Preview: Buffalo International Film Festival

by / Oct. 5, 2016 12am EST

BIFF X. Add an exclamation point and it looks like something you’d see issuing from a henchman’s jaw after Batman slugged it.

But it stands for the 10th edition of the Buffalo International Film Festival, running from Friday through Monday, and an exclamation point is well deserved, because there is a lot to be excited about. In its second year under new management since the death of founder Ed Summer, BIFF continues to take big strides toward realizing Summer’s longtime goal of building a world-class film festival in Buffalo.

It’s really not hard to put together a film festival: There are hundreds, if not thousands, of films from around the world looking for a place to be screened. They’re rejected by top-tier festivals because they demonstrate Sturgeon’s Law, that “90 percent of everything is crap,” but they provide grist for festivals that turn a profit from submission fees, audience be damned.

BIFF’s programmers are doing it the right way: traveling to other festivals and finding new films that play well to those audiences. This year’s slate includes discoveries found at Sundance, TIFF, Slamdance, Hot Docs, SXSW, Tribeca, Cleveland, LA, and Austin.

Budget is still a factor, especially for films that already have distributors. But more and more BIFF is offering movies that aren’t just going to vanish into the ether after they’re shown here. And of course there are more and more locally made or connected projects every year that deserve a flashy launch pad.

Equally important, BIFF’s organizers are paying attention to the other factors that make a good film festival an exciting venture. Making the North Park Theater their home base was a quantum leap forward, both for its intrinsic value as a destination spot and for the liveliness of the Hertel surroundings, which offers so much to do between movies. (Elmwood? So 20th century.) They’re also bringing in filmmakers to do Q&As and to participate in panels, making use of the newly opened Huddle meeting spot at 1209 Hertel. Screenings will also be held at Hallwalls and Squeaky Wheel.

When newly appointed executive director Raymond Guarnieri said last year that his team’s goal was to build the Buffalo International Film Festival into one of the top film festivals in North America, I took it with a grain of salt, even thus qualified: “We’re not aiming to do this overnight, or in a year, or even three years. We realize it will take time and careful planning. It will be a gradual process. But that is the track we are on.” 

And it looks to me like they’re on their way.

Some of the films I’m most looking forward to, along with some picks that BIFF staffers are most anticipating:

GOLD STAR—Victoria Negri’s debut film, in which she stars as an unmoored woman dealing with her elderly father after a stroke, has been featured on the Hollywood Reporter’s ‘Awards Chatter’ Podcast, which interviewed her co-star, Robert Vaughn.

CHEMICAL CUT—Another strong feature from a new female filmmaker, Marjorie Conrad, who turned her own experience trying to work in the modeling industry (she was an America’s Next Top Model contestant) into an engrossing expose of the business. (Conrad and Negri will both participate in a “Women in Film” panel at Huddle, Saturday, October 8, 4pm.)

ZACMA: BLINDNESS—Having lost its Canisius venue, the worthy Polish Film Festival is folding into BIFF with this new feature from Ryszard Bugajski (Interrogation, General Nil) about a woman trying to make piece with her past as a brutal interrogator in Poland’s Communist government.

BOOGER RED—Oddball auteur Onur Tukel (whose Abby Singer Songwriter was one of the delights at last year’s BIFF) apparently plays it straight as an actor only into this documentary/fiction hybrid about an investigation into a rural Texas sex cult.

BANG: THE BERT BERNS STORY—If you’re old enough to remember 45 rpm records, you might have some from the Bang label, home to Neil Diamond, the Strangeloves, and Van Morrison, at least until Berns’s widow accused Morrison of killing her husband. I’m a sucker for music industry documentaries, and this one sounds like it’s worth seeing. Narrated by Steven Van Zandt; co-director Bob Sarles is a Kenmore native.

ALCOHOLIST—Late nights are for genre fare, beginning with this dark thriller, shot in Niagara Falls by Italian director Lucas Pavetto, about a bottomed-out alcoholic seeking a violent redemption.


Ray Guarnieri, executive director:

It’s really, really hard to pick just one film to talk about, but Jackson has got to be the one I’m most looking forward to that I haven’t seen yet. It’s certainly an important film: the story of Jackson, Mississippi’s last abortion provider struggling to remain open under threats of violence, protest, vandalism, and restrictive trap laws that require extensive renovations to clinics. I’m incredibly proud that we have the privilege of hosting the local premiere of this film. (Mon 5 pm, Hallwalls)

John Fink, programming director

Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present is extremely special to me. This documentary is a 20-year collaboration between Tony and director Tyler Hubby and provides a lot of insight into many of his careers: filmmaker, musician, educator, and community media advocate here in Buffalo (founding Buffalo Media Study/Squeaky Wheel). It’s the perfect and intimate film for those of us who knew and loved Tony and for those who love a great character study—he was quite a character! We couldn’t be any more excited to show it opening night at the North Park: hHs drone solos are going to sound amazing in that cavernous space! (Fri 7:30pm North Park)

Tilke Hill, co-director

My pick for BIFF X is Buffalo Native Gabrielle Burton’s Kings, Queens & In-Betweens, a celebratory look at drag culture and a thoughtful consideration of gender identity and expression through the lens of the drag performer. As the term non-binary increases in circulation as a marker for identification, films like these can serve as a beacon for community. Anyone who arrives in drag to the screening will be celebrated by having his or her entry fee waived. (Sun 7:30pm, North Park)

Renee Saracki, board member

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the University of Texas at Austin Tower shootings. Twenty-five-year-old former Marine Charles Whitman purchased a small arsenal and mowed down 14 people and injured some 49 more. It was one of the first mass casualty shootings on an American campus and at the time was big news. Sadly, in today’s 24/7 news cycle we have all become anesthetized to these mass shootings.  Director Keith Maitland employs a number of innovative techniques in his documentary Tower, which played at this year’s SXSW Festival in Austin. To give his film depth and critical analysis, Maitland makes a formally audacious documentary employing techniques similar to rotoscopic animation, archival footage and present-day interviews. (Sat 3:30pm North Park)

Anna Scime, board member

INAATE/SE/ is a must see for any experimental or nonfiction film lover. It premiered at MoMA’s Doc Fortnight this past winter, and BIFF X provides a rare opportunity to see it here in Western New York. Adam and Zack Khalil reclaim the living narrative of the Ojibway of Sault Ste. Marie in unique and unexpected ways.  The Seven Fires Prophecy is used as a structural framework for this nonlinear doc that is rich in intimate interviews, layered imagery, collage, and painterly and pictographic animations. What better way to spend ‘the holiday’ than to explore the complexity of colonialism’s legacy in our indigenous communities through cinema and community discussion? (Mon 1pm North Park)

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