A sprawling festival, truly indie

Director Jack Lewars with cast and crew of "Mount Joy" during a shooting break in Millersville, Pa.; it screens Friday.
Director Jack Lewars with cast and crew of "Mount Joy" during a shooting break in Millersville, Pa.; it screens Friday. (BIANCA CORDOVA)
Posted: June 28, 2014

At a time when "indie" film festivals sometimes aren't, when they and the cinema they present just might be closet-corporate, rest assured: There's not a single studio flick to be found among the multitudinous offerings at the seventh annual Philadelphia Independent Film Festival (PIFF), continuing through Sunday.

"It's truly all indie movies, in the truest sense of the word," says Thom Cardwell, the onetime TLA boss and Philly Cinema Alliance development director in his first year as PIFF consultant.

The geographically sprawling festival, with venues around the city, is rolling out 87 new films from 22 countries, with more than 25 world premieres. For the first time in PIFF history, films will be simulcast to Russian audiences.

Among the festival entries are several locally produced films, including shorts such as an Irish mob kidnapping tale ( A Matter of Propriety) and corpse-and-zombie fare ( Valediction, Altered).

One of the full-length features hails from right next door. Mount Joy, being screened at 8:15 p.m. Friday at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, is a collaboration between Philly director Jack Lewars and screenwriter M. Angelo Mena, a fourth-grade teacher at H.A. Brown Elementary School in Kensington. They drew from their youths in this tucked-away corner of western Lancaster County, and a real-life rock-band romance.

"Mark and I always talked of making a film about our childhood," Lewars says, "capturing how we felt the push-and-pull of a small town."

Mount Joy explores the sometimes-aching evolution of Living Daylights, an indie group that speaks to working-class "love and revolution." The film is a paean to local basement bands of the '90s, with some featured in the soundtrack.

"Working on music-related docs gave me a sense of great talent finding itself, often in humble beginnings, using their voices to fight revolutions in peaceful ways," says Lewars, an editor and digital colorist who worked on video projects for James Brown, singer/songwriter St. Vincent, and Nigerian musician/activist Fela Kuti.

The cast itself comes from Philly-area stock: Katie Hyde, Haddonfield; Jay Della Valle, Wayne, N.J.; Jillian Louis, Philadelphia.

"Lancaster does not have a film festival," Lewars says. "PIFF is close enough to screen our film so the cast and crew can gather and reunite to celebrate. I'm Keystone-proud."

The dynamic personality of the programming at this year's PIFF, Cardwell says, springs in part from the organizers' determination to offer "a film for every taste."

"There's one about Chuck D from Public Enemy, [and] another drama in which he stars," Cardwell says, referring to Welcome to the Terrordome and Swing Lowe Sweet Chariote, respectively.

It's nothing new for PIFF to put its fare on screens apart from its Delancey Place hub at Plays & Players - on building walls, 19th-century churches, comedy clubs. But more than ever, this year's sites are "a determined, focused and inviting way" to fit films to audiences, "like showing crafts and pottery with screenings at Clay Studio," Cardwell says. Among the more stately venues are the Academy of Fine Arts and the National Constitution Center.

Festival director Bejamin F. Barnett noted a number of trends in this year's submissions, including more narrative construction, and more global social issues. And this: "There's great storytelling and acting this year. I see this to be the case because the more competition, the better you have to be."

He gets no argument from Jon Lindstrom, a 25-year veteran star of daytime soaps who is making his screenwriting/directing debut with a Hitchcockian thriller, How They Got Away With It.

"I'm a fan of noir and European crime thrillers of the '60s and '70s, and wanted to make something incorporating those styles," says Lindstrom, once a regular on As the World Turns and General Hospital. "Once the script took form with its mystery structure, doling out information a piece at a time was valid and workable to make viewers feel they were experiencing events unfolding as the characters were. I've seen many crappy, explain-it-even-before-it-happens movies. I felt making a film that forced audiences to engage and pay attention, while taking its time to tell the story, was refreshing.

"We didn't want to talk down to anyone. There's too many of those films, even in indies."

Philadelphia Independent Film Festival

Continues through Sunday at venues around the city. Tickets: $7-$10, with exceptions (see website). Festival passes: $40-$85. For a list of films, times, dates, and locations: www.philadelphiaindependentfilmfestival.com.

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