By Dan Goforth
Occasionally, I try to spotlight individual film festivals to give you a flavor of what they’re like. One of my favorite events is the Sidewalk Film Festival, named one of the “Top 25 coolest film festivals” by Movie Maker magazine. Time called it one of the “Top ten festivals for the rest of us” and USA Today selected it as one of their “10 great places for a fabulous film festival.”
So with all these accolades, you obviously want to know, “Where is this hidden gem?”
Birmingham, Alabama, of all places. Visiting filmmakers have said they savor the laid-back atmosphere coupled with Southern hospitality. But it’s not just vibes that make this such a great festival. Here’s a list of the many attractions:
Nine different screening venues with a total capacity of over 4,000 seats! While many festivals will have you trying to flag down a shuttle bus or taxi, trying to get to your next selected screening, all of Sidewalk’s screens are within easy walking distance of each other (the furthest being around 6 blocks – but there’s always trams making constant rounds, too, for those who prefer being chauffeured).
And what great venues to walk to! The chief among them is the legendary Alabama Theatre. Built in 1927 as a silent movie house, it is home to “The Mighty Wurlitzer,” one of only 3 organs of its type still installed in their original sites. The Alabama Theatre can seat over 2,000 people and hosts a robust summer classic movies program, as well as special events throughout the year. It was named one of the ten “Most beautiful movie theaters in America” by Flavorwire magazine. The near future should also see the reopening of the equally legendary Lyric Theater, a 1914 live performance theater across the street from the Alabama.
A film festival is about MOVIES! And Sidewalk has them in abundance. Over 140 documentary and narrative short films from all over the world screened at this year’s festival. There's something for everyone, from the award winning documentary World Fair, which takes viewers back to the 1939 New York World Fair, to the audience favorite romantic comedy, Stakes, and everything in between. In addition to the short films, Sidewalk hosted feature films like Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls and the Oscar-talk Short Term 12, plus many more. The only problem with the number of films here is trying to fit into your schedule all the ones you want to see!
Sidewalk doesn’t forget that film begins with STORY! Hosting short screenplay contests in two categories, international and Alabama-only, the Sidewalk Sidewrite competition not only provides cash prizes to the winners, they also host a TABLE READ of the finalists in each category, performed by The Birmingham Film Actors Lab.
To get a “package look” at everything Sidewalk, I spoke with L.A.-based filmmaker Destri Martino, creator/director of the award-winning web series Mixed Blooms. Her short film, The Director, has traveled to many festivals, including a showcase at the American Pavilion at Cannes. Destri is a board member for Alliance of Women Directors and also maintains the popular website and Twitter account dedicated to promoting women directors, thedirectorlist.com and @TheDirectorlist. She also writes Queue This!,a bi-weekly column about women-directed films on Netflix for the Broad Humor Film Festival Blog.
Here’s what Destri had to say about why Sidewalk holds such an attraction for filmmakers year after year:
"This year, I attended as a writer with the Sidewrite Competition, since my short script, I Got This, was chosen as a finalist. The three finalist scripts were read by Birmingham actors on the Sunday morning of the festival… it's a great opportunity to hear your script read aloud by actors because it makes you see your material in a new way. It also helped that the actors were very sweet and enthusiastic."
Most people were puzzled by my excitement to return to Birmingham for Sidewalk, "You're going to Birmingham, Alabama? Why?" Uh, because it's amazing. They just don't know... it blows my mind that this festival continues to fly under the radar. I'm convinced people are discovering and loving it, but keeping it to themselves, so it doesn't become too big. Hopefully, they won't kill me for sharing my enthusiasm for the festival.
The city of Birmingham definitely rolls out the red carpet for its visitors-- the screenings are all usually well-attended and, of course, there's an endless amount of southern hospitality (and delicious BBQ!).
I attended the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival for the first time in 2011 with my short film, The Director. Even though it was early in my festival run, I knew the experience was very, very special. The team who runs the festival does a great job of bringing all the filmmakers together in a way that resembles the best possible summer camp scenario. Before the festival starts screening movies, there are a few all-filmmaker activities ripe for mingling and bonding, so you really get to know other attendees (and yes, the filmmakers and industry people who attend are worth knowing). Then, every night of the festival there's a great party where more of that famous bonding occurs. I now have Sidewalk friends, many of which have already been down the feature road, who I feel comfortable contacting for advice and support when making my first feature. And that is worth the cost of an airline ticket to Birmingham and quizzical looks from friends in L.A. who just don't know.
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