WILMINGTON — The 28th Cucalorus Film Festival officially kicked off Wednesday night. More than 136 films, including shorts, features, comedies, drama, horror, romance and music videos, will screen through Sunday, Nov. 20.
Festival-goers who missed the opening-night world premiere of “The Devil’s Stomping Ground,” created by local filmmaker Jonathan Landau, will have plenty of options to enjoy the five-day event.
But for festival director Dan Brawley, kicking off the night with a local feature filmmaker was crucial to Cucalorus getting back to its roots. This year’s festival is the first to return to full capacity since 2019.
“We thought it would be a good way to brand this new era, by showcasing two of the people who were there when the indie scene in Wilmington was first born,” he said.
Landau was one of the first people to have his work screened at the inaugural Cucalorus in 1994 and has returned to showcase his creative output throughout many years since.
“Really there is no better place to debut it than Cucalorus,” Landau told Port City Daily last month.
The response was overwhelming as a packed Thalian Hall — one of multiple venues along with Jengo’s Playhouse, Hi-Wire Brewing, Bourgie Nights, Wilmington Children’s Museum and Hell’s Kitchen — welcomed hundreds of moviegoers.
Some showed up to the festival for the first time to support friends who appear in “The Devils Stomping Ground,” including Gray Robinson.
“My friend Ayden Collins-Peterson is in the movie,” he said.
“Devil” was filmed during six nights last year at the Devil’s Tramping Ground, located in Bear Creek, North Carolina. Based on the folklore of stories from area townsfolk, Landau brings a horror tale to life through found footage (think “Blair Witch Project”) from college filmmakers who explored the supernatural area for a thesis project.
“Everyone who worked on it is here in North Carolina,” Landau said. He’s eyeing a distribution deal as a hopeful next move.
Screening before “The Devil’s Stomping Ground” was “1st Memory.” The five-minute short was the passion project of UNCW film studies professor Chip Hackler, who also appeared at the first Cucalorus in 1994.
Anthony J. Police attended in support but also to see himself on the big screen.
“It’s nice that my first time at Cucalorus, I’m actually in a film — that’s really cool,” he said. “The film was shot in a day a year and a half ago — local crew, local cast, local director.”
Others in attendance were more seasoned to the scene, including Steve Bax, a Wilmingtonian who works as a film production coordinator in the industry. He has attended Cucalorus for several years for one purpose: “I like to support local film,” he said.
Below are multiple ways to get the most out of the festival but, by no measure, are the only suggestions to enjoy the scope of Cucalorus. The magic happens in the hidden gems of interaction happening between attendees and filmmakers. Throughout the years, Cucalorus has welcomed upward of 10,000 people to the city. Though the pandemic stunted those numbers, Brawley said they’re building back up.
Here’s a rundown of a few suggested events:
One of Cucalorus’ most engaging traditions comes with multitudes of screens scaled for Visual/Sound/Walls. Taking place at Hi-Wire Brewing at 9:30 p.m. Thursday, the event will showcase a dozen music videos — many featuring local musicians — on various screens, airing on a loop throughout the evening.
It will be the first time rock goddess Rebekah Todd makes her Cucalorus appearance for the video to “Realign” — the title track from her new record, released in September.
Todd wrote the song four years ago in the haze of grief, after her mother passed away in 2018. After a three-year hiatus making music, also due in part to the pandemic, Todd said “Realign” is a track that brings her full circle: finding herself again.
The video was directed by Josh Potter in Greenville, North Carolina, filmed over a span of three days for the main frames; later, the crew captured B-roll for forest scenes. Outdoor sequencing is mixed with indoor scenes that were filmed in a dark room.
“These shots are my favorite because they are so simple and only use wind and light as the backdrop,” Todd said. “We did a minimum of three takes for each shot, having me sing at double time in order to give it the ‘slow motion’ look.”
From slow-motion to stop-motion, local musician Justin Lacy is returning to V/S/W for his eighth time overall and fifth year in a row to Cucalorus. Last year, he debuted “Cloud Song (for Evelyn),” with his offshoot band Library Baby.
This year Lacy is screening the video for his solo work, “Sweet Mango, Short-Grain Rice,” a song he wrote in 2016 upon the passing of his favorite songwriter, Leonard Cohen.
“I was attempting to come up with a chord progression and lyrical meter that might pay tribute to his earlier works,” Lacy said.
The song ended up on an album in 2020, which Lacy had the intention of transforming into a series of stop-motion animation works.
“It was in part an experiment to see what sort of impact food imagery could have on a sentimental-sounding ballad,” he explained.
The video for “Sweet Mango” features hand-made puppets, including a bumblebee and a faceless man in a Haz-Mat suit. There are also mangoes, honey and rice.
“I was trying to come up with ideas for masked figures because, as Star Wars has taught me, masked featureless characters can be even more fascinating than unmasked ones, and I wanted to save time by avoiding animating facial expressions,” Lacy said.
The man is attempting to pollinate crops in a practically beeless world. He floats in a void of water, with only a church steeple apparent on occasion — “sorta like what downtown Wilmington might look like if it were underwater.”
Lacy built the puppets last fall and in January began shooting the 2-minute film, frame by frame — all 1,840 of them.
“Sweet Mango, Short-Grain Rice” — featured on his 2022 album “Carousel” — is Lacy’s eighth completed stop-motion project. In part, its creation was funded by a Filmed in NC grant, awarded by Cucalorus. Lacy was one of 13 filmmakers to split $11,000 to help see through small-budget projects.
Live bands are slated to take the stage at V/S/W as well. It kicks off at 9 p.m. and is free to the public.
For more than two decades, one of Cucalorus’ most engaging events comes in the artistic collaboration between film and dance at Dance-a-Lorus. The 2022 event was organized by Linda Ann Webb, and welcomes back alumni such as Kate Mulstein and Mirla Criste.
Performing in her seventh festival, Criste is pairing up with Sorsha Masters and Rachael Crawford in “Mother: Womb.” Criste said she and Crawford have known each other through the modern-dance community but only recently met Masters, who is new in town.
“The three of us happen to have very similar dance backgrounds, a broad swath of dance modes that includes traditional as well as more modern vocabularies, as well as improvisation, specifically contact improvisation, a dance/sport form pioneered by Steve Paxton and Nancy Stark Smith in the mid 1970s,” Criste said.
After a Facebook post went viral, penned by Umka Pele regarding her experience with an inopportune pregnancy, Criste thought the timing was ripe for three women to join forces and create a performance tackling the topic, especially in light of the Roe v. Wade overturning in May.
“The three of us are essentially from disparate generations, with complex relationships to this topic, which so many want to see as nothing more than a black-and-white issue,” Criste said. “Our different experiences, responses, demons and dreams formed the core of our piece.”
It’s presented in three vignettes, with Crawford delving into the psyche, Criste tackling the physical component — inside of a body — and Masters assessing the “personal impact from outside the self.”
The three artists also devised the film, which includes text and soundscapes, Criste explained, over traditional music. The end result was for the movements and moving imagery to be in concert, as if “in conversation with one another.”
“I’m a bit of a media junkie — both sound and image — so I’ve been something of a kid in a candy store with Dance-a-lorus,” Criste said. “It’s been my experience that whenever art expands across multiple disciplines, a broader audience can be reached and moved.”
Another experimental work coming to life from a personal journey is “La Lycha de la diosa del so, gracias te amo,” created by local dancer and Juilliard graduate Shea-Ra Nichi.
Nichi traveled to Peru over the summer for a three-day retreat in Cusco. Her piece is inspired by her sojourn with a traditional shaman, where she had five experiences — the fourth and fifth being the crux of her inspiration.
“My attempt is to show movements that suggest the struggle of ascension,” she explained.
She performs the Nichi technique, born of African and indigenous formations that arise from the combinations of contemporary and modern movements. Her piece is choreographed to three separate Peruvian songs, including chants from the shaman, Afro-Peruvian foot dances and drumming.
“The film element of this piece is a reflection of the inner struggle that I went through during my Ayahuasca journey,” Nichi said, referring to a drink composed of the bark of ayahuasca, a tropical vine native to the Amazon region.
It’s known for its hallucinogenic properties. Nichi said her retreat was completely safeguarded, accompanied by doctors, nurses and a psychologist.
“The power of this piece is to shed light on a plant of learning and healing,” she said of Ayahuasca. “It will help you connect with that potential within you that you did not know you had. In order to do so, it must get to your spirit which is beneath a lot of material things that we hold dear, which in truth have no value.”
While her physical performance represents the physical response she had on the journey, the film, shot by Katrina Hargrave, offers audiences insight into Nichi’s mind during the retreat. She added that Dance-a-lorus challenges choreographers to embrace new levels of creativity and truth.
“This piece shows remaining true to your values, human dignity and respect for all life, even in the midst of all we may see and experience. It takes courage to remain steadfast in the midst of today’s world,” she said.
Dance-a-lorus takes place Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Thalian Hall main stage. It’s open to all Pegasorus pass holders and individual tickets are $20.
First off, there are far too many films than what can possibly be suggested here, so let’s just narrow it down a bit to a few features that should be on your radar.
The bizarre ones are always the most fun and memorable at Cucalorus. On Sunday, 1:30 p.m., check out “The Pez Outlaw.” Directed by Bryan and Amy Baldien Storkle, the 87-minute feature will be a North Carolina premiere. It follows a Michigan Pez collector — yes, the colorful candy dispensers — who flies to Ukraine to find the motherlode of plastic doodads. He smuggles the dispensers stateside in order to pay off family debt and quit his job of 25 years, only to be met by his arch-nemesis.
“It’s too weird to be fiction,” Brawley said.
Another suggestion from Brawley comes in the story of Roger Sharpe. A real-life pinball wizard prominent in the overturning of a 35-year band on pinball machines in New York City.
“It’s a crowd-pleaser that just had its world premiere to great reviews at the Hamptons Film Festival,” he said.
Cucalorus also will have its share of internationally recognized work. The U.S. premiere of “Zoo Lock Down,” directed by Andreas Horvath, is scheduled for a second screening Nov. 18, 1:30, at Thalian Hall. It was filmed during the first days of the Covid-19 pandemic from the perspective of the animals at an Austrian zoo. A whimsical score and playful editing eye brings it to life.
“Ever watched a group of Lemurs watching a Rhino being inseminated? You can now!” Brawley said.
On a more reverent note, the 73-minute documentary “Rise and Rebuild: The Tale of Three Cities” screens Sunday at 7 p.m., directed by Asako Gladsjo and Sam Pollard. It follows three cities, once thriving Black communities, in the aftermath of slavery and Reconstruction.Yet, the prosperity happening in Chicago’s Bronzeville, Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn, and Wilmington’s own Brooklyn was thwarted. The doc follows how the areas are rebuilding equitably in home and business ownership, politics and urban farming.
“Wilmington is a central character in a survey of 200 years of Black history in America and featuring extensive interviews with local changemakers, like Tracey and Girard Newkirk [co-founders of Genesis Block, an incubator coworking space for small businesses],” Brawley said.
For a black comedy-turned-thriller, the 81-minute “Blow Up My Life” will screen Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at Thalian Hall’s black box theater. Produced by Cucalorus alum Alisha Bhowmik, and directed by Ryan Dickie and Abigail Horton, it tells the story of a young pharmaceutical employee-turned-reluctant whistleblower who, after a viral drug-fueled social media post, exposes his company, engaged in criminal activity in an opioid coverup. He goes on the run with the help of his cousin, a computer wiz, but runs into problems along the way. The black comedy becomes a thriller for the modern age and is making its East Coast U.S. premiere.
Brawley also points to Friday night’s feature “Our Father, The Devil,” as a can’t-miss film, which won the audience award at Tribeca Film Festival.
“It is an intense psychological thriller that dissects the emotional complexities of trauma, power, guilt, catharsis, and the devils hiding within us all,” he said.
There are 27 other features to choose from and approximately 10 blocks of shorts, featuring up to 10 shorts each. They move from provocative and profound in the Hellbender block (Saturday at 4:15 p.m., Thalian black box theater) to experimental and mad in Tasselled Wobbegong (Thursday, 1 p.m., Thalian main stage, and Saturday at 1:45 p.m., Jengo’s) to family-inspired in Pleasing Fungus Beetle block (Friday, 1:45 p.m., Thalian black box, and Sunday, 7:15 p.m., Jengo’s).
Blocks also include comedy, animation, dance and drama — see all selections here.
In addition to screenings, Cucalorus hosts “Conversations” — programming that includes a short film to generate in-depth dialogue about important topics that face the community.
Susie Hamilton will talk about a program that has launched in Wilmington, linking underserved populations to jobs in the industry. Film Partnership in NC just received a $500,000 infusion from the local government to continue strengthening workforce development in an area that has seen over $200 million in economic impact from productions in the Port City in 2022. The event takes place at 5 p.m. Thursday in Thalian’s ballroom.
Another conversation will come Saturday at 11 a.m. in the Thalian Hall ballroom, featuring wilmingtoNcolor. The tour was started by Cedric Harrison — executive director of New Hanover County’s anti-violence program Port City United, as well as founder of the local nonprofit Support the Port. (The latter is featured in a music video as part of Visual/Sound/Walls with hip-hop artist FatGrizz33 tackling the local Black community’s battle with poverty and trauma, oppression and injustice.)
WilmingtoNcolor launched earlier this year as an educational tour focused on the racial history of Wilmington. It airs a short film on its shuttle bus to show tourists a snapshot of Wilmington as it travels to various historical landmarks.
The stories center on African-American communities from 1789 to 2022. It shaped a city once comprising 50% Black residents until the 1898 Massacre (now Wilmington has 18% Black residents, according to the 2020 U.S. Census).
“Prosperity never got back to the level it was before 1898 for African Americans in Wilmington, but the prosperity that was restored during the 1930s to 1960s was affected tremendously because of integration — not necessarily because of integration in general, but more so the fact that integration decision-makers did a terrible job with the process,” Harrison said. “It’s clear the decision makers were not very equitable, diverse or inclusive.”
The tour hits on highlights that show, despite all odds, a community that rises above the tethers of racism. The building of Williston High School in 1898 proves one example. North Carolina’s first accredited Black high school closed and desegregated in 1968 — 14 years after the Supreme Court found the Brown v. Board of Education’s separating schools by race was unconstitutional. It has changed names, moved locations, endured a fire, was rebuilt, then closed and reopened. Today, it operates as Williston Middle School of Math, Science and Technology at 401 S. 10th St.
The conversation held Saturday will touch on healing and resiliency and how it’s needed to reach equitability.
“The discussion will be led from whatever is on the audience’s minds after seeing the short production,” Harrison said.
With plans to enhance the video, Harrison’s goal is to garner feedback, make connections and connect with resources.
“What better place to network than Cucalorus?” he asked.
Isabella Rossellini and other theatrical performances
Aside from films, there are theatrical performances taking place during the festival, “Dirt Trip” is being presented by Alexandria Tatarsky on Friday at 8 p.m.
“She’s been an emcee for many years at Cucalorus,” Brawley said, “and performed her ‘part exorcism, part enema’ ‘Americana Psychobabble’ in 2017.”
“Dirt Trip” (Friday, Nov. 18, 8 p.m.) illuminates a wacky and wild journey into pop-culture, crossing humor with performance art. In it, Tatarsky delves into the angst many have over evil clowns, while also examining urban blight.
The show is described as a “ballad of an unemployed court jester who desires to be a rotting vegetable, a lecture that decays into dirt.”
Another throwback to the creative energy that makes Cucalorus so special can be seen in Acme Revue, Saturday at 10:45 p.m. The variety show — Acme stands for art, comedy, music, end of show — rose from the confines of a Wilmington bar, hosted by comedian Julia Desmond. It will have diverse performance artists amping up the energy at Jengo’s Playhouse.
But the crème de la crème of the weekend will land Saturday evening when international celebrity and “Blue Velvet” icon Isabella Rossellini returns to Wilmington for the first time since David Lynch filmed the cult classic in the Port City in the mid ‘80s.
Annually, Cucalorus celebrates Lynch’s impact on the film community in Wilmington as part of its “Bus to Lumberton” program (Lumberton is the name of the town in “Blue Velvet”). In the past, the programming has included art installations, 5Ks, tours and interactive performances in homage.
“This is the ultimate Bus to Lumberton,” Brawley said.
Rossellini is giving a one-woman performance in “Darwin’s Smile” — exploring the life of humans and animals, particularly at the intersections of science and art. It made its official debut in Bellport, New York, in August, so Wilmington’s show is only her second curtain call.
She wrote the show during the pandemic on her farm. “Darwin’s Smile” taps into empathy, as both the basis for acting and of ethology, ideas derived from Charles Darwin’s “The Expression of Emotions on Man and Animals,” according to Rossellini. The end result wraps in humor with curiosity, to frame theories on acting and on science and nature. Read more about the show here.
Parties and such
Pegasorus passholders have multiple ways to enjoy the festival beyond film and live performances. Cucalorus hosts parties throughout the five-day festival, including Friday night’s filmmaker’s party taking place at the Wilmington Children’s Museum from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., with drinks and food available. It offers a chance to mingle with the creators whose works are shown throughout the festival.
In addition, Cucalorus’ headquarters, Jengo’s Playhouse, is open Thursday through Sunday, from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m., with a bar open to purchase cocktails. The filmmaker’s lounge, open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. in Thalian Hall, is a perfect meeting place in between screenings to have a drink, a snack and hob nob with others.
Imbibing continues as part of Cuctails, workshops hosted at area establishments from professionals on the scene. Taking place at area Bourgie Nights and Blind Elephant downtown, North Carolina distilleries will host representatives to talk about the spirits and how they balance the perfect drink.
Bourgie Nights will host Outer Banks Distillery on Friday at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., and Sutler’s Gin on Thursday at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., while Blind Elephant will welcome Method and Standard Vodka at 3 p.m. Saturday, Clover Whiskey on Sunday, 2 p.m., and Catdaddy Moonshine, 4 p.m., on Sunday.
Plenty of receptions are also planned throughout the week to continue celebrating moviemakers. A Black filmmakers reception at Thalian Hall’s ballroom takes place at noon on Saturday, followed by a docmaker’s party at Hi-Wire Brewing at 3 p.m. and a UNCW Film Studies alumni reunion at Reel Cafe at 5 p.m. Sunday will bring a female filmmaker’s reception in Jengo’s backyard at 11 a.m., with a cap-off to the festival taking place Sunday at Hell’s Kitchen at 10 p.m. It’s a costumed karaoke party, so bring your best look and vocals.
A few things to consider ahead of attending Cucalorus 28:
- Most film tickets are $15 per screening; Dance-a-lorus is $20, and Isabella Rossellini’s one-woman show, “Darwin’s Smile,” is $40-$65.
- Pegasaurus pass — which allows entry into everything except “Darwin’s Smile” — is $200.
- Tickets and passes can be bought at each venue or online; all individual tickets at Thalian Hall screenings are sold through Thalian Hall box office.
- Masks are encouraged for high-risk and non-vaccinated fest-goers.
- Free shuttles run every 20 minutes, 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., in a loop from Aloft Hotel, Hotel Ballast, Thalian Hall and Jengo’s Playhouse. A Friday night shuttle will also run for passholders to attend the sponsors party at the Children’s Museum.
- All venues are physically accessible via ADA standards and programmatically with closed captions.
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