Since it was founded in 2002, the Rural Route Film Festival has garnered submissions from all around the world, from shorts to full-length features, uniting city slickers and country folk in a like-minded community. Ironically centered in New York City, the festival suggests something far from the urban jungle. And while a standard definition of "rural" may read as anything relating to the country or agriculture, Festival Director Alan Webber prefers to leave the term open to the interpretation of film directors looking to capture rural people and places.
"There tends to be a certain aesthetic to our festival beyond just being rural," he explains. "It has to do with a blend of literary ideas and original artistic expression."
Making a stop in Park Circle this Saturday on its traveling tour, the 10 "Best Of" films of the festival's 2011-'12 program range from documentaries to animation, to the experimental and even comical, connected only by their dealings with nature. Investigating man's relationship with his surroundings, each film affords a different understanding of rural. "The diversity of genres and styles has always been there within the festival," Webber says. "Documentary has been the dominant indie since the early 2000s, but we make sure we represent some quality craft and story-based material in there."
For better or worse, most of the directors of the Rural Route's films seem to define rural in pretty depressing ways, from a widowed Lebanese beekeeper skirting around landmines to harvest honey in The Bees, to the tale of death and destruction amidst forest fires in Fireline, to unfulfilled and unappreciated young teens in We Are Not What We Say We Are and AWOL. Unfortunately, in films like From the Ashes, a textual and visual experience re-imagined through mixed media, the story of destructive forest fires falls victim to the short's overreaching attempt to present the subject through paint and sand rather than using powerful images of the burned forest. And the oddest film of the set, Tractor Chicken Scene from Our Footloose Remake, feels entirely out of place in the group with its lo-fi production value and overt slapstick.
But there are highlights, too. A four-minute blitz of floral images accompanied by sounds of the forest, Kate Balsley's Anima Mundi unfolds with a unique, fluid aesthetic that appears like a colorful and fast-spinning kaleidoscope. The frequencies of the background sounds of tree frogs, monkeys, and birds seem to correspond to the speed of the changing visuals, growing almost menacing at times as the forest transitions from day to night. A more traditional film, We're Leaving tells the humorous tale of Rusty and his beloved pet, a teenage alligator named Choppers, both given 30 days to relocate before their trailer park is closed. With unforgettable images of Rusty smoking a cigarette in the bathtub as Choppers lounges next to the toilet, director Zachary Trietz handles his subjects like an arguing father and son, using dark lighting and small spaces to create an intimate feel. While the film is glutted with comic images, darkness pervades as Rusty is removed from his home of 30 years, nearly losing Choppers in the process. Presented among films offering a much more dismal view of nature, it is no surprise that these relatively light-hearted clips took the top awards at the festival, with Anima Mundi winning Best Experimental Film and We're Leaving winning Best Narrative Film.
"We almost make an effort to steer clear of having too many films that are similar," Webber says. "There are very strong agricultural associations with our festival, but we strive to be creative and artistic first and foremost." Animated film Plot, though the shortest of the bunch, offers a tale of regrowth and renewal that grabs the viewer immediately as images of nature are set to urban sounds like jackhammers, helicopters, and race cars, juxtaposing the natural and urban world.
Webber travels to Charleston on March 31 to present the festival's shorts program, featuring all 10 "Best Of" short films. "I've never been to South Carolina, so I'm really looking forward to checking out the city and introducing and answering questions about the films," he says.
The Rural Route Film Festival will screen at the Olde North Charleston Picture House (4820 Jenkins Ave.) on Sat. March 31 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $2 for Greater Park Circle Film Society members and $5 for non-members.