What if I told you that for as little as $10, you could travel the world in 90 minutes?
Pretty good deal, huh? OK, but there’s only one catch. You gotta go this weekend.
Does that work with your schedule? Then Mountainfilm on Tour Savannah’s 2019 Festival has your name written all over it.
Mountainfilm on Tour Savannah is the nonprofit started by local resident and arts supporter Zelda Tenenbaum, who chairs the organization’s Board of Directors. For the past decade, it has organized annual, ever-growing public screenings in our market of standout selections from each year’s Telluride Mountainfilm Festival, an internationally known and highly respected competition which features the best in independent feature-length and short documentaries from around the world.
The features and 90-minute compilations of shorts shown here in Savannah are chosen specifically to appeal to the interests and sensibilities of our area by locally-based programmers who also coordinate special appearances by some of the filmmakers and their subjects, who travel here just to attend these events. Tickets are on sale for this year’s festival, which runs from Jan. 24 through Jan. 26 at Trustees Theater on Broughton Street.
Leslie Carey, the local organization’s director, says this showcase is a perfect fit for our fair city.
“Savannah is a culturally diverse community — and a globally focused community,” she offers. “You can travel the world in a 90-minute Mountainfilm program. But many of the Mountainfilm themes are basic to all humans. They’re about overcoming obstacles and challenges. Everyone wants to be inspired. And most everyone wants to be better… That’s what this event does best.”
While all of this talk of mountains and seeing the world may lead one to believe the only thing they’ll find at this incredibly eclectic festival is boring nature documentaries, nothing could be further from the truth. Oh sure, there are plenty of breathtaking films included about the wonders of the natural world and the daring explorers, activists, athletes and eco-warriors who travel to and immerse themselves in some of the farthest-flung reaches of our planet. But there are also films which reflect on the human condition more so than our environment and the challenges presented in maintaining and preserving it for future generations.
Take, for example, the acclaimed feature-length doc which opens the festival at 7 p.m. Jan. 24. The provocatively named “Satan & Adam” traces the formation, dissolution, reunion and ultimately the legacy of one of the more unusual and charming blues music acts to ever grace the stage: black, Mississippi-bred guitarist and “one-man-band” Sterling Magee aka “Satan” and white, Jewish, Ivy League-educated harmonica player Adam Gussow. Shot over a period of more than 20 years, it offers a rare glimpse into and unique perspective on issues of race relations, cultural appropriation and the close personal bonds which can be forged between performing musicians.
“Our mission is to use the power of film to inspire audiences to create a better world,” explains Carey. “‘Satan & Adam’ is a film about the power of friendship. It follows two men from completely different worlds who connect through their love of music and form a lifelong connection. What could be more inspiring? And what a different world we would create if we focused our energy on what we all have in common, what we all love, rather than what makes us different.”
Scott Balcerek, director of “Satan & Adam” will be take questions from the audience immediately after his film is shown.
Another selection in this year’s lineup that Carey is extremely excited about is “The Story of Apa Sherpa,” which is part of the Saturday evening collection of shorts on Jan. 26.
“It’s one of the most beautiful films we are screening,” she enthuses. “Apa Sherpa has summited Mount Everest 21 times, but has dedicated his life to educating the children of Nepal so that they are spared the life he has had. It provides a perspective of Everest that we rarely see or discuss.”
Two more of her “must-see” recommendations that she describes as “feel-good films” are “Felix” and “The Frenchy,” which will both be shown as part of Friday night’s program.
Over 30 different films will be shown as part of the 2019 Mountainfilm on Tour Savannah Festival. While Carey describes the entire lineup as being “suitable for young adults,” she emphasizes that the 2 p.m. matinee Jan. 26 is family-friendly.
“It’s perfect for younger children who can’t yet read subtitles,” she says with a smile.
In addition to the film screenings, there will also be a ticketed festival wrap party Jan. 26 across the street from Trustees Theater at 45 Bistro, with live entertainment from the Blues Doctors, the new band featuring "Satan & Adam"’s Gussow. At 402 E. Broughton St., there is a photography exhibit featuring pictures from Mount Everest and Nepal which is free at various times throughout the festival. At 10 a.m. Jan. 26 at the Marshall House Hotel’s lobby there will be Coffee and Conversation, which allows for casual discussion with visiting filmmakers and personalities. That’s followed by an organized bike ride and walk through historic Savannah from that hotel to Forsyth Park. That ride is being held in conjunction with the Savannah Bicycle Campaign.
It’s almost too much to absorb in just three days, but that’s the way director Carey likes it: packed with movies, discussions and special guest filmmakers.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had two National Geographic Adventurers of the Year participate in our festival in the same year,” she says with excitement. “And, they’re both women! We’re so lucky to have 2018’s winner Mirna Valerio, as well as 2016’s People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita.”
So, what say you folks? Got 90 minutes to travel the world?
Loved By All: The Story of Apa Sherpa from Sherpas Cinema on Vimeo.
Interview with Scott Balcerek, director of “Satan & Adam”:
When I caught up with Scott Balcerek just a few days before his appearance at the Mountainfilm on Tour Savannah Festival, he was in the midst of savoring his film’s most recent win at prestigious film festival — this time in the Caribbean. Here’s our conversation, edited lightly for clarity.
Do: When, where and how did you first become aware of the duo of Satan and Adam, and what was it about them that intrigued you enough to want to direct a documentary about their story?
Balcerek: “In 1992 I was dragged out of my apartment by a friend who said I had to see these two dudes who had a cameo on U2’s “Rattle and Hum” music documentary — a totally unique act. I didn’t want to go. But he pressured me: 'You’re a musician, you gotta see this guy Satan play…' And so off I went. When I walked in the club, they were already playing, but I didn’t know it because it sounded like a full band playing and Satan and Adam are of course just two guys.
“As I approached the stage, it was indeed them, making a sound that astonished me. Two guys creating the sound of a full band — their interplay on stage, musically, was out of this world… They were so connected, into such a deep groove, just locked in with one another. It was simply mind-blowing. I mean, people were actually dancing to them… Who dances to a two-man act?! And visually, it just didn’t make sense. This way-younger Ivy League-educated white guy playing with a Mississippi-born blues artist who he met on the street in Harlem in the '80s — a place deemed 'not safe' for white people at that time?
“I simply wanted to know more and that’s how it all started. The only thing I can remember thinking early on was that maybe the story of these guys would serve as some sort of allegorical tale of the genesis of American music, in general. Sounds pithy, I know, but without knowing them personally at that time, that’s what was going through my mind.”
Do: How receptive were the main participants of your doc to your outreach? Were they reluctant to open up on camera about such an unusual tale which I am sure must have been quite emotionally challenging?
Balcerek: “Well, initially I was interested in documenting their rise up off the streets to international acclaim and more and more success. Of course they were fine with that. It’s only when things got real with their personal lives that maybe my insistence on continuing to shoot them might have become thorny. But by then, I had established a good relationship with both of them. I think being a musician myself helped. We speak our own language in some ways. But what really impressed me was Mr. Satan opening up his life to me. He trusted me and, in turn, I stuck by him and his story — all 23 years of it. I felt like I owed him that.”
Do: Can you speak a bit about the inherent difficulties of bringing a story like this to the screen? I imagine legal issues such as music and footage clearances must have been tricky to overcome.
Balcerek: “Money. At first, I got a small grant to start shooting. It was peanuts but it was a start. After that, I thought it would be easier to raise money, but it wasn’t. So instead of missing out on what I thought would be great moments, I just funded the shoots myself. Very bare-bones style shooting. Once I was able to get a rough cut and people could see the story, only then did I receive a budget to finish. But it was very hard along the way to pull together my own money to invest in a project where I wasn’t sure where the story was going. I just was operating on blind faith that it would all work out.”
Do: This doc took more than two decades to complete, is that correct? How does an independent filmmaker "keep the faith" throughout such an extended gestation period? Were there ever times it seemed like all your work might not ultimately wind up as a feature-length documentary, or at least one with a decent chance of getting a release, let alone winning awards at established festivals?
Balcerek: “The film took me 23 years to complete. And yes, there were many times when I just didn’t think I was going to finish it as a feature-length documentary. Someone asked me to simply state my obstacles with the film, so I made this list: Losing my subject. Finding him unable to play. Losing hope. Taking a big chance financially by deciding to wait the story out, knowing that in the end, there might not be one. Getting turned down from 99 percent of the grants I applied for. Being told that I should “wrap it up,” that it’s worthy of a short doc, but nothing more. Having to keep a day job while making a film at the same time. Finding the time. Patience. Believing.”
Do: What was the single most surprising or unexpected thing you learned or realized during the process of making this movie?
Balcerek: “To keep on keeping on in everything you’re meant to do in life."
Do: How has Adam reacted to the finished film? I see his new band is making a live appearance at the Mountainfilm Fest here in Savannah. I figure he must be pleased with the results if they're associating themselves with it in such a way. Are they accompanying the film at other screenings as well, or is this a very unusual occurrence?
Balcerek: “I'm in Barbados now for the Barbados International Film Festival where we just won “Best of Festival.” Adam is here with me. I’ve been to between 15 or 20 in 2018 and he’s been to about four with me so far.”
Do: For those unfamiliar with Satan and Adam's music, what do you feel made them such a unique duo in the world of traditional blues music?
Balcerek: “Because they are not traditional in the least. They incorporate hip-hop jazz and funk into their sound — and it’s just two people. Their sound and particularly Satan’s style of playing, I’ve never heard anywhere else! It’s a very specific sound and part of my job is to give the devil his due. As a musician, I can attest that he is a legend on guitar who should receive more recognition.”
Do: What would you say to someone who is not already a blues enthusiast to try and convince them to give this film a chance?
Balcerek: “I’d say it’s not really a blues documentary. It’s a story of a friendship told through music that transcends the boundaries that artificially separate us.”
Do: Have you ever visited Savannah before? If so, under what circumstances, and is there anything in particular you recall about your stay? If not, is there anything in particular you are especially looking forward to seeing or doing while you are here?
Balcerek: “I’ve never been to Savannah and all I can say is that I’m looking forward to it!”