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Fairhope Film Festival gaining national notice

Alabama Living Magazine

By Gita Smith

“The best of the best” is how Mary Riser describes the movies that will be shown Nov. 9-12 in Fairhope. That’s because she and her staff travel to film festivals all around the country to see movies that win prizes and acclaim. Then, they book those movies and show them at the Fairhope Film Festival, an event now in its 11th year and gaining national notice.

The crowd gathers at a previous festival for the movie “Diving Deep,” a documentary about Mobile native Mike DeGruy who specialized in underwater cinematography.

Riser, the event’s executive director and originator, says the 2023 lineup of 20 films will offer full-length features, documentaries and short subjects in three screening rooms in downtown Fairhope. Tickets are sold for individual movies as well as multiple films. They will go on sale starting Oct. 26 at the festival website: fairhopefilmfestival.org.

A lively street party, morning discussion meet-ups with directors, and a special look at budding student filmmakers are among the events featured over the four days. 

The Fairhope festival attracts viewers from across Alabama. But movie lovers from as far away as California make the trip, for good reason, says Riser. The films her staff selects are thoughtful and, mostly, less noisy than those in neighborhood multiplexes.  

“The selections won’t include Marvel Comics,” she says. “We book independent and foreign films that otherwise might not be shown in commercial theaters in Alabama. This year, we’ll be screening titles from Europe, Asia (a winner at 2023 Cannes festival) and Israel as well as the USA.”

S. Epatha Merkerson and Rockell Metcalf, producer and director of the 2012 documentary, “The Contradictions of Fair Hope,” which was shown at a past festival.

Riser is a lifelong movie lover.  She conceived of the festival in 2011 in her garage office. “I had been showing films at the University of South Alabama’s Baldwin campus: 12 English language films in fall semester and 12 foreign films in spring. When Netflix came along, I took a year off. Then, a film festival seemed like it would be easier and reach more people. We expanded from the campus 11 years ago to a four-venue event.”

Of this year’s fictional offerings, Riser says some are tender, like one from Switzerland about a couple in their later years trying to sort out their marriage. Some deal with difficult issues, like one from Israel. “‘You Will Not Play Wagner’ is a stage play turned into a film about a Jewish musician who’s told not to perform music by the notorious anti-Semitic composer,” she says.

Among the eagerly anticipated documentaries on the list is the critically acclaimed, “Against All Enemies,” directed by Charlie Sadoff. It investigates how violent white nationalist organizations, such as Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, recruit soldiers and police.

Fairhope offers a taste of Southern culture mixed with international flavor, to the benefit of ticketholders.  For example, says assistant-to-the-director Barb Stassen, “Unlike other festivals that seat filmmakers in special seats off to themselves, Fairhope doesn’t save seats for directors. Filmmakers sit in the auditorium with everyone else and they hear the genuine reactions of the audience to their work.  

“Our event is tailored for people, not production companies, because we feel there’s a big gap to fill for viewers who don’t get to see really great (but little known) movies unless they live in New York or Chicago.” 

Festival Executive Director Mary Riser, left, and Barb Stassen, assistant to the director, at the Fairhope Film Festival headquarters.

Riser says, “At big festivals like Sundance or Toronto, production companies are trying to sell their movies to distributors. There’s a lot of fanfare and publicizing. We are not selling. We’re just presenting. And the selections are carefully curated.”

When choosing the short subjects, a category of films under 40 minutes long, Dee Washington views submissions from around the globe. She and other “programmers” view them online and rate them one to five, then get together to decide what makes it into the festival. “They are in different states, which gives us a number of perspectives,” she says. Eleven short films were shown in 2022 from three countries.

On Wednesday night, the public is invited to the Fairhope Brewing Company for a free movie chosen by the festival staff and volunteers. 

On the final day, student filmmakers from local high schools and colleges will showcase what they’ve been able to make in a tight time frame. “This is where the festival excels in fusing Southern creativity with emerging film technology. These students will be using the new digital movie-making methods,” Stassen says.

“They’ve been allowed just hours to make a movie under the guidance of Jefferson Moore and Kelly Worthington, videographers from Kelly’s Film Works in Louisville, KY. This will be a unique treat for the audience – honest efforts by enthusiastic young film lovers.” 

 One last thing Stassen wants people to know: “The Baldwin County weather is perfect in November.”

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