From its undisputed world-class opera, ballet, and symphony companies to the internationally acclaimed nonprofit photographic education and arts organization FotoFest – not to mention a staggering number of public art works by internationally renowned artists – downtown Houston just might be the world’s least-known haven for art and art lovers of every stripe and imagination.
In an effort to blow the lid off this closed-circuit secret, former Mayor Bill White in 2007 tapped Franci Crane, municipal tour de force, to head a task force of cultural leaders from multiple disciplines. That task force led to the formation of the Houston Cinema Arts Society and commitment to a film festival focused on innovative cinema and new media by and about visual, performing, and literary arts and artists. In essence, the festival’s unique focus was designed to thread together the city’s thriving arts scene via the medium of film.
The inaugural Houston Cinema Arts Festival in 2009 drew attendees to 34 events, with 44 guest artists, including Oscar-winning actress and documentary director Tilda Swinton, acclaimed Texas-based director Richard Linklater and Oscar-nominated Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Arriaga.
Over the next two years the little film festival that could would grow by leaps and bounds. The nonprofit Houston Cinema Arts Society expanded its collaborations with other Houston arts organizations in 2010 to include Contemporary Art Museum Houston, The Menil Collection, Miller Outdoor Theatre, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Rice Media Center and the Texas Film Commission. The festival hosted 95 guest artists and arts aficionados who contributed to 45 screenings and live performances over five days at six venues. The festival also attracted big screen royalty to Houston in the forms of Isabella Rossellini, Shirley MacLaine, and John Turturro.
And last year’s Houston Cinema Arts Festival proved that the third time really is the charm, drawing an unprecedented crowd of more than 10,000 people and racking up critical raves in the process. The theatee venues drew standing-room-only crowds at screenings, a continuous wave of foot traffic at eye-popping installations – dubbed Cinema on the Verge – and scores of enthusiastic supporters at live performances and events throughout the city over the five-day festival.
Last year’s red carpet opening night set the tone for success with the regional premiere of Downtown Express, accompanied by director David Grubin and the film’s star, the brilliant Russian-American violinist Philippe Quint. The Brown Auditorium at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, drew a crowd of more than 300, who were treated post-screening to Quint’s live virtuoso performance of two numbers, Tchaikovsky Melody and a stunning rendition of It Ain’t Necessarily So.
The lineup of international artists and cutting-edge filmmakers, including A-listers Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater, proved to be as alluring to festival participants as to festival-goers.
“One of the nicest aspects of last year’s festival was the camaraderie among the guest artists and the pleasure they took in experiencing each other’s films and Houston’s hospitality,” says HCAF artistic director Richard Herskowitz.
Shakespeare High producer Brad Koepenick echoed that sentiment following the debut of his award-winning documentary.
“As an actor and filmmaker, I’ve been to dozens of festivals, including Toronto, Sundance and Tribeca, but what sets Houston Cinema Arts Festival apart is its unique array of international films and artists, its exceptional vision of blending live performance and film, and its dedication to providing ‘an experience’ for both the festival participants and the audience at large,” Koepenick said.
From fascinating conversations with legendary Latin American director Patricio Guzman and Braden King’s unforgettable presentation of Here: The Story Never Sleeps, to the joyous responses to Trimpin’s interactive installations and the articulate and genuine presence of Ethan Hawke, the 2011 Cinema Arts Festival Houston was a perfect storm of planning, programming and performance – complete with a storybook ending.
As more than 3,000 people converged on Miller Outdoor Theatre for the closing night festivities surrounding the world debut of Art Car: The Movie, native Houstonian and co-director Carlton Ahrens confirmed, “It was an overwhelmingly positive experience and such an honor that we were chosen to be a part of it. It's such a cool thing to have a free showing for thousands of people to come out and see.”
Art Car co-director Ford Gunter was equally inspired.
“The entire festival was a whirlwind of incredible screenings, panels and interactive installations,” he said. “It's a huge thrill and honor to be part of it, surrounded by peers we hold in high, high regard. The entire event, from the guest artists to the volunteer corps, could not have been more friendly and helpful in just about every way.”
The 2012 Houston Cinema Arts Festival, Nov. 7-11, may be the best yet. Itt moves the bulk of its screenings, interactive installations, live performances and special events – along with festival headquarters – to downtown, giving it the added caché of becoming a walkable festival. With most screenings now being held on two screens at Sundance Cinemas, Hotel Icon serving as the official festival hotel, and Metro providing light rail service to the Museum of Fine Arts and Asia Society, the festival can be navigated easily and effortlessly by film buffs, guest artists and event enthusiasts.
“We are very excited about bringing the central hub of Houston Cinema Arts Festival activity to downtown,” says Trish Rigdon, the festival’s executive director. “With two screens at the gorgeous new Sundance Cinemas in the heart of the Theater District and other festival events taking place in downtown venues, attendees will enjoy the opportunity to do more both day and night within walking distance of restaurants and other downtown attractions.”
Though the full festival program – including celebrity guest artists – won’t be released until the kickoff at Hotel Icon in October, the festival’s artistic director, Richard Herskowitz, tells Downtown there will be a special emphasis on women directors this year. The festival will celebrate the 40th anniversary of Women Make Movies, the pioneering distributor of independent films by women, featuring one of the company's most significant figures, director Lourdes Portillo. Portillo, who was the focus of a recent retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art, will be showing three of her films, including two films that were made as tributes to Selena, the Tejana superstar.
Another significant independent distribution company, Milestone Films, issending its two founders, Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, to discuss Project Shirley, their campaign to restore and re-release the films of the late, great American film director Shirley Clarke. Doros and Heller will present Clarke's The Connection and Ornette: Made in America, highlighting the life of Texas-born jazz great Ornette Coleman.
The Milestone and Women Make Movies programs will screen primarily in the Sundance Cinemas.
"It is the role of film festivals like ours to foreground the work of independent distributors like Women Make Movies and Milestone, whose work is so vital to advancing film culture,” Herskowitz said. “And though women directors are still under represented in the multiplexes, I'm pleased that they will be especially well-represented in this year's festival program."
Herskowitz also promises an exciting lineup of new feature films, all of which address the festival's main focus – the visual, performing, and literary arts.Among these titles will be the Cannes sensation, Caesar Must Die, the latest film by the Taviani brothers, and Trash Dance, the South By Southwest hit film on dancing sanitation workers that will be accompanied by Austin-based director Andrew Garrison and choreographer Alison Orr.
Additional support for this year’s festival are partners-in-art: Asia Society, Project Row Houses, Aurora Picture Show, University of Houston’s Blaffer Art Museum and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts.
Through the vision and expertise of our city’s thriving and dedicated arts community, Houston Cinema Arts Festival’s 2012 edition is poised to take downtown by storm. Please visit cinemartsociety.org for exciting developments and announcements.