Philadelphia Film Festival enlivened by hometown talent

Posted: October 26, 2013

After giving fans a weeklong tour of world cinema, the Philadelphia Film Festival returns home this weekend with Greater Filmadelphia, a program of six feature films made by local artists or set in the Philly region.

"The program tries to highlight local talent and stories that are from here," festival artistic director Michael Lerman said in a phone chat, "to help us stay connected to the film community here and the community at large."

Five of the films will screen Saturday at the Prince Music Theater as part of an all-day mini-fest. (Each will screen separately a second this weekend.)

Lerman said he's especially proud of two local documentaries, Town Hall and 1982.

Codirectors Sierra Pettengill and Jamila Wignot's Town Hall chronicles the story of the birth, growth, and increasing power and influence of the tea party in Pennsylvania. The film achieves a near-impossible goal, Lerman said.

"It's really fascinating, and it stays evenhanded all the way through," he said. "It observes the way [the party] works" without taking sides.

Jason Osder tackles an even more controversial topic in Let the Fire Burn, a detailed look at the 1985 MOVE bombing that dispenses with commentary, presenting the event entirely through archival footage. The 2 p.m. Saturday screening will be followed by a panel discussion featuring the director; Michael and Randi Boyette, authors of the book Let It Burn!: The Philadelphia Tragedy; and Ramona Africa, MOVE leader and advocate.

The issue of race is also at the heart of the crime drama The Suspect, by first-time writer-director Stuart Connelly, who shot the feature in Elverson Borough, Chester County, where he and his wife, producer Mary Jo Barthmaier, have lived for 14 years.

Connelly, 49, comes to film after a career as a journalist and author. He is coauthor, with civil-rights leader Clarence B. Jones, of Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech That Transformed a Nation. "Clarence told me it's important for new generations of blacks and whites to make civil rights part of your life," Connelly said.

The Suspect is about a black man (Mekhi Phifer) who is arrested for robbery by the white sheriff of a tiny country town. "It's my way I can add as an artist to the conversation about race in America," Connelly said.

The mood is much lighter in director Justin Schwarz's dramedy The Discoverers, which stars Griffin Dunne as a historian who puts his knowledge of the Lewis and Clark expedition to use when he and his wife and kids are roped in by his aging father to join a reenactment of the famed duo's epochal trek across the continent.

"I just thought Lewis and Clark's exploration of the unknown was such a great metaphor for the family and its journey to discover itself," said Schwarz, who shot the film at several locations around the region, principally at Tyler State Park in Bucks County.

"It has this great geographical diversity; you can believe you're moving through different landscapes," he said.

Philadelphian David Morse produced and stars in a crime drama, McCanick, about a Philly cop on a desperate search for a newly released con (Cory Monteith in his final film role).

Director Josh C. Waller, who came to filmmaking after a stint as a U.S. Marine, said he was determined to set the film in New York until Morse persuaded him to take a closer look at Philly.

He fell in love with the locations, and with the help local organizations gave him to mount a location shoot.

"We could never have made the film were it not for Philadelphia, for the city as a whole," Waller said. "I almost consider Philadelphia as one of the producers."

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