The trials of being a judge for the Elgin Short Film Festival
By Dave Gathman firstname.lastname@example.org September 24, 2012 10:12PM
Ten-year-old Meredith Droeger, middle, plays the daughter of eccentric, mysterious parents (Kara Zediker, left, and Kirk Anderson, right), whom she claims she "didn't mean to kill" in the short film "Wednesday's Child." At Saturday's Elgin Short Film Festival, the movie won both the audience-choice award and the grand prize. | Photo courtesy~Potenza Productions
Updated: October 26, 2012 6:09AM
The Elgin Short Film Festival keeps getting more and more popular. The fourth one was held at The Hemmens Cultural Center on Saturday, and so many people (a record 600) bought tickets that the organizers had to open up the center’s balcony.
To be honest, that popularity had absolutely nothing to do with this former Courier-News movie critic being recruited to be one of the six judges this year. But as we walked past a stretch limo waiting to ferry us over to a red-carpet reception and TV interviews on the Hemmens steps (the local Elgin cable news program that is, hosted by ever-gung-ho Elgin newsmeister Jeff Meyers), with scores of fest-goers listening to our every word, it felt like at least a taste of the Oscars.
As we gathered in the city hall lobby to prepare for that limo ride, I saw who the other five judges would be: the Daily Herald’s Dann Gire, with whom I have shared many a relaxed screening-room afternoon and many a tense Chicago Film Critics Association board meeting; Richard Pahl, a fixture of the Elgin live-drama community; Raul Esparza, a staffer in the Illinois Film Office who can help guide moviemakers to shoot in places such as Elgin; and DeAnna and Kevin Cooper, husband-and-wife former 20th Century Fox execs who now make their own movies.
Joe Vassallo, who co-chaired this year’s fest with Rich Jacobs, said the competition drew 32 entries, each about 10 minutes long, from as far away as Maryland and California. We six were called The Judges. But that was a bit misleading. Like the ticket-buyers out in the audience, we would see only the five movies chosen as finalists. If this were a presidential election, we would be entering the process only after all the primaries were over.
The original culling from 32 entries to five, Vassallo explained, had been done by five volunteers who also have experience in the arts.
Emcee Mike Toomey spun out jokes about dollar stores and fast-food restaurants. Then the lights went low and we watched the five mini-movies.
An hour or so later, as the audience broke to stretch their legs and cast their own votes for the “people’s choice” film, the judges sneaked down to the Green Room in Hemmens’ basement. Did Glen Campbell and Bill Cosby hang out here? Tonight we had a table full of fried chicken, mostaccioli and pop.
We asked Vassallo whether we should discuss what we just saw. He said he would prefer that we just fill out our ballots, with 5 points for the best film and 1 point for the worst. “There was one year when the discussion among the judges got a little confrontational down here,” he explained.
So we began poring silently over our ballots like six teenagers taking the SAT test.
“Memoirs of a Parapsychologist” had been one of two films directed by Andrew Papke, who lived in Hoffman Estates before he moved recently to Hollywood. The story of a cocky physics student who spends a week in a haunted house, “Parapsychologist” uses shrewd editing and narration to create some horror and even some quasi-religious pondering out of a one-character story. I had to admire its effort and skill. But it was no fun to watch. I gave it 3 points.
“Toolshed,” also from Papke, showed a father teaching a 9-year-old boy how to cut wood on a dangerous circular saw. The film was warm and pleasant. But then it just sort of ended, with no real moral or climax. I gave it 2 points.
“Your Milkman,” directed by Chicago’s Daniel Skubal, hit close to home. Its hero was a milk delivery man in 1955, and my grandpa had driven me around on his route as a milkman in Elgin in the 1950s. But the one in the movie wore a lot spiffier clothes than my grandpa and had a more interesting hobby — seducing every lonely housewife on his route. Here was an upbeat page-turner with a well-constructed climax. I gave it 4 points.
“Tattoo Underground,” the only finalist from outside Illinois, was a documentary about why three Minneapolis residents chose the tattoos they have. It felt a bit creepy and, like “Toolshed,” it seemed pointless. I gave it just 1 point.
But the best had come last. “Wednesday’s Child,” made by a 35-year-old veteran of the Chicago TV commercial and music video industry named Rocco Cataldo, was a black comedy about a little girl who begins by telling us, “I never really meant to kill my parents.” Funny, surprising and well-crafted, it got 5 points from me. And then we adjourned to the food table, totally non-confrontational.
The audience had voted for the same film I had voted tops — “Wednesday’s Child.”
And after adding up the judges’ votes and counting the audience’s preferences as a seventh judge, “Wednesday’s Child” also had won the grand prize. Second place went, incomprehensibly, to “Tattoo Underground.” That horny milkman scored third place.
As we headed home, I ran into Ben Erickson, the film teacher at South Elgin High School, and learned he had been one of those committee members who boiled down the 32 films to five. What he considered the best of all, Ben said, didn’t even make the cut. It was a story called “Boom Boom,” about a Muslim suicide bomber who sits down in a crowded restaurant, ready to blow it up — but runs into a rival suicide bomber on the same mission.
Virtually nobody outside a film festival ever sees any of these 10-minute wonders. But they can lead to more exalted things. For example, downtown Elgin marketer Pete Garlock introduced the first couple of short film festivals by joking about his “acting career” as an almost invisible extra in big-name Hollywood movies. But a year or so ago, Garlock joined with a talented young director named Gwydhar Gebien, who had submitted short films to previous festivals, and in downtown Elgin they filmed an 80-minute drama called “Dark Before Dawn.” It played one night to a full house at the Marcus Elgin, and it’s now available on DVD from Blue Damen Pictures.
Maybe in a year or so, we’ll be invited to the premiere of a full-length flick from the makers of “Wednesday’s Child.”
Or better yet, one by the makers of that unseen “Boom Boom.”