Area filmmakers roll out reel alternatives to big festivals

Director-actor Rod Webber is the force behind the third Reel Fest, coming to the Somerville Theatre. Experimentally Ill 4, another local festival set to run at the Somerville and Coolidge Corner theaters, is the creation of filmmakers Mike Phelan O’Toole, Lawrence Hollie, and Quincy Brisco. Director-actor Rod Webber is the force behind the third Reel Fest, coming to the Somerville Theatre. Experimentally Ill 4, another local festival set to run at the Somerville and Coolidge Corner theaters, is the creation of filmmakers Mike Phelan O’Toole, Lawrence Hollie, and Quincy Brisco. (Judy Johnson)
By David Wildman
Globe Correspondent / March 6, 2011

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Most people assume the next Quentin Tarantino will emerge from the lofty trappings of Sundance, Cannes, or any number of prestigious film festivals. Whether or not this is true, there are new filmmakers on the local scene hoping to find cinematic success without having to rub shoulders with Robert Redford. Their solution: If you can’t get your film into the big festivals, then hold your own.

“Usually festivals are just a lot of people passing out cards, running around, and shaking hands,’’ says Rod Webber, a director and actor whose event, Reel Fest, is in its third year. “New filmmakers have a vision, but not of how to bring their work to the world. I’m offering a way.’’

As the main festival organizer, Webber offers a vision that includes fun, interjected in part by combining live music performances with screenings. His filmmaking philosophy carries over to Reel Fest management: He operates on the barest of budgets, and he will accept donations but refuses to ask for payment from potential participants or to line up corporate sponsors.

“There is something about the submission fees [at major festivals] that is akin to the way they sell beer in clubs to make money,’’ says Webber, who is also a performing singer-songwriter. “I understand the necessity of it, but I don’t want to be entangled in that nastiness.’’

Reel Fest will feature the debut of Webber’s latest work, “My America,’’ a shocking drama on the subject of racism that he shot in a whirlwind three days. It wasn’t just that he had borrowed a camera and had to get it back; he was adhering to a personal manifesto that limits the time and money allowed on a project. Webber’s manifesto grew out of making his first few films, one of which was terminally delayed when the diminutive lead, Douglas “Tiny’’ Tunstall, turned his efforts to a quixotic run for mayor of Pawtucket, R.I. Webber went with the flow and made a documentary about it, “A Man Among Giants.’’ After that he vowed to always play one of the main parts, do most of the camerawork, and as director be the only one in the production who knows the full story, allowing everyone else to create their own roles and dialogue. This technique has since developed into a semi-documentary improvisational style that has become part of his art.

“It’s like jazz. We just go out there and do our thing, get into our imaginary space,’’ says Webber.

Also showing will be “Northern Comfort’’ from 2008, another manifesto-spawned Webber production that features Greta Gerwig (who starred alongside Ben Stiller in “Greenberg’’). In addition to Webber’s films and a wide variety of shorts, there will be six other featured films, including “The Why,’’ a chilling meditation on death by Anthony Pedone, Eli Higgins, and Stephen Floyd; Frankie Latina’s “Modus Operandi,’’ an action-packed CIA black-ops thriller; and Elizabeth Spear’s “Little Gods,’’ a wartime Afghanistan profile shot entirely with an iPhone.

Webber isn’t the only local filmmaker holding a festival. Lawrence Hollie and Mike Phelan O’Toole’s co-venture, Experimentally Ill 4, is also a vehicle to get their work up on the big screen. Both have shows with Brookline cable access television, so they’ve taken advantage of available digital cameras to branch out into the world of film.

“Part of the stigma of cable access is that maybe not too many people are watching and there are low production values. We’re trying to be creative using the tools we can get our hands on,’’ says O’Toole.

Hollie ran the experimental show Random Acts, and O’Toole hosted a one-man Henry Rollins-influenced program he called Insubordinate. In 2006 they combined their efforts for Random Acts of Insubordination, an overview of their mutual creative work which they showed at a gallery in Cambridge. For their next event they moved to the Coolidge Corner Theatre and changed the name to Experimentally Ill. Now in its fourth year, the show has grown into a multiple-venue, four-day festival. A total of 22 films will be screened, including shorts and full-length features such as Noah Lydiard’s “June,’’ a comedy about a boy who builds a flying machine; John Hartman’s “Petrified,’’ a horror story where wax figures come to life; “Don’t Spill the Eggs,’’ a surrealist romp by cartoonist Mick Cusimano; D.L. Polonsky’s “Ersatz,’’ about a fiction writer who carries around her deceased father’s head; and “Quincy Brisco: A Life Unedited,’’ a documentary by Hollie, O’Toole, and Brisco, an offbeat and eccentric luminary of the underground cable-access scene who, with O’Toole, will also host the festival.

“Quincy was this guy that came in every day to the station and said, ‘I want to do a show.’ They wanted me to get rid of him,’’ says Hollie. “Instead, I sat him down and listened to him do this amazing monologue.’’

Like Webber, O’Toole and Hollie refuse to charge fees to filmmakers, and they welcome all styles of filmmaking, with one exception: music videos.

“We’re trying to promote people that put the effort into a narrative work. We don’t need to see dogs dancing to ‘Billie Jean,’ ’’ says Hollie.

Both he and O’Toole believe their festival has the potential to grow in size and respectability because what they are offering the public is a real filmgoing experience.

“We’re kind of traditionalists in that sense,’’ says O’Toole. “It’s great, the theater is dark and you smell the popcorn. And there’s nothing like someone shaking your hand and saying they dug the show, versus clicking the ‘like’ button on Facebook.’’

Reel Fest runs March 11-15 at the Somerville Theatre; see for more information. Experimentally Ill 4 runs March 16 and 18 at the Somerville Theatre, March 24 at Coolidge Corner Theatre, and March 31 at BATV in Brookline; see

David Wildman can be reached at

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