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To Be or Not to Be (a film festival)

Animation, Experimental, Narrative, Spec Commercials – and Stereoscopic 3D shorts; something for everyone at the Be Film Festival.

3D Filmgoers at the Be Film Festival

It may not get a fraction of the publicity showered on the high-profile Tribeca Film Festival, but in its seventh year the Be Film Festival has made a name for itself nonetheless. (Like DeNiro’s festival, Be Film takes place in late April.)

As so often happens when creative folks get together, Be Film is one of those things that spontaneously gives birth to itself and then grows and grows… it all began in 2004 when founder Laurence Asseraf started screening the short films and videos artists were sending her, on the wall of her Soho art gallery. “By 2005 we already had to move to a bigger location and the next year we held the Festival in an actual screening room,” Asseraf recalls.

Its initial name – the Tribeca Underground Film Festival – fell by the wayside when that certain other festival expressed its concern in 2006 over the possibility of people assuming the two were connected. “We changed our name to the Be Film Festival the next year, as in ‘to be or not to be,” she explains. “We live our films, we’re very passionate about it them – besides, we already had the URL befilm.net.”Be Film accepts short films and videos in seven categories: narrative, animation, experimental, music videos, ‘specs’ (commercials that are made as production company show pieces and never meant to air, or test commercials that ultimately went unaired), documentaries and 3D.

The abbreviation ‘3D’ might summon up images of animated features and special effects blockbusters, but there are plenty of artists and independent filmmakers working in the ‘stereoscopic’ medium, as Dimitris Athos, the festival’s program director since 2005, refers to it. “About two years ago I begged and pleaded we add a 3D stereoscopic category to the festival.

“I’m member of the New York Stereoscopic Society, the National Stereoscopic Association and other 3D organizations for many years now. Initially I knew there were enough 3D films out there to have at least a small category. That was met with skepticism from some people, but Laurence took the chance and we added the category. The response was initially minimal, but as the months progressed towards last year’s festival submissions started popping out of the woodwork. All these people had done 3D stereo work but not had any place to show it. They’d looked everywhere to screen somewhere cinematically established, in addition to a 3D consortium or a 3D-focussed event of some sort. By initiating the category we wanted to help elevate the stereoscopic medium, giving it the opportunity for cinematic credibility just as we do for our animation and spec categories.”

This year’s 3D films covered a variety of techniques and subject matter: “Train of Thought,” an intergenerational narrative work from France conveys the claustrophobic circumstances of life in a small rural house… “Plasticity,” a 3D effort from artist Ryan Suits combines animation, lightpainting, photography sequences of day-glo painted dancers and geometric shapes to convey a sense of entrapment in a futuristic world. An animated Fanta commercial unleashes ultra-stylized cartoon characters… and, “Pop Secret” presents mind-blowing, mutating popcorn CGI characters.

The Festival’s sophisticated narrative shorts could easily bear expansion into feature-length films, but work perfectly as self-contained vignettes: the unusual lives of school kids in “The Six Dollar Fifty Man” and “Miracle Fish”… coke-snorting Sigmund Freud discovers the Oedipus complex in “Freud’s Magic Powder”… the strange relationship of an illness-obsessed girl and a young pharmacist in “Adelaide”… or Twilight Zone-style weirdness in the future-meets-past “Remote” (which, its director Marc Roussel reveals, may indeed have a shot at becoming a full-length movie).

The animation category attracts quite a few big names. “We’ve always had a very big presence with the New York animation community – they used to come to the art gallery” back in the old days, says Asseraf. Now the festival screens the likes of Bill Plympton’s latest, “The Cow That Wanted to be a Hamburger,” John Dilworth’s “Rinky Dink” or this year’s Oscar winning short “Logorama.”

The biggest celebrity at this year’s festival had to be Ultra Violet, star of Andy Warhol’s underground films. No longer the bohemian beauty of the 1960’s, Ultra was on hand to discuss “Ultra Violet for Sixteen Minutes,” a documentary tracing her life from her Warhol days to her time as Salvador Dali’s mistress and her late-life spiritual conversion. The fearless woman let director David Gerson intercut merciless wrinkles-and-all close-ups of her aged body with back-in-the-day scenes of her underground film stardom as a backdrop to her musings on the meaning of it all.

At this point Be Film receives over 500 submissions for the festival and another 300 over the course of the year, all vying for a slot in the April festival.  A special screening of 3D stereoscopic films from the festival’s last two years takes place this Saturday at the Crosby Hotel in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood – and those fortunate enough to summer out in eastern Long Island can catch the Festival’s annual screening at the South Hampton Public Library (this year taking place on July 29th).

What criteria determines which films are selected for the Festival? “Our initial criteria is what appeals to us,” says Athos without hesitation. “We have films from sixteen and seventeen year olds and from multi-award winning filmmakers of any age. The most important thing is always what’s on the screen – everything else is secondary.”

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