The 2019 Cinetopia Film Festival was a week of movie magic in Metro Detroit. Viewers and filmmakers had an opportunity to discuss movies, their creation and their impact on the world.
By Andrew Warrick
The Cinetopia Film Festival brought silver screen glamour to the Motor City.
The annual festival May 10-19 in Ann Arbor and Metro Detroit featured over 50 dramas, comedies and documentaries from film festivals worldwide. Many of the screenings featured the cast and crew. On Friday, ticket holders met writers, producers, and directors from three documentaries at Emagine Royal Oak’s High Roller Room, a private bowling alley and lounge. During the Filmmaker’s Lounge, the filmmakers shared what inspired their movies and what they hoped to accomplish with them.
In an interview with SEEN, Justin Levy, a producer for “Well Groomed,” a movie about the competitive world of dog groomers, said audiences tend to leave the movie with a smile on their face. The producer explained positivity was the goal of the movie’s director Rebecca Stern. She wanted to tell an upbeat, “feel good” story, something Levy said he believes is rare for contemporary documentaries.
He said Stern and the filmmaking team had covered more “serious” topics in past movies, but approached each one the same — with immense inquisitiveness and excitement. Levy said this love and curiosity is necessary, since people involved with any movie must spend years with their subject.
Peter Dowd, the director of “Mr. Jimmy,” shared a similar passion for his movie. “Mr. Jimmy” is the story of a Japanese guitarist named Akio Sakurai who dedicates his life to honoring rock musician Jimmy Page and recreates Zeppelin concerts in small Tokyo clubs. Hen then moves to America to play in a Led Zeppelin cover band called Led Zepagain. While making the film, Dowd said he sought to examine the motivation that drives any artist and what makes art worth pursuing.
To answer this question, the director followed Sakurai and his journey from a Kimono salesman in Tokyo to the frontman of a Led Zeppelin tribute band in California. Dowd paid particular attention to the Japanese-American culture clash. He spent approximately 20 weeks in Japan, trying to understand those depicted in the film, as well as the culture that Sakurai was raised in. Dowd was also interested in the sacrifices Sakurai made to follow his dream, leaving his country, his wife and his family, in order to play in Led Zepagain.
When asked if he ever found an answer to his driving question, Dowd highlighted one particular scene, where Sakurai speaks about hearing “Led Zeppelin II” for the first time. From the first guitar riff, he was in love. Dowd was also hooked when he first heard the album as a student in Boston. As the director put it, the first five notes of Led Zeppelin II reveal how music is a universal language, connecting even the most different of cultures.
Like “Well Groomed,” “Mr Jimmy” has been showing in film festivals across the nation. Dowd noted, however, that Metro Detroit’s response has been anything but ordinary. The audience was not just interested in the story, but what happened behind the scenes too. As he explained, most crowds focused on the music and spectacle of the movie, while Ann Arbor had a more inquisitive approach.
During the talk, Dowd discussed his process and the power dynamics of a documentary, or how the director depicts the movie’s subjects. As a director, Dowd said he wants to be as absent from the documentary as possible, noting his distaste for documentarians who film themselves from a place of privilege. Instead, he lets the subjects speak for themselves without being present himself. This helps prevent bias and judgement, he said. Dowd insisted that his views are present in the filmmaking, but reside in the technique — the cuts, music and shot composition.
John Campbell, writer of “The Infamous Future,” also spoke at the event. The documentary portrays the perspectives of educators and their students. “Educator David C. Banks and his Eagle Academy Foundation strive to change an entrenched American mindset, insisting that young black and brown men are not going to be one of America’s problems, but instead one of its greatest successes,” the film’s IMDB page states.
Campbell said he was interested in the surge of hatred that occurred after President Donald Trump took office. He started a project researching the vandalism of Muslim prayer rooms in New York University. However, his attention was soon turned to the Eagle Academy nearby in the city. He was fascinated by the story of the young men and how they found opportunities through education. While Campbell said he believes serious documentaries may be the norm, but there is still a need for uplifting stories. The writer stressed the impact of positivity, especially in this day and age, as taking a positive approach to issues can change the world.
Campbell said he hoped to challenge stereotypes concerning young African-Americans while also inspiring future generations to reach greater heights. Of all the festival stops, Campbell said the Detroit audience was incredibly receptive to the film’s message of breaking negative stereotypes and forging a successful future.
Be it through dog grooming, Led Zeppelin or a school in New York, the producers, writers and directors showcased the power of cinema to change society for the better.