As the saying goes, those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. That adage should be displayed like a Whitman sampler in the offices of University of Florida graduates Sandra Krasa and Bianca White, whose thesis film, "Ocoee: Legacy of the Election Day Massacre," was named Best Documentary Short at the Aug. 7 through 11 HBO-Urban-world Film Festival in New York City.
"Ocoee is a really nice town, and there are really nice people there," says Krasa, who completed UF's Documentary Institute graduate program last May. "We just wanted to tell a part of its history that's been hidden for many years."
The chapter to which she refers is a 1920 riot that essentially wiped out Ocoee's thriving African-American population overnight, all because two black men tried to vote. In the 26-minute doc, descendants of participants on both sides of the color line recount the terrible events and seek a path toward reconciliation. The purpose, says Krasa, is not to pour salt on old wounds but to "demystify" an occurrence Ocoeeans still find difficult to discuss.
Krasa, who was born in New York State but grew up in St. Cloud, says that she hadn't heard the story herself until two years ago, when she was casting about for a suitable subject for her school-funded thesis project. Her sister suggested the Ocoee incident, which she had just read about in a local newspaper (most likely Orlando Weekly, Krasa guesses, which had published a story about the Orlando Black Essential Theatre's play "The Whirlwind Passeth: An Historical Drama Based on the 1920 Ocoee Massacre").
Thus began an undertaking that Krasa calls "a perfect ugly duckling story." Feeling an almost religious calling to her topic, she found a co-producer in fellow student White, a Philadelphia-born graduate of Temple University. Their enthusiasm, however, was allegedly not met by their instructors, who pointed out that all previous efforts at an Ocoee doc had fallen apart due to a purported lack of visual archive material.
Krasa says she and White overcame that obstacle through sheer diligence. An 11th-hour scouring of the Florida State Archives, for instance, uncovered a Tampa Tribune article from November 1920 that may have gone unread since publication. The filmmakers also had the color bases covered, given that Krasa is white and White is African-American. By conducting some interviews separately, they were able to record frank commentary that might never have been ventured were both present. (Krasa is used to lubricating people's conversational engines: She once owned Paddy Cassidy's Irish Pub in Cocoa Beach, which she sold to pay for grad school.)
Skepticism continued to surround the project: Three days before graduation, Krasa wasn't sure the doc would earn a passing grade. And she was so surprised by its acceptance into Urbanworld, an HBO-sponsored showcase of minority-oriented films, that she didn't bother to attend the Aug. 11 awards ceremony. Though she was in New York for the festival, she spent the evening at Yankee Stadium. (White was overseas, shooting a documentary about Japanese hip-hop.)
In the wake of their win, the partners have been invited to submit Ocoee (www.ocoeedoc.com) to the Oct. 4 through 18 Chicago International Film Festival. Krasa is also talking with HBO executives about a cable airing. That's a lot of play for a short that was only intended to jump-start a regional healing process.
"We made this film for people in and around Central Florida," Krasa says. "We had heard all along that the white side `of the story` is not the same as the black side, but we found out that `they're` very similar. It's just a question of intent and context."
Another winner at this year's Urbanworld has a strong Central Florida connection. "Rocks With Wings," named the festival's Best Feature Length Documentary, profiles the late Terry Richardson, a basketball coach who led a group of Navajo girls to the New Mexico state championship. Richardson later coached at the University of Central Florida, and the movie includes interviews with him that were shot in Orlando.
See more Seymour
Local production house Stars North Films has scheduled a September shoot for its latest short, "Time and Again," which will star character actor (and Florida Film Festival habitué) Seymour Cassel. Meanwhile, two of the ministudio's previous shorts, "The Chad Effect" and "King Pathetic Creep," have been accepted into the Sept. 13 and 14 Melbourne Independent Filmmakers Festival (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/MIFF). The festival's other Orlando-area entries include Brady Koch's "Farmer McAllister's Thinkin' Machine," Katie Damien's Cowmen, James Henschen's "Looking in the Fishbowl" and a "preview" of Billy Holley's full-length psychodrama "Second Chance" (which actually premiered last year at Enzian Theater). Nonlocal but still worth the trip is "A Visit From the Incubus," a delightfully bizarre short by Los Angeles gender satirist Anna Biller that I had the pleasure of seeing a few months ago.
Closing the books
Alauna McMillen has parted ways with the Orlando International Fringe Festival after half a year in the part-time position of financial manager. It had been said that McMillen's job would become full-time pending her strong job performance (of which this year's record-breaking Fringe looked a sure sign). Yet the metamorphosis never occurred. Some sources cite a lack of funds; others, lingering confusion over the exact definition of McMillen's duties.
Hopefully, the Fringe will spare no effort in securing a qualified replacement, as executive director Chris Gibson admits that the business side of theater is not his forte. McMillen, meanwhile, has not missed a beat. She's taken on the role of producer for Rickshaw Boy, a theater company formed by some of the kingpins of this year's Fringe hit "Farrago." The troupe's first production, a staging of Lynn Seifert's "Little Egypt," will be presented in late September or early October at a location to be determined. Further plans include a possible performance of scenes that were written for "Farrago" but never staged. Add a Spanish translation and you'd have live drama's first DVD.