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2012 St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase: A chance to get inside the filmmaker's head

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 3, 2012 - It's not every day you have the opportunity to ask a film’s creator everything you had wondered about the movie -- "Why did they choose to frame it like that?" or "Why did they have that ending?" said Cliff Froehlich, executive director of Cinema St. Louis.

The 12th Annual Whitaker St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase is where movie buffs and even the most casual movie-goers can do just that, Froehlich said.

The event emphasizes works by St. Louis natives or films that have strong local ties. Running from July 7 to 12, the event features 16 programs, ranging from full-length feature films or documentaries to compilations of fiction and documentary shorts, according to its website. All films will be shown at the Tivoli theater in the Delmar Loop. A handful of the best films screened at the showcase will appear at the Cinema’s larger-scale St. Louis International Film Festival in November.

But the showcase is a great way for filmmakers to see each other’s work and for casual movie goers to see some of the area’s best work. A Q&A session with either the filmmaker or a film expert will follow many of the films, Froehlich said.

Among the featured films are a PBS documentary series preview "Homeland: Immigration in America" (find out more about this series later in the week), Jack Synder’s work-in-progress thriller "Fatal Call," Devin Devon’s micro-budgeted "A Variety of Mysteries," Chip Gubera’s "Joplin, Missouri: A Tornado Story," Jeremy Cropf’s work-in-progress "Casualties of the State," Steve Luebbeet's "Welcome to Sweetie Pie's" and Mike Gualdoni’s "Dignity Harbor." A free screening of Ryan Eslinger’s 2003 “Madness and Genius” will be featured after the event’s free film-making seminar series July 7.

Other films, such as "23 Minutes to Sunrise" by Jay Kanzler, which co-stars Eric Roberts (“The Dark Knight”) and Nia Peeples (“Young and the Restless”), will be featured.

'Dignity Harbor'

Froehlich said while some films are made with the intent to make money, others such as Mike Gualdoni’s and Zach White's "Dignity Harbor" started out as a student project -- and ended up as a finalist in one of the most prestigious film awards in the nation, the Student Academy Awards.

Dignity Harbor follows a small group of people living in a homeless camp just north of the St. Louis Arch along the Mississippi River as they endure the cold winter months.

Gualdoni said he made the 30-minute drive to the encampment two or three days a week for a year and a half to document the film.

"It blew me away that there were people living like this. And I felt like I needed to tell that story and show it to others," he said. "People might know things go on, like with a lot of bad things, but they just ignore it and pretend it doesn't it exist."

Standing on a rooftop in freezing cold temperatures was one of the roughest days of filming, he said. He hopes the reality of how awful it can get for these people is shown through the finished product.

"By the end of it, I couldn't feel my hands. (Maybe it was) frostbite. I had little cracks in my hands and blood ... " he said. "In the film, you can hear me breathing like 'I want to get down' but you just keep on filming."

Gualdoni said his perspective of those without jobs or homes has changed since making the film.

"I realized there are a lot of average Joes that are just down on their luck. Either they missed a payment or got injured and are out or work," he said. "(The camp leader said) 'if you can't find one of your family members, they might be out here.'”

Froehlich said the city recently bulldozed "Dignity Harbor" even as Gualdoni was finishing the film. He said filmmakers can’t possibly include everything in a film.

"The perpetual question with documentaries is when you end because people's lives continue," Froehlich said. "Documentaries are also a place where people want to continue the discussion. They want to get more information about the subject because (the film) can't deal with everything."

Gualdoni said he is looking forward to seeing his first feature-length documentary on the big screen in the city he knows best: his hometown of St. Louis.

Gualdoni is helping out with a new film in Nicaragua about human trafficking – something he never dreamed to be doing.

“I had never been out of the country before that,” he said.

The film is called “Hitman to Hero” and the trailer will be shown with the screening of “Dignity Harbor” July 8. But Gualdoni considers that film a side project to filming music videos for local bands, something he’s always wanted to do.

'Joplin, Missouri: A Tornado Story'

For Chip Gubera, shooting a documentary required him to step out of his comfort zone in more ways than one. As a digital media instructor at the University of Missouri, he said he hadn’t considered working with documentaries.

That is, until May 2011 when Gubera heard that a massive tornado had destroyed his hometown of Joplin, Mo. Gubera was 240 miles away from home and still hadn’t heard whether his family was alive – just that the town was gone.

After volunteering in the clean-up efforts, Gubera said he returned to Joplin a week later – this time, with his camera.

“My sister called me … and she said “’You know, everyone has so many stories about what’s happening,’” he said. “She said you should be down here with your camera.”

He said the most difficult challenge was something he never expected.

“The greatest challenge was personal. This is my hometown and to take a second and look around and to see everything gone … it was pretty intense,” he said. “There was this emotional turmoil thing going on as well.”

His father Conrad Gubera, who ended became the film’s producer, helped him get through the most difficult moments – like seeing the true destruction first-hand.

“We both were having these emotional moments where one of us would break down and one would support the other. Then we’d break down together, look at each other and just start laughing,” he said.

Froehlich see the destruction through the camera helped Gubera come to terms with his flattened hometown.

“It was comforting in some way. It separated me a little bit from what was going on. I was looking for interesting shots … shots that helped tell the story,” Gubera said. “It was cathartic. It helped me piece together what happened … I thought maybe this would help others who need some moments of clarity like 'this is okay, we can move on through it.'"

'Madness and Genius'

Froehlich said the showcase tries to bring back St. Louis native filmmakers who have gone on to have successful careers -- which, he said, help strengthen that connection between amateur and experienced filmmakers.

He said Eslinger, a 2003 New York University graduate, is a perfect example of St. Louis talent who has gone on to have success. Eslinger’s 2003 film “Madness and Genius” will be screen for free July 7 as part of the showcase.

Froehlich said Eslinger was able to snag actors such as Sharon Stone and Timothy Hutton to play in his 2007 sophomore micro-budgeted project “When a Man Falls in the Forest” – something not many can brag about.

What some may not know is that Eslinger intended “Madness and Genius” to be a comic book. At least,back in grade school and junior high when the idea for the story first came to him. He also went through multiple drafts of movie scripts – most of which he sent to agents.

“I just didn’t tell them I was 11 years old,” he said.

Eslinger was working on “Madness and Genius” between his second and third year at NYU. Eslinger didn’t get much sleep; he wrote, produced, directed, composed and performed the music, and created sound design for his first-feature film.

“I got tons and tons of rejections,” he said.

After making “Madness and Genius” and “When a Man Falls in the Forest,” Eslinger brought it down a notch with his 2009 micro-budgeted “David and Abraham.”

“If the movie can be made for very little money, I don’t really see a reason to spend $2 million for the sake of doing it,” he said. “It was a personal challenge.”

His 2009 “David and Abraham” – which had only one camera and two actors -- was an experience completely unique from his other films, he said.

“Being out in the woods that long in the middle of winter and not having this big production crew and coffee and things to keep you warm … kind of stripped everything down to the bare bones and made me (realize) this is why I want to make movies. (It’s) the simplicity of putting the elements together and making it as real as possible.”

Eslinger said he’s excited to come back to St. Louis to talk about the film that started it all for him -- and to answer any questions the audience members might have.

Lauren Leone is a Beacon intern.

Donna Korando started work in journalism at SIU’s Daily Egyptian in 1968. In between Carbondale and St. Louis Public Radio, she taught high school in Manitowoc, Wis., and worked at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the copy editor and letters editor for the editorial page from 1973-77. As an editorial writer from 1977-87, she covered Illinois and city politics, education, agriculture, family issues and sub-Saharan Africa. When she was editor of the Commentary Page from 1987-2003, the page won several awards from the Association of Opinion Page Editors. From 2003-07, she headed the features copy desk.