Saturday, February 4, 2023

What’s different about Cucalorus 27? A lot, but mainly a return to in-person events

Cucalorus headquarters, Jengo’s Playhouse, on Princess Street will host the first screening of the independent film festival, “A Sexplanation” on Wednesday, Nov. 10. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON —The Cape Fear’s annual independent film festival will celebrate 27 years this week, bringing to Jengo’s Playhouse and Thalian Hall a variety of cinema — zany shorts, introspective docs, moving and funny features. It’s something Cucalorus executive director Dan Brawley has been looking forward to: returning to in-person events, after coming off a year of launching the festival virtually (with some drive-in movies), due to Covid-19.

“Cucalorus has always been about community,” Brawley said. “We want to create an atmosphere that’s like a summer camp for filmmakers or a family reunion.”

It started as a noncompetitive festival at downtown’s Water Street Restaurant in 1994 by a group of 12 filmmakers, then known as “TwinkleDoon.” Brawley wrote in his note to attendees in the Cucalorus 27 guide — theme: “Circus of the Weird” — that the filmmakers were simply excited to share their 16mm prints, “hug each other and shake hands.” 

The festival has remained noncompetitive, keeping its intimate creative spirit, even though it has expanded over two decades. Cucalorus moved dates from spring to fall 15 years ago, ballooned from welcoming 12 filmmakers to well over 200, and increased attendance to upward of 20,000 people as last recorded in 2019. The festival blossomed into showcasing more performances in music and theater as part of its “Stage” section, and brought in entrepreneurs and tech innovators to speak and host workshops as part of its “Connect” series. 

After Covid-19 shuttered the world, Brawley took a look at what was working for the festival and what wasn’t. In 2020, he added “film” back to the official Cucalorus name (it was just Cucalorus Festival for a few years), and he dropped “Stage” and “Connect” sectors but launched “Conversations,” welcoming artists and the community together virtually to have a dialogue about race, healthcare, social justice and education.

In 2021, Brawley made the decision to drop Conversations altogether, too. He decided to take Cucalorus back to its roots: focus more on film, throw in only a few special events, and continue to give underrepresented filmmakers a platform to shine. 

“We wanted it to be less complicated,” Brawley said. 

Whereas 27 years ago film festivals weren’t as plethoric worldwide, today around 3,000 are registered and run back-to-back programming. It often sends festival attendees rushing between events, or having to choose between what they want to attend, see and do. 

“We just don’t want any of that stress to be part of the Cucalorus experience,” Brawley said. “This year you’ll notice it’s a little bit easier to pick what to see now because you’re not having to pick between all the things.”

For instance, three of Cucalorus’ most popular events used to take place on opening night. Dance-a-lorus has traditionally been known as the kickoff to Cucalorus — featuring filmmakers collaborating with dancers, pairing movement and choreography with visual art. A concert always took place, too, on opening night, usually alongside Cucalorus’ annual Visual/Sound/Walls program showcasing music videos on drop-down screens throughout one of the venues. Not to mention, a film or shorts block would screen.

This year Brawley spread out some of the top happenings.

“We realized we were having two of our best events right after each other,” he said. “We were like, ‘Wait a minute, this doesn’t make any sense.’”

Dance-a-lorus has moved to Sunday, Nov. 10. Visual/Sound/Walls — curated by a group of filmmakers known as RacerTrash — will take place Thursday at Jengo’s Playhouse. Opening night will feature an early free concert at Hi-Wire Brewing, followed by the screening of “A Sexplanation,” to officially open the festival at 9:30 p.m. 

“It’s a fun, easy likable movie that anybody can laugh at. It’s very safe — well, at least for Cucalorus,” Brawley said. “It’s a comedian making fun of American sex education, and how pitiful it is — how no one’s preparing any of us to be healthy adults.”

Brawley decided to host its screening at Jengo’s, since the playhouse was renovated by Big Sky Design in 2021. It now features restored theater seating, a new box office and concessions area, and a new bar out back, where afterparties take place Thursday through Sunday during Cucalorus.

The concessions area in Jengo’s Playhouse — Cucalorus headquarters — has been renovated just in time for the 2021 festival. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

“We wanted to have Jengo’s be the centerpiece — it’s the easiest win in the world having our opening night party there,” Brawley said. 

Films shown at Jengo’s will appear in lights on its new marquee out front. It’s also home base of sorts for many who attend.

“We want to build a support network for filmmakers who need it,” Brawley said. “And these days, there are a lot of emerging filmmakers, but also a lot of Black filmmakers, indigenous filmmakers and female filmmakers who haven’t been included in the support system, historically.”

Brawley continues to ensure Cucalorus accepts entries of at least 50% female filmmakers (last year, it was more like 70%, he said) and 50% Black and indigenous filmmakers. It goes back to the community-building he pinpoints as the heart of Cucalorus.

In 2021, he also had to weigh the costs and manpower it takes to run a festival that had grown so much in two decades. “It takes a lot longer and a lot more money to do the same thing we did 10 years ago,” Brawley said. “Labor is more expensive than it used to be, so we’ve tried to adapt. We’ve also brought down all of our prices.”

There is only one pass offered at Cucalorus instead of three. Passes that once cost between $80 and $400 now are $200 to access everything (including entry into the filmmakers lounge — located to the side of the main stage at Thalian Hall, where people often gather and discuss films, over complimentary drinks before and after screenings). Individual tickets are sold for a flat rate of $10 each for those who want to go to a few screenings but can’t commit to five days of film-watching.

A full-time team of four and 10 seasonal staff plan the festival, Brawley said, though a slate of volunteers help run it. The festival pays its programmers as well, who help decide which films make it into the festival. In 2021 Cucalorus will feature 11 shorts blocks — including horror, dance, animation, among other genres — around 20 narrative features, including 18 films made by Wilmingtonians and over 30 North Carolina filmmakers. 

Also, every filmmaker is paid to screen his or her movie. Brawley processed 130 payments earlier Monday, he said.

“I feel I’m more excited about this festival than I’ve been in a long time — it just feels like a healing experience. I feel like people need to heal through the trauma we’ve been through recently, and so coming together is more important than ever. [F]or a lot of people, Cucalorus will be their first film festival back in person. They’ve been stuck in front of their computer in a little box, and now all of a sudden they get to crawl out of it.”

Special events, vaccine required

While those who have passes and tickets can attend screenings, numerous special events will take place for free. All live music will open to the public at Hi-Wire Brewing, located across from Jengo’s Playhouse. Performances kick off Wednesday at 7 p.m. with local DJ and MC Jared Sales with Lotus Sun. The musicians blend rock ‘n’ roll with R&B.

Lumbee singer-songwriter Charly Lowry will perform on Thursday at 8 p.m., as presented by Cucalorus’ sister festival, the Lumbee Film Festival, which focuses on indigenous filmmakers (the LFF also is presenting “RUMBLE” on Thursday). 

On Friday, the Flamenco, jazz and pop sounds of Fany de la Chica will start at 8 p.m., with Kamara Thomas of Durham performing on Saturday at 8 p.m. Thomas also has a music video from her group Aquarian Devils showing as part of the “Shorts with features” block on Saturday.

A few other special events are planned throughout the week, including an art installation in one of the rooms in Jengo’s Playhouse. “A Practical Guide for Everyday Be-Coming” will be curated by Cucalorus alum Liz Clayton Scofield Wednesday through Sunday. The immersive tutorial teaches participants how to “connect and find joy within the confines of social constructs.”

Plus, the Bus to Lumberton returns. Each year Cucalorus pays homage to David Lynch’s Wilmington-filmed “Blue Velvet.” This year the filmmaking collective RacerTrash will give the flick a radical vaporwave cut treatment — films that are slowed, chopped and mashed with smooth jazz or elevator and lounge music. It will take place Saturday at 7 p.m. at Thalian Hall.

The 2021 Cucalorus Film Festival requires every attendee to show proof of vaccination to enter the screenings (negative Covid-19 tests are not accepted) and wear a mask unless eating or drinking. Covid-19 wristbands are distributed when attendees pick up passes or tickets, and show their ID with vaccination card.

“We felt like there was no other way to have an in-person festival safely except to require vaccinations,” Brawley said. “It’s not a perfect solution, and we know that, but it’s getting us back safely. And 99% of ticket-buyers so far haven’t complained.”

All public events at Hi-Wire Brewing will be mandated by the brewpub’s Covid-19 protocols, which doesn’t require proof of vaccination. 

While the Cucalorus board toyed with the idea of offering some films virtually, in order to reach the public who aren’t vaccinated, in the end they decided against it. 

“That’s not our strength — our core strength is really Cucalorus as an experience,” Brawley said. “And that goes all the way back to the very beginning. It’s always been about, ‘Were you in the room when… ”

To purchase Cucalorus passes, view the schedule, and read up on all screenings, click here. Cucalorus venues for 2021 are Thalian Hall (310 Chestnut St.), Jengo’s Playhouse (815 Princess St.) and Hi-Wire Brewing (1020 Princess St.). 

Port City Daily will be covering more specific events and films featured at Cucalorus throughout the week.

The lobby of Jengo’s Plahouse was renovated and designed by Big Sky in Wilmington. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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