Like snowbirds deplaning for an eagerly awaited Florida vacation, visiting filmmakers dominated the landscape of Wednesday's installment of the Florida Film Festival. Newly arrived in Orlando from her home of New York City, Vietnamese-born director Kim-Chi Tyler walked into Colonial Promenade shortly before the 5 p.m. showing of her autobiographical documentary, "Chac." Clutching a Universal Studios shopping bag -- the accouterment of choice for transient fun-seekers -- the former Sunshine State resident was greeted at the theater by a gaggle of her relatives, including her adorable 3-year-old nephew. There was just enough time for warm hugs to be exchanged before Tyler's intensely personal work was cued up and ready for viewing.
An audience of about 40 paying customers listened as the picture was introduced by Tyler's brother, Dewey, not the filmmaker herself. The significance of that odd choice was explained by the footage that followed: "Chac," we saw, is a family matter, a journey of discovery in which Tyler returns to the land of her birth to solve the mystery of her estrangement from her biological father. Consistently beautiful in its visual depiction of life in the Mekong Delta, her cinematic voyage nonetheless offered an unsparing view of blood ties weakened by decades of silence and withheld truths.
The director's voice-over narration made passing acknowledgement of an aspect of the film I found somewhat problematic: In committing her family's dirty laundry to videotape, wasn't Tyler arguably guilty of manipulating her own loved ones to make a dramatic point?
Thicker than celluloid
No one in the audience appeared to share that qualm, however, when the screening ended and the floor was opened to questions. The most probing inquiry was a request for Tyler to explain her current feelings toward her "bio-dad," who in "Chac" is the subject of considerable, albeit justified, recrimination.
"I go through stages," Tyler revealed, saying that her present mind set is to "completely love him." But before responding, she called upon brother Dewey to stand beside her and air his own emotions. Their quest to make peace with the past was clearly a mutual, ongoing process.
"I never once thought, 'Wait a minute, maybe this is not a good thing,'" Tyler said after the session, when I asked her about "Chac's" genesis. "I just thought, 'If I could do something to make one person feel a little less alone ... '" She was referring to victims of similar familial discord, who could (and already had, she said) found solace in the film's openness. It was an undebatable point, and a strong vindication of the sticky, increasingly prevalent philosophy that anything worth doing is worth doing on film.
Weighty issues momentarily dispensed with, Tyler soon joined a flock of fellow filmmakers for a meet-and-greet at the downtown Kit Kat Club. Ace Allgood, the producer of the short "The Chromium Hook," was there too, having extended his Orlando stay in order to attend the soiree. His partner, James Stanger, was already back in Minnesota, resuming his duties in the pair's film-editing business. Allgood looked as sympathetic as a man could when standing mere feet away from a free buffet.
Make his a triple
Producer Gill Holland accepted plaudits for his three highly regarded festival entries: Spring Forward, Kill By Inches and Bobby G. Can't Swim. The curly-haired mogul impressed me no end with a rapid rundown of his vocational history, including a tenure at a Paris law firm, a stint in the distribution department at October Films, a coproduction project with Jean-Luc Godard ... oh, and an early-'80s gig as a member of a "really bad glam-rock band.
"I was the weak link," Holland admitted, "but at least I was smart enough to know that I sucked."
Unaware of his checkered musical career, a couple of female partiers approached our table and brazenly told Holland, "We like you a lot. We think you're cute." (Yes, folks, independent film is indeed the rock & roll of the new millennium.)
The French duo of Diane Doniol-Valcroze and Arthur Flam -- co-writers, -directors and -producers of "Kill By Inches" -- were all smiles as they took in some Orlando nightlife before their impending departure for more festival madness in Italy. Los Angeles writer/director Brian Sawyer said that his hilarious short, Tex, the Passive-Aggressive Gunslinger, was partially inspired by his friends, who he called "very nice, but mean to each other subtlely."
"And me too, I think," he quickly amended.
Huddled in an alcove, Tyler inquired into the history and methodology of the Florida Film Festival. Her keen interest in her temporary surroundings was only interrupted when she was asked to describe her current life in Manhattan, where she shepherds financial coverage for the CNN cable network.
Her Big Apple apartment, Tyler said, had recently been outfitted with a spanking-new air-conditioning unit. As she watched a team of deliverymen haul the device up the steep stairs that are typical of New York architecture, she had been overcome with feelings of guilt. But the workers, she fretted, had consistently refused her offer of help.
That didn't sound terribly manipulative to me.