By Sam Prickett
It’s been a dark year for independent cinema, but don’t expect this month’s Sidewalk Film Festival to be a dour affair.
“I think that we’ve done a good job – certainly the best that we could do – trying to balance the lineup in a year that’s very dark for film,” said Sidewalk Creative Director and Lead Programmer Rachel Morgan. “I think that independent film, especially, tends to be on the very forefront of reflecting our culture and our current state of things back to us, and I don’t think it’s any sort of secret that the world and our country is in a very interesting place right now, and you feel that in what’s coming out.”
When selecting films for this year’s festival, which will take place Aug. 19-25 in downtown Birmingham, organizers didn’t shy away from darker material. But Morgan said they also worked to “provide that balance of having fun, enjoying yourself and feeling good about life.”
Morgan points to two films from this year’s lineup to illustrate the festival’s range. The first, the Australian thriller film “The Nightingale,” is a brutal tale of revenge directed by Jennifer Kent (“The Babadook”). Morgan described that movie as “one of the best films I’ve seen, maybe in my entire life.”
But on the other end of the lineup’s emotional spectrum is another film with an avian title, The Peanut Butter Falcon. That film, a comedy-drama about a boy with Down syndrome who runs away with the dream of becoming a professional wrestler, “is a much kinder film,” Morgan said. “It really makes you think that the world’s going to be OK after all.”
This month’s festival will mark Sidewalk’s 21st year of existence, and organizers hope to communicate that the festival is intended for everyone, not just film buffs. The opening night film, which will screen at the Alabama Theatre, is the nostalgic documentary “I Want My MTV,” which Morgan describes as a celebration of one of the 1980s’ defining television channels. There also will be a screening of “The Empire Strikes Back” at the Lyric Theatre, a “rare opportunity” offered by Lucasfilm, Morgan said. The basement of the Lyric, meanwhile, will be transformed into a space that highlights virtual reality technology.
“We have a family lineup, we have a kids’ lineup, we have a lot of fun stuff,” Morgan said. “There are just so many wonderful, wonderful things in the lineup.”
Organizers emphasize the choose-your-own-adventure aspect of the festival.
“We just like to remind people that the festival can seem intimidating at first glance, in particular for someone that’s never been,” said Chloe Cook, the festival’s executive director. “But the event is actually really accessible. Once you’re here and your feet are on the ground in the theater district, you really have permission to get in a line at any venue you want to check out a film. If it’s really not your cup of tea, you can leave and try a different film on for size. Or, come and see a single film! If you’ve ever been to the Alabama Theatre, you can come to Sidewalk. It’s really not any more complicated (than) that.”
Sidewalk Opens Its Own Theaters
There’s another reason to check out this year’s festival, too. In addition to this year’s lineup of 72 feature films, Sidewalk is adding another brand-new element this year: its very own cinema.
The Sidewalk Film Center and Cinema will help to cement the festival as a year-round presence in the Magic City. For years, Sidewalk has offered new programming nearly every week, including film screenings, educational workshops, book and film clubs, and panel discussions with professional filmmakers.
The new facility, located in the basement of the Pizitz building in downtown Birmingham, won’t just be the home of two new theaters, but also will hold Sidewalk’s offices, a bar and lounge area, and a classroom for the festival’s educational programs.
Construction on the center is still ongoing, but organizers say they’re confident the cinema will be ready in time for the festival’s Aug. 19 kickoff, when it will host an event highlighting Alabama filmmakers.
The facility is the result of an ongoing $4.9 million capital campaign and years of planning. Initial discussions about starting an independent cinema in Birmingham started in the late 1990s, Cook said, but planning didn’t begin in earnest until late 2009. Even then, it took years to find the right location. The infrastructure offered by the Pizitz – including an adjacent parking deck, the food hall upstairs and the square-footage to accommodate two theaters – made it the best option, even though construction crews had to dig into the ground to accommodate the theaters’ stadium-style seating. The Pizitz’s location, too, places the cinema near the festival’s existing footprint in downtown Birmingham.
“Everything kind of lined up in a very logical way, and it kept us in the theater district, which we wanted,” Cook said.
After this year’s festival wraps up Aug. 25, the theater will run “just like a movie theater, year-round, seven days a week,” Morgan said.
One of the cinema’s two screens will be dedicated to new, independent films, each of which will have weeklong runs. The other screen will be divided between film retrospectives – “like an auteur series that celebrates, for example, the work of (director) Kathryn Bigelow, or a series that focuses on what it looks like when a film treats a city as a character,” Morgan said – and other special screenings and events. The goal, Morgan said, is “really interesting, thoughtful programming that works on a calendar model … where every single day looks a little bit different.”
The cinema, organizers hope, will mean that more people than ever will be able to enjoy what Sidewalk has to offer. “You can be a part of the Sidewalk family and never come to the festival now,” Cook says. “We hope that’s not the case, but it will be an option where it really hasn’t been before.”
Tickets to the festival range from $35 for day passes to $270 for VIP passes, and prices increase Aug. 19. Tickets can be purchased at sidewalkfest.com by clicking on the “Tickets” tab.