Regular visitors to the village of Yellow Springs were joined Friday, Oct. 6 through Sunday, Oct. 8 by film, music and comedy creators and enthusiasts. There aren’t a lot of things that could bring big names like comedian Fred Armisen, actor Steve Zahn and hip-hop legend Raekwon to a small Ohio town (other than maybe Dave Chappelle), but they all spoke or performed at screenings at the historic Little Art Theatre or Antioch College’s Foundry Theater last weekend as part of the inaugural Yellow Springs Film Festival.
The artistic village of Yellow Springs has long been a destination and a bohemian getaway, of sorts, filled with interesting shops, cafes, independent eateries, Dark Star Books with its signature cat running around, the historic Little Art Theater, Ha Ha Pizza (featured on Yellow Springs’ resident celebrity Dave Chappelle’s t-shirt some years ago in an appearance on Conan), street festivals and outdoor activities. This past weekend showed there might be even more the village could become known for — like a film festival.
Founder and Dayton native Eric Mahoney talked to CityBeat about the origin of the festival: “My family and I moved back to Yellow Springs about two years ago. My work history is as a documentary filmmaker and a film producer and I’ve kind of been in that world for a long time and done a lot of events. It really occurred to me as a perfect kind of village for a festival. You even have the historic 100-year-old theater, more infrastructure coming all the time, an arts community. There are a lot of other really successful film festivals that have started in places like this, a similar size and vibe. The most famous, obviously, Sundance, but Telluride, Woodstock, Berkshires, they all have really meaningful film festivals. So, you know it just really occurred to me this could be a really exceptional place to launch something like that.”
Mahoney called on friends and associates he'd met and worked with over the years to give the festival a good starting point. Notably, one of these friends and associates is comedy great Fred Armisen. “I’ve known Eric for a really long time so that was an easy ‘yes,’” Armisen tells CityBeat. Armisen kicked the festival off Friday night with a packed show, added after he graciously agreed to do an additional night when his original performance on Saturday sold out.
Armisen’s “Comedy For Musicians But Everyone is Welcome” saw the actor, musician, former Saturday Night Live great and Documentary Now and Portlandia co-creator and star taking the audience through hilarious and near-anthropological takes on folk guitar strumming patterns around the world, an evolution of punk drumming and several distinctive impressions among other signature Armisen musings, going from instrument to instrument and bit to bit.
Armisen, a former touring musician himself as drummer in '90s punk band Trenchmouth, often mentioned underground Dayton bands throughout both of his appearances over the weekend. When asked about his connection to local music in our conversation over the phone Saturday morning, he talked about notable Dayton band Brainiac, the subject of Mahoney’s documentary Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero, which Armisen also participated in.
“Brainiac … we got to play a bunch of shows with, in fact, the last show Trenchmouth ever played was opening for Brainiac in Chicago. We just were immediate fans of theirs.” Armisen also mentions his love for The Breeders and Guided By Voices.
When asked about his experience in Yellow Springs, Armisen responds, “Oh, really great. First of all, I had never been to Yellow Springs, so that was really cool and it’s the first festival, so I love playing first years of stuff. Everyone’s excited. It’s like a big mystery. ‘Oh, what’s gonna happen? What's this gonna be?’ That kind of excitement is rare. It’s not like, ‘This is year 15 and so-and-so was here a couple years ago.’ It’s like, (enthusiastically) ‘This is year one.’”
Cincinnati native, comedian and actress Mitra Jouhari made a special home-state appearance when she was invited up halfway through Armisen’s set and delivered a hilarious and wandering monologue of an increasingly outlandish daydream scenario.
Following Armisen’s performance, night one of the festival featured an opening party complete with an open bar, food and red carpet photo opportunities, which myself and my plus-one took advantage of, talking with festivalgoers and guests throughout.
The official opening was marked by a heartfelt introduction from founder Mahoney with assistance from the festival’s creative director, Ian Jacobs, and a reading of the history of the forced removal of the Shawnee people native to the area, followed by an introduction to the opening film, Taking Back the Groove.
The documentary short released this year tells the story of former rising disco star Richie Weeks, who had a No. 1 record on the dance charts in 1981 but became a victim of record company contracts that have robbed many artists of fair deals, and the unexpected ally that came along to help him reclaim his legacy. The film was followed by a Q&A with a charming, genuine and noticeably appreciative Weeks; director Celia Aniskovich; the film’s producer, Wu-Tang Clan legend Raekwon; and Mahoney as the moderator. The panel discussed companies poaching artists for profit, Weeks’ path to justice, paying tribute to those who came before hip-hop, questions from the audience and Raekwon leading a standing ovation for Weeks in a warm ending for opening night.
The next two days of the festival feature showings or appearances throughout the day in both The Little Art Theatre and the Foundry Theater simultaneously, creating a wealth of options and the dilemma of choice.
Saturday’s schedule of events featured Rather, the 2023 Tribeca-debuting documentary about news legend Dan Rather directed by Frank Marshall; Madly, a six-part anthology film on love and all of its aspects followed by a Q&A; Have You Got It Yet?: The Story of Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd; and a 10-year anniversary screening of Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, among others.
It also featured another appearance from Armisen titled Fred Armisen Live: A Conversation about Music and Comedy, with festival founder Mahoney. The sold-out crowd filled the Foundry Theater with laughter as Fred is maybe even more on than the night before, with lightning-fast wit and hilarious remarks peppering the conversation with deadpan absurdity and off-the-cuff jokes.
The day was capped off with Guided By Voices: A 40 Year Retrospective On The Big Screen and a showing of the documentary on the band, Watch Me Jumpstart. Former Guided By Voices member Tim Payton Earick talked with CityBeat after the showing about the attention paid to the local band and its history. “It’s fun for me to see. I’ve never seen myself on a screen that huge so it’s a little embarrassing at the same time (laughs). So it’s like, I’d bury my face a little bit and sing some lyrics because I remember the lyrics too. It was cool, it was very cool.”
Sunday brought a showing of another premiere from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, the quirky and emotional The Secret Art of Human Flight; a screening of We Are Fugazi From Washington, D.C. followed by a live video Q&A with singer/guitarist Guy Picciotto of the influential D.C. punk band; a second showing of 32 Sounds; 2023 SXSW premiere documentary Citizen Sleuth; and 2022 Tribeca Best Documentary winner The Cave of Adullam.
A highlight of the final day was the star-studded Short Films Program that included six short films, which notably included the world premiere of Zahn’s directorial debut, Lynn’s Fire, along with Stephen Michael Simon’s Bacon N’ Laces and Yellow Springs resident and Academy Award-winner Steven Bognar’s Small Ohio Town, followed by a Q&A with the three directors.
The festival also paid tribute to Bognar’s late wife, Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, activist and Yellow Springs resident Julia Reichert, with an ongoing exhibit at Crome Yellow Springs over the course of the festival.
“We really wanted to honor her legacy here in year one,” Mahoney says. “Obviously she lived in the village for so many years, was such an integral part of the community and was such a trailblazing and influential filmmaker. So, it felt appropriate to have some sort of exhibit to pay tribute to her work.”
On curating the variety of films shown at the festival, Mahoney talks about the excitement of programming: “To me, that’s really the fun thing about all this, putting the whole thing together, like a jigsaw puzzle to make it really interesting for an audience … the logistics are a little more of a nightmare but booking it is fun.”
The festival seemed to be an overall total success and the pieces of that puzzle seemed to fit together nicely over a weekend packed with films and events that could mirror a festival staged in any major city. Maybe Yellow Springs could become even more of a destination and there will be something really special, right here at home. “I really love the idea of doing this every year and growing this and making it bigger and better each year,” Mahoney says.
On the festival’s longevity, Armisen says, “Maybe someday, it’ll be like something people will use on their (movie) posters, like; ‘this won the Eric Award at the Yellow Springs Festival.’”
Watch for next year’s festival announcement and don’t miss out on a good thing happening right up the road.
For more information about the Yellow Springs Film Festival, visit ysfilmfest.com.
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