Second-Annual DWIFF Highlights

Second-Annual DWIFF Highlights

I admit that this year’s Detroit Windsor International Film Festival seemed a little less grand in scope, with screenings and opening/closing ceremonies being held almost solely on the Wayne State University campus (compared to last year when the opening ceremony was in the center of the RenCen, the opening night film premiere was at the Detroit Film Theatre, other screenings were held at the Scarab Club, and so forth), but the quality of content more than made up for the slight scaling down and the general level of excitement didn’t seem diminished.

Besides, it still maintained some of the features that sets it apart from other festivals, including the CineFlow TechFair held at the Center for Creative Studies (with workshops and discussions covering a broad spectrum of filmmaking technologies and basic industry how-tos) and the 48-hour film challenge.

There were a number of standout features and documentaries (my only regret is that I couldn’t see more), and some were truly stellar. Below is a run-down of my day-by-day DWIFF experience:

Day One

Having just got back from a week out of town, I skipped out on the opening reception with Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano, but still made it out to catch that evening’s premiere for a film called Street Boss, directed by Dearborn’s Lance Kawas.

Street Boss
Not the worst movie ever made, but close. So dreadfully riddled with cliches and over-the-top acting, it seemed like little more than a parody of itself. The proof lies in the fact that, during one of the “intense” scenes at the end, several members of the audience were laughing. And this won “Best Feature”? I hope under the “comedy” category. I was forced to decline an opportunity to interview members of the cast and crew because really, what could I say?

Day Two 

The Purple Gang

Apparently this film created a lot of interest, because this was a fairly full screening. A fantastic, thorough, highly informative look at one of the most influential organized crime outfits in history, Detroit’s own Purple Gang.

A group of predominantly Jewish mobsters, the Purple Gang owned the streets of Detroit, controlled the flow of bootleg booze during Prohibition (and since a great majority of the alcohol illegally smuggled into the States during this time was through Detroit, this meant that the Purple Gang had a stranglehold on much of the criminal enterprises throughout the country). They were known as one of the most ruthless, vicious, most violent gangs in history, and were behind the Milaflores, Collingwood Manor, and St. Valentine’s Day massacres. Under the leadership of Abraham Bernstein, the Purple Gang demanded and ensured racial harmony amongst all the different ethnic gangs, and were well-respected by these so-called “rivals.”  They were the only gang who could tell Al Capone to “fuck off,” and he listened. This documentary covers the height of the organization’s criminal activities during the Prohibition era, and shows how one of the most powerful mob outfits in history eventually faded off into oblivion.  A Q&A with director H.G. Manos afterwards revealed that there are long-terms plans to turn the material in this documentary into a feature film, one that could surely compete with The Godfather based solely on the strength of its subject matter.

Dear Mr. Fidrych
A story about men bonding over baseball…true, it’s been done before, but this one at least has some Detroit roots. One of two films that feature one of the final performances by one of its actors (here, the real-life Mark Fidrych, who died in a tragic accident this past April as the film was wrapping production; the other being David Carradine in The Rain), Dear Mr. Fidrych was one of the highlights of this year’s DWIFF, paying homage both to Detroit and to the quirky Tigers’ star pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. I missed this screening in favor of mobsters and bootleg booze, but came back in time  to see all the kids from the film pouring out of the theatre, faces all smiles. As I heard tell of it, the film was only so-so, but I hardly think that matters to nostalgic Tigers fans.

Breaking Upwards
I loved this film for so many reasons, and you can read them all here.

Day Three

The Rain
Thanks to the director for personally thanking everyone in the credits (who were apparently all in the audience), this film didn’t end until 9:20PM. Luckily, the next film I wanted to catch also started late, so it all worked out for me.  While heading to this film a few minutes late, I ran into a friend and her mom off to see the same show. Afterwards I asked them what they thought and my friend said, rather succinctly, “Did he need to talk so long?”

This was a rather weak offering, which was exceptionally disappointing given that many people were anxious to see this, one of David Carradine’s final performances. The DWIFF screening was the world premiere of the film (did I mention all the cast and crew in the audience?), and it will likely have a good run in the festival circuit capitalizing on the death of one of its stars, but this doesn’t make this film any less of a jumble of cliched metaphors, confused motifs, and bad acting. Read all about it here.

Nerdcore Rising

Nerdcore: the latest trend in hip-hop for, well, nerds. Nerdcore Rising tells the story of this geek-tastic cultural phenomenon, following the movement’s forefather and figurehead, MC Frontalot, as he strives to take over the rapping world, one gaming convention at a time. Frontalot also played a free live performance after the screening, which I missed because I wanted to see…


…which was to me the sleeper hit of the festival. Breaking Upwards and The Purple Gang, my other two favorites, had already received a great deal of buzz. Tracy was a film I just simply took a gamble on, and much like my accidental discovery of Stick It In Detroit last year, I was pleasantly surprised.

Tracy is the first feature film by writer/director Dan Scanlon, who is an animation story artist and owns a production company called Caveat Productions with wife Michelle. Tracy is the story of one documentarian’s search to solve the decades-old murder of the fun-loving Tracy Knapp, who used to host a very popular children’s show called “The Imagination Train Station” before it was cancelled after an uproar of protests from parents and teachers. Children loved him but adults hated him, and Dan Sullivan (Scanlon) is on a mission to identify suspects and solve once and for all the mystery of who shot Tracy Knapp. This leads to a journey which takes him to Tracy’s clown-stripper ex-wife and bitterly estranged son (who has a tendency to draw pictures of himself, flowing-haired and muscle-bound, slaying dragons with his father’s face). And from there…untold adventures of tomfoolery involving our fearless filmmaker/narrator.

Tracy is a uniquely clever, refreshingly original, slyly sarcastic mockumentary that carefully cajoles sympathy for these hapless, wacky, unabashedly geeky characters while still getting some good laughs out of their eccentricities. Scanlon, as Sullivan, never crosses the line of good-naturedly poking at his subjects’ many foibles into outright cruelly mocking them, and that is part of what makes the film so endearing. Even our occasionally self-deprecating narrator (who, in all fairness to his exposure of one of his prime suspect’s inner geekdom, exposes his own furry secret) is just a big silly dork at heart, which makes him fit right in with his interview subjects. Reminiscent of Christopher Guest at his cheekiest (though we never see Guest in front of the camera), Tracy could easily garney a cult following of neon-yellow curly-headed wig-wearers. Though there were moment when I had to stifle a giggle in an otherwise silent screening room (the rest of the audience didn’t really seem to “get” it), I found this to be a quietly witty farce worthy of big, hearty laughs. I hope it finds them.

Once again, another wonderful year for the Detroit Windsor International Film Festival, even if it was slightly scaled-down from last year’s ambitious inagural event.  And for film lovers such as myself, you’ll be happy to know that some of the same people behind the DWIFF are also putting together the Ferndale Film Festival, which launches this September, and marks another steps towards southeastern Michigan’s growing prominence in the film industry.