At the 2019 Fresno Film Festival, a chance to expand your cinematic horizons

Editor’s note: The author is a Fresno State art major. He wrote this story in Donald Munro’s media-writing course.

By Xavituam I. Her

The Fresno Film Festival highlights quality films we wouldn’t otherwise see in the central San Joaquin Valley. Most of the time, films by indie studios are released in selected theaters only. Some never get to be seen on the big screen at all, especially foreign films that received acclaim.

Pictured above: ‘Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins’ plays Sunday at the Fresno Film Festival. Photo: Magnolia Pictures

The festival, sponsored by Fresno Filmworks, runs from Friday, Nov. 8, through Sunday, Nov. 10 at the Tower Theatre. The festival opens with “Sir” at 7:30 p.m. (Tickets for individual programs cost $10 general and $8 for students and seniors; festival passes cost $45.)

Rita Bell, president of Filmworks, answered questions about this year’s festival through email.

Q: What are you hoping to achieve with this year’s festival?

A: We hope we achieve exposure to indie films to a new and younger audience in a historic theater. I know there are members of younger generations who have never been to a movie theater to watch a movie; I’d like to show them the virtues of the movie theater experience.


Q: How is a film chosen to be presented at the event?

A: The process takes most of the summer. Our programming director reaches out to a multitude of independent film distributors to see what they are offering, then a five-person committee watches the films and slowly narrow down to the best of what is available. Our criteria is that the films must be in first-run theatrical or festival release, so there have been times when we loved a film and wanted to show it at the festival but by the date of the festival, it was already streaming or available for home screening, which eliminates the film for us. This situation has broken my heart a few times now.

Q: Can you tell us a little about this year’s lineup in terms of centerpiece films, highlights, etc.?

A: Definitely the highlight at this year’s festival is “Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins,” showing on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. It is getting the most buzz; Ivins is well remembered by many in Fresno. Another highlight this year is “Princess of the Row,” showing Saturday at 7:30 p.m. After the film, we will have one of the filmmakers, A. Shawn Austin, and lead actress Tayler Buck, discuss the film and share some stories filming on L.A.’s Skid Row. Filmworks’ board is also excited to feature a free-of-charge shorts film program on Sunday at 1 p.m.; all of the shorts feature the Central Valley or were made by local filmmaker(s). After the shorts program, we will have a Q&A discussion with some of the filmmakers and cast members.

Q: What are films to you? How have they impacted and led you to where you are now?

A: To me, films are art; a creative outlet of expression. Films, like music and books, have helped shape my life and belief systems; they are invaluable.

Q: In recent years, we’ve seen a slow decline of moviegoers, and movie theaters are now beginning to worry and wonder why. Why do you think that is happening? Has the festival been affected, too?

A: I think the easy availability of films on streaming devices is the biggest factor in declining theater attendance. I think people consume movies as much as ever, but many have large screens and surround sound at home, which doesn’t require leaving home to experience a film. Movie prices have gone up considerably over the years, so I am grateful for the accessibility of the situation. The downside is a loss of the communal excitement of watching a masterpiece. I vividly remember the excitement of watching “Star Wars” in a packed theater when I was a kid.

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Q: What are some ways you measure event success?

A: I measure our success by the audience reaction after the film. Sometimes people come out of the theater speechless and sometimes they stay in the theater talking about the film. Success is when the film(s) keep us thinking and talking.

Q: These films are all very different but grounded and focused on human struggle. Why should audiences see these types of films and continue to do so?

A: It is crucial for us to witness others’ experiences. If you cannot travel to other countries or witness first hand other cultures, films can bring it to you. Viewing others’ experiences gives our own lives richness and understanding which can affect other areas of our lives; it’s a ripple effect.

Q: Some people say that story and originality has disappeared from film, and to a certain extent (in my opinion) that is true. Yet, there are story-driven and original films being made every year but failing at the box office or just not getting the attention deserved. Are audiences hypocritical, ignorant, or is advertising at fault?

A: I agree that it can appear that storytelling and originality has disappeared from film, but as you say, they are still actually being made every year. I think the problem is that, even though we have the world at our fingertips, independent film is suffering from lack of exposure or widespread exposure to meet the average person where they are. Unfortunately, exposure takes money, and the money right now is flowing to the formulaic movie.

Q: What was the most popular film in last year’s festival in terms of attendance and feedback?

A: Last year’s most popular film was “Memoir of War,” France’s official 2019 Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film. Fresno loves French films, and this one got much positive feedback. “Birds of Passage” and “I Am Not a Witch” certainly struck chords with our audience, and not all of it was positive. And, that’s OK; film is successful when it elicits a reaction, whether positive or negative.

Q: Why should people attend the festival? Why and how is film important?

A: People should attend the 15th Annual Fresno Film Festival to see that original storytelling we were just talking about. You will also get that experience of others that I mentioned. Watching “Sir,” you get an understanding of the class-ism intricacies that exists in a metropolitan city like Mumbai. In “Princess of the Row,” you witness Alicia’s vulnerability of living on Skid Row with her dad; I wept through much of that movie. I felt the desperation of Kasey in “Ms. Purple” and kept wondering, what else can she do in her situation? I love when a film envelops me the way these did.


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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