Spotlight on Colorado: Dispatches From the 38th Denver Film Festival

Come sit and be swept away,” the Denver Film Festival boasts. And for the 38th time, it aims to do just that. Running Nov. 4-15, DFF beckons moviegoers young and old, new and seasoned, liberal and conservative, with roughly 250 features and shorts covering just about everything under the sun. Whatever your cup of tea, DFF has a kettle waiting just for you.

This is especially true for those interested in what the Centennial State has to offer the world of cinema. Featuring a blend of narratives, shorts, documentaries, experimentals, and music videos, DFF showcases films on a variety of different topics. It also attracts a smorgasbord of filmmakers with Colorado connections and debuts several homegrown works, including an animated short from Kelly Sears, University of Colorado Boulder assistant professor of film studies, called Pattern for Survival.

Playing Nov. 5-7, Pattern for Survival is a collection of sequential images taken from the U.S. Army Survival Manual, which Sears repurposes with great effect.

Pattern for Survival. Images courtesy Denver Film.

“In reading this insanely detailed 300-page manual, there became an aggression to the idea of security,” Sears says“Which I think is something that we feel around us all the time. The post-9/11 idea of a war on terror that is so amped up and so overdriven that it’s kind of a part of our psychic fabric at this point.”

From these blasé images and commands, Sears crafts a sense of compulsion, obsession, and fear.

“The thing that really excites me about animation is taking something that’s existed in a different form and responding to it and activating it,” Sears explains. “I like the idea of looking at a still image or an archival film and thinking about other visual ways it can exist and other kinds of stories it can tell.”

Pattern for Survival marks the first time Sears’ work will be featured at DFF. Also true of Colorado writer/director Arnold Grossman’s debut, The Boat Builder (Nov. 13 and 14)—a lighthearted drama about a miserly septuagenarian, Abner (Christopher Lloyd), and a troubled young orphan, Rick (Tekola Cornetet)—but Grossman is no stranger to the festival. In addition to being an active member in the Denver film community, Grossman was the chairman of the festival for two years in the 1970s.

“[The Boat Builder] began with [me] finding two characters that I became very interested in—people that I actually met here in Colorado,” Grossman says. “[The older] was a man who was really searching for something. He had reached that stage in his life in his 70s, [and] was finding that people wanted to map out a future for him. … He wanted to find his own future. The thing that he resisted most was a fairly predictable consignment to any kind of a facility.”

From this inspiration, Grossman crafted the character of Abner, a lifetime merchant mariner who is fixing up a boat to sail the seas one last time. This endeavor is at odds with his family’s wishes and city ordinances. 

“Within a short time of getting to know this man, I got to know a boy who was at the time 9 years old and orphaned and had some not very pleasant experiences in foster homes,” Grossman continues. “He had gone to several, and it looked like he might have to go to a facility of some kind rather than yet another foster home. From there, I found this commonality between two people at opposite ends of the life cycle.”

Although unintentional, Colorado native Rob Christopher also explored his own life cycle while making his feature film debut, Pause of the Clock (Nov. 7-9).

“When I wrote the script, I was basically 19, and no one really told me that this was an insane idea to do this,” Christopher says.

They also didn’t tell Christopher that he would take an unscheduled 20-year hiatus before Pause of the Clock would be finished.

Inspired by the early films of Jean-Luc Godard, Christopher started work on Pause of the Clock—a self-referential story about a filmmaker who goes off to college, leaving a close friend behind—when he was 19. To finance the film, Christopher took a page from Rick Schmidt’s book, Feature Films at Used-Car Prices, and piecemealed his financing from family and friends until he had enough to start shooting in Golden in 1995.

Christopher continued filming in Colorado and Chicago—where Christopher attended film school—but in 1996, Christopher completely ran out of money for the movie and for himself. Unable to complete postproduction, Christopher shelved the project, found work as a writer, and moved on with his life. Then in 2013, a fire was lit under Christopher’s keester.

“Roger Ebert passed away, and it really affected a lot of us here in Chicago,” Christopher explains. “I finally got around to reading his memoir, Life Itself, which I just found to be so inspirational.”

In 2002, Ebert was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer. In 2006, he lost the ability to speak and eat when his jaw was surgically removed in hopes of obliterating the cancer.

“Here was a guy who could have just retired with his legacy intact and been remembered that way,” Christopher says. “But instead, he redoubled his efforts and became a better writer than he ever had been before. That was a real inspiration for me to finish my own project.”

And thanks to a successfully funded Kickstarter campaign, Christopher could afford to finish his project. On Nov. 7, Pause of the Clock, and a unique slice of 1995, will make its debut.

“I was very adamant when I decided to finish the film that I didn’t want to add any additional footage. I didn’t want to record any digital voice-over, anything like that,” Christopher explains. “Except for some of the music tracks, basically everything that you see and hear in the film is from that time.

“I wanted [Pause of the Clock] to be a time capsule without calling attention to itself,” Christopher says.

What makes DFF special for Colorado filmmakers is not simply the work but a chance for the workers to establish a community.

“I’m looking forward to the Denver Film Festival because there are a lot of bridges between wild stories and experimentation,” Sears says“My film gets to open up for the gonzo-seeming Crumbs, and I can see a program of Nathaniel Dorksy’s work for the Stan Brakhage Award. As an animator and professor, I’m either holed up working with a project or working a lot with my students. … I’m looking [forward to] meeting other filmmakers and getting a sense of other film scenes here.”

“There are great opportunities here for the film business,” Grossman says. “Particularly, since about three years ago, the incentive program was strengthened and made more competitive.”

Cinema always has been, and always should be, a democratic endeavor, and the Denver Film Festival is working to ensure that the grassroots aspects of Colorado’s film scene develop and take off.

Pause of the Clock

The above article first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 23, No. 14, dispatches from the 38th Denver Film Festival: “Spotlight on Colorado.”