonable but wrong.

Refusing to deliver any moral lessons and steering well clear of cliché, Cat Dancers narrows its focus to Ron - his life, his journey, his struggle, his undeniable love for the tigers he trained. The film doesn't seek to sum up his experience in a nice little package of meaning and moral but merely presents the heart-breaking facts devoid of judgment, allowing a glimpse into a unique and logic-defying life.

Outside of a few choppy transitions, the pace, flow and editing of the film beautifully reflect and pattern the thought process of Ron Holiday himself. With invasive shots and limited breathing room, Amanda Micheli's cinematography pulls the audience in close while Editor Alexis Spriac's tight cuts foster intimacy between Holiday and the audience from start to finish.

Ultimately, Ron Holiday and, by extension the film, unwaveringly hold all attention. With palpable humility and a genuine interest in displaying the intricacies of a tragic story, Director Harris Fishman's Cat Dancers is a truly impressive, truly haunting documentary work.

Cat Dancers 

 The Owl and the Sparrow - Better than a Blockbuster
 Written by: Naomi Wiggins

LAFF Shot entirely with a hand-held camera over the span of just fifteen days, The Owl and the Sparrow is by no means ground-breaking in concept or invigoratingly fresh in story but is instead brought to the screen with such sensitive vulnerability that Writer/Director Stephane Gauger challenges the very notion of what makes a good movie.

In this day of transforming robots, high-flying superheroes and elaborate casino heists, it is rare for a movie to be appreciated for simplicity, softness and beauty. It is even rarer for a director to set out to make such a movie. However, with the approval of Vietnam's Ministry of Culture and a self-imposed micro-budget, Stephane Gauger set out to do just that.

The Owl and the Sparrow follows the lives of three strangers in the busy, congested and thriving beauty of Saigon, Vietnam. Living on the streets, the young runaway Thuy (Pham Thi Han) relies on the kindness of strangers to earn her living. While out hawking flowers, she crosses paths with Lan (Cat Ly), a flight attendant who spends her week days in the city looking for love in all the wrong places, and Hai (Le The Lu), a heartbroken zookeeper fighting against the changing times, changing society and a fiancee who just recently changed her mind.

Instantly connecting with Lan and Hai, Thuy believes the pair could not only eliminate each other's loneliness but could make her dream of a happy, make-shift family a reality. Thus, Thuy sets out to accomplish the impossible - In just five days she will seek to set up Lan and Hai, all the while dodging the police combing the streets for orphans and side- stepping an uncle who wants nothing more than to drag her back to the country.

The Owl and the Sparrow flows organically from scene to scene with only a few points ringing false. Perhaps it is only the result of a western mentality full of cynicism and financially aware thinking, but the end, although what we are led to hope for and desire, feels the slightest bit contrived.

Outside of those tiny bobbles, the rest of the film runs straight, smooth and sure. The shaky and dizzying hand held camera while distracting at first, ultimately lends an air of intimacy that is utterly appropriate for this soft and subtle tale. Beautiful colors, intimate over the shoulder shots and engaging close-ups all compliment the fluid, smooth and steady story-line.

Above all however, The Owl and the Sparrow is carried by its three outstanding lead performances. Gauger's directing is steadily flawless, devoid of coercion and any awkward emotion, eliciting powerful and nuanced performances from relatively inexperienced actors.

The most experienced of the trio, Cat Ly brings a relatable and enjoyable vulnerability to the beautiful Lan. Ly beautifully juxtaposes Lan's courage to pursue love with a deep-seated knowledge that what she pursues will not satisfy. Lan's struggle with wanting a place to belong, a place where she can be of use and truly love someone else, is thrown into sharp relief when she meets Thuy and Hai. And although her struggle is nearly universal for twenty- something females, Ly manages to make Lan's difficulties genuine, real and fresh.

With a clear and expressive face, Le the Lu brings a youthful and endearing sweetness to the lonely zookeeper, Hai. While his is the weakest performance of the bunch as he is often overshadowed by both Han and Ly, in moments where he must stand on his own, Lu is more than capable. A bit young for the savvy and experienced Lan, Hai's innocence carries its own reward as it refreshes Lan. Lu does a great job of matching Ly - the pair builds each other up and encourages each other to take actions they otherwise wouldn't take.

The star of the film however is Pham Thi Han. With the responsibility of carrying this film lying at her feet, Han does not disappoint. Much like she does with her backpack, Han hoists the film onto her small shoulders and doesn't look back. Her subtle but assertive matchmaking ways are fueled by a palpable sense of her love for others and her desire to have a family again. Her independence, strength and courage contrast nicely with the innocence expressed so clearly in her mesmerizing face. If she wants it, a long and lustrous acting career is hers for the taking.

The Owl and the Sparrow can be seen in the upcoming LA FIlm Festival running June 21st through July 1st. For more information, visit www.lafilmfest.com .

The Owl and the Sparrow 

 Showcasing Venice Teens on The Verge of - You Name It!



Kris Ellenberg
kris@othervenice filmfest.com

Welcome Back Kotter Star and Venice Local Bob Hegyes Is Back With The Next Gen of Sweathogs - A New Web Series Whose Premiere Party Will Benefit Drop-Out Prevention Program at Venice High School

8 p.m., Thursday, June 14 at Brand New Local Hot Spot -- Danny's Deli in Venice Beach

VENICE, CA, June 8, 2007 -- He calls his new series the "Anti-O.C. Teenagers on Probation. Bad kids getting Badder." And who better to tame new age juvenile delinquents than an older aged juvenile delinquent? He's not a Crip. He's not a Blood. He's a Sweathog! Robert Hegyes, Epstein from Welcome Back, Kotter, a veteran actor, writer and director, has created a new series for the Internet with partner andfeature film scribe, Craig Titley (Sam Raimi's upcoming remake of 20 Thousand Leagues Under The Sea) revolving around a retired NYPD Gang cop turned Venice Beach Juvenile Probation Officer, and the seven Venice High School delinquents who must report to him.

"Write what you know" is the age-old adage Hegyes quotes when describing how he came up with the R- Rated Kotter.

"My B.A. is in Secondary Education. I've been a full- time teacher at Venice High School, hanging out with 4,000 hormone driven teenagers a day," said Hegyes. "I live with my four teenagers (two 19 year-olds and two 16 year-olds - don't ask!) plus all their friends at my beach house in Venice. I've played a juvenile delinquent on one hit series, and I've played a Gang Cop on another hit series (Cagney & Lacey). "I think that qualifies me to write about teenagers."

Shot as a docudrama with dark comedic overtones, The Venice Walk - filmed entirely on location in Venice, CA - stars teenagers on probation for such crimes against humanity as grand theft auto, credit card fraud, computer hacking, possession of drugs, felony assault and gang-banging under the Witness Protection Program. Robert claims it's not really his show.

"These kids carry me along for the ride," said Hegyes. "There were 2,000 young actors who auditioned in L.A. for these roles, and the actors we've found are explosive and dynamic. These kids are the next Brat Pack."

The Venice Walk is just what the Internet webisodic genre has been waiting for -- an established television star appearing in bite-sized portions on a computer or mobile device screen near you with a thrashin' soundtrack provided by local Venice bands. For more information, photos, footage or interviews, or to RSVP for the premiere party, contact kris.ellenberg@othervenicefilmfest.com

To view The Venice Walk trailer, go to http://medialab.ifc.com or for more information, visit www.thevenicewalk.com

The Venice Walk 


Billy the Kid photo courtesy of sxsw.com, Cat Dancers photo courtesy of austinchronicle.com, The Owl and the Sparrow photo courtesy of asianamericanfilmfestival.org.

Independent Filmmakers Alliance

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