No need to fly to Cannes

“My whole idea of the thing is very grandiose,” says Gene D’Onofrio of the brand new RiverRun International Film Festival. For now, though, after a year fraught with disagreements and stalled negotiations with Asheville film venues, the festival gets under way as a modest — but decidedly high-quality — affair.

D’Onofrio, an actor, director and professor of film studies at Brevard College, formed the nonprofit Bella Visione Film Society last year to create a forum in western North Carolina to support, educate and encourage local, regional, national and even international filmmakers, actors, scriptwriters, producers … in short, to foster a film community in an area that was ripe for one. A film festival was the natural offspring of Bella Visione.

When D’Onofrio’s son, Vincent, an acclaimed actor who’s appeared in numerous films — including Full Metal Jacket, The Player, Men In Black and The Whole Wide World — visited the area last year, he was impressed with what he saw. “When Vince spent some time in Asheville, he said, ‘This would be a great place for a film festival,'” recalls the senior D’Onofrio, remembering his son’s reaction to the area’s natural beauty and strong arts community.

The seeds for RiverRun were sown. D’Onofrio hoped to hold the festival in Asheville, with the Fine Arts Theatre serving as the primary venue. However, a tangle of complications and misunderstandings — financial, interpersonal and otherwise — have, at least temporarily, put an end to that idea.

The first RiverRun International Film Festival, coming Sept. 25-27, will feature some screenings (the documentary films, to be exact) at Asheville’s Radisson Hotel, but most of the festival events will take place on the Brevard College campus. That actually makes sense, says D’Onofrio, considering the name of the festival: “The [French Broad] river runs through Asheville, but it also runs through Brevard,” he notes.

“From the start, Brevard College wanted to be our partner,” D’Onofrio explains. “But it took Asheville saying ‘no’ the way they said ‘no’ to me to concentrate [RiverRun] back here. And now I realize it’s very appropriate to have the festival based here, at least for now. We’re an educational facility, obviously, and we have a film institute.” Like the esteemed Sundance Film Festival, which is complemented by Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute — an educational institution which offers hands-on filmmaking workshops — D’Onofrio hopes that RiverRun, aside from its entertainment value, will become a focus for the technical end of the film industry. “Once people start coming to the area [for the festival] — filmmakers in particular — this could lead to more films being made in the area,” he points out.

To that end, RiverRun will offer four filmmaking labs as part of the festival: Lab #1: Acting for Film (presented by Vincent D’Onofrio); Lab #2: Filmmaking and Screenwriting (presented by Whole Wide World Director Dan Ireland and Screenwriter/Producer Michael Scott Myers); Lab #3: Basic Video and Cinematography (presented by documentary filmmaker Chris Lockett); and Lab #4: Indie Film Financing and Legal Issues (presented by Los Angeles attorney/film writer and producer Mark Litwak).

As for the purely entertaining side of RiverRun, a mind-bogglingly eclectic offering of films — dramatic features, documentaries and shorts — will be presented. The Whole Wide World, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, will kick off RiverRun, with a never-before-seen director’s cut and stars Vincent D’Onofrio and Renee Zellweger in attendance. The complete list, at press time, is as follows:

The Whole Wide World (directed by Dan Ireland): a poignant, compelling and breathtakingly photographed story of love and loss, set in Depression-era Texas.

Allie & Me (written/directed by Michael Rymer): a character-driven, almost completely improvisational film about the wild capers of two Los Angeles women who become cat burglars.

Around the Fire (written/directed by John Jacobsen): the tale of an upper-class teen, haunted by the mysterious circumstances surrounding his mother’s death, who is introduced to a world of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll at boarding school.

Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl? The Life and Music of Robert Johnson: a feature-length documentary on the Delta blues legend, narrated by actor Danny Glover.

Chesterfield (written/directed by David Reid Iversen and Catherine Constantinou): a black-and-white mystery, done film-noir style with gritty, Southern-gothic realism, written and directed by North Carolina natives.

Hurricane Street (written/directed by Morgan J. Freeman): a “slice of life” film about street kids in inner-city New York.

The Legend of Cryin’ Ryan (written/directed by Deanne Shapiro and Julie Smith): winner of the Audience Favorite award at the Santa Clara International Film Festival, the story of a young girl’s determination to help a friend deal with child abuse.

Built On the Rock (written by Linda Davis March): an inspirational documentary tribute to the beauty and significance of old country churches in the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky mountains.

The Day the Klan Came to Town (produced/directed by Chanse Simpson): a raw look at the confrontational KKK rally held in Asheville in 1997, by a recent UNC-A graduate.

Out of the Past (produced/directed by Jeff Dupre): a multiple-award-winner at Sundance (including the audience award for Best Documentary), this film traces the emergence of gay men and lesbians over 300 years of American history, as seen through the eyes of a young woman.

Reducing Stanley (written/directed by Mike Harvkey): the often surreal tale of a young boy’s struggle to communicate with his obsessed father in the dark aftermath of tragedy.

Vera (written/directed by Sam Travino): winner of the Best Dramatic Short at the California State Summer Arts Film Festival, a psychological thriller about a serial killer, marked by moments of black humor and a soundtrack by World War II-era crooner Vera Lynn.

Waterfalls of the Southern Appalachians (written/directed by Christopher Lockett): a lush photographic journal capturing the raw beauty and fragile splendor of waterfalls in the Southeast, many of them in endangered wilderness areas.

Whipped (written/directed by Antonia Alello): a study in guerrilla filmmaking on the mean streets of New York.

Several of the films’ actors and directors will be on hand for the festival.

In a special international session entitled “The Georgians Are Coming,” three films set in the Soviet Republic of Georgia and directed by renowned Georgian filmmakers will be screened: A Triangle in the Circle (directed by Alexander Rekhviashvill); No Pal (directed by Giorgl Mgeladze); and Atu Alaba — Hotel California (also directed by Giorgl Mgeladze).

Finally, D’Onofrio promises a special, top-secret sneak preview of a major motion picture at 8 p.m. on Sept. 25 in Brevard College’s Dunham Hall.

The scoop

The RiverRun International Film Festival comes to Brevard and Asheville Sept. 25-27. All feature films will be screened in Brevard College’s Dunham Hall. All documentaries will be screened in the Eagle Room of Asheville’s Radisson Hotel. All labs will be held in Brevard College’s McLarty-Goodson Hall, Room 118. The schedule is as follows:

Friday, Sept. 25, Brevard College: 4:30 p.m., screening of The Whole Wide World with stars Vincent D’Onofrio, Renee Zellweger and Director Dan Ireland in attendance; 6:45-10 p.m., hors d’oeuvres and wine reception, opening ceremonies with entertainment including a Q&A session with D’Onofrio and Ireland, and dramatic readings by Asheville’s Playback Theatre (at Brevard’s Paul Porter Center for the Performing Arts); 10 p.m.-2 a.m., after-hours Schmooze Room at Serendipity (across the street from Brevard College).

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