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A LAFF-ing Matter: Music Docs Highlight IFP/West Fest

By Sarah Jo Marks

From Joey Garfield and Jacob Craycroft's <em>Breath Control: The History of the Human Beat Box</em>.

The Eighth Annual IFP/West Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF) emerged this year with a new look, a new name and more films than ever before. Boasting 153 films, including 23 documentaries from around the world, LAFF brought 35,000 people out to West Hollywood to enjoy a remarkably eclectic smattering of festival fare.

In 1992 Robert Faust, a producer of the Independent Spirit Awards, decided to create a film festival in LA dedicated to showcasing indie films. The Los Angeles Independent Film Festival was born three years later. In its first six years, the festival established itself as a well-respected independent entity. Though docs were few and far between—only two were screened in 1998—the festival programmed landmark films, including The Cruise (Bennett Miller), Fighter (Amir Bar-Lev) and Keep the River on Your Right (David Shapiro and Laurie Gwen Shapiro), while Pop & Me (Richard and Chris Roe) picked up the Audience Award in 1999 for Best Feature. Faust sold the fest to IFP/West in 2001 because he felt they were best positioned to attract top films and filmmakers. IFP/West dropped the word “independent” in its first year at the helm, and this year IFP/West made a major change in moving the festival from April to June.

With the support of major financial and in-kind sponsors--and an $850,000 budget--IFP/West targeted both local industry professionals, who are used to traveling off to Park City, Toronto and Cannes, as well as LA movie goers. With so much going on in LA, big audiences would be a challenge, but a combination of great marketing and superior programming got people excited about attending.

The selection of films provided something for everyone, with the themes of music, education and self-discovery highlighting the program. “It happened organically,” Rachal Rosen, IFP/West’s Director of Programming, explains. “It’s not like we ever set out to program thematically; the music theme was strong throughout this year’s entries. Docs about music are popular because they can reach beyond the regular doc audience and find more and more viewers.”

Fans of ’80s “beat boxing” and early rap music packed the screening of first-time filmmakers Joey Garfield and Jacob Craycroft’s Breath Control: The History of the Human Beat Box. With fun animation, never-before-seen footage and a killer soundtrack, Breath Control proved a favorite with the audience, which was also treated to a post-screening performance from two of the film’s subjects.

Also screening in competition was the summer Cowboy Pictures release of Sam Jones’ I am Trying to Break Your Heart, a beautiful black-and-white love letter to American rock band Wilco.

Je Chanterai Pour Toi (I’ll Sing for You) tells the story of singer Boubacar Traore, the “Malian Elvis,” and his evolution from a national icon to family man and the loss that would change his life forever. French documentarian Jacques Sarasin directed this delicate story with grace and love for his subject. Beautifully photographed by Stephan Oriach, the story unfolds through Traore’s music, beautiful landscapes and interviews with friends of the subject. When asked why he never interviewed Traore, Sarasin said that he wanted the music to be the driving force of the story.

In Nick Broomfield’s Biggie & Tupac, the filmmaker seeks out the truth behind the shootings of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur just six months apart from each other, with the possible involvement of the LAPD and Death Row Records executive Suge Knight. True to his signature style, Broomfield is a frequent on-screen presence, providing the audience with commentary as he investigates this conspiracy theory.

“The festival was really about people discovering themselves, filmmakers and films alike,” Rosen explained. Topics ranged from the national spelling bee (Jeffrey Blitz’s Spellbound, which won the Audience Award) to the female orgasm (Michaline Babich’s The Big O) to an inner-city high school’s production of Our Town (Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s Jury Prize winning OT: Our Town), the slate of documentaries inspired spirited dialogues between audiences and filmmakers.

With world premieres, an impressive international sidebar, and a greatly expanded documentary competition, LAFF is clearly raising its profile, especially with nonfiction films sharing equal billing their fiction counterparts. Looking ahead to next year, Rosen intimated that people were so pleased with this year’s experience that IFP/West could hope for more festivals like this one in the future. This is a festival to watch.


Sarah Jo Marks is IDA’s Programs and Festivals Coordinator.