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Cinema scarité



Sure, The Blair Witch Project torpedoed the myth that Central Florida can't produce films of world-class quality and profitability. But Haxan Films' 1999 powerhouse deserves equal respect for reversing a greater, more prevalent misperception. As the film's unparalleled success demonstrated, no one actually has to die for Orlando to make the national news. We just have to fake it convincingly enough.

As Blair Witch fever spread throughout the nation like a summer virus, the is-it-real-or-is-it-Memorex confusion it inspired across the land was particularly comical to those of us back home. Having charted the indie Project's development long before it opened nationwide on July 16, we knew the real score. We knew that this was fiction masquerading as fact, more akin to Orson Welles' radio performance of "The War of the Worlds" than a supernaturally flavored episode of "COPS." We knew that Heather Donahue was a moonlighting Steak 'n Shake pitchwoman, not a vanished control freak with a camera. And when the inevitable backlash arrived -- Not scary enough! they cried; Motion sickness! they claimed -- we just sat back and smiled, secure that giant-killing is the American public's backhanded version of respect.

That an Orlando production had generated enough advance buzz to be assessed as a letdown in anyone's book was a significant step forward. (No one ever lamented that an episode of "The Adventures of Superboy" defied his or her great expectations.) But then, no local endeavor had ever made it to Sundance and Cannes, been snapped up by a distributor in a landmark seven-figure deal and energized its intended audience in advance via a multimedia campaign that single-handedly changed the film industry's definition of grass-roots marketing.

With that baggage in tow, the "Blair Witch" that arrived on the nation's doorstep was a far different animal to the one that had been previewed for us on June 11 as the leadoff entry in the 1999 Florida Film Festival. How privileged we were to have seen the feature on its own contextual terms, ensnared by a celluloid nail-biter that was fresh, believable and (no matter what the naysayers profess) every bit as scary as we had a right to expect.

We won't recap the film's subsequent financial and cultural achievements here; that's long since become the province of Newsweek, Time and Variety, not us. But allow us to bookend the experience from a hometown perspective: At the beginning of 1999, "The Blair Witch Project" was still a work-in-progress by five former University of Central Florida students. By year's end, it was the sole subject of a comedic monologue by Bill Cosby on an episode of "Late Show with David Letterman." Nothing -- not the fickle whims of mass taste, the rush of strangers to embrace the Haxan boys as old friends or the prospect of cheap sequels produced by outside parties -- can ever diminish the thrill of that once-in-a-lifetime metamorphosis. It made history, and it made a killing. And what did you do last summer?