Cook: Chattanooga's First Annual Samuel L. Jackson Film Festival

Cook: Chattanooga's First Annual Samuel L. Jackson Film Festival

July 17th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Why the (expletive) not?

Austin has one. So does Telluride. And Savannah, Ga.

Even Rome, Ga., has a film festival. An "international" film festival, that is.

Why not Chattanooga?

"It is hard to find a midsized city or larger that does not have a film festival," said Dave Porfiri, co-founder and president of the Chattanooga Film Society. "We believe Chattanooga is a place that will attract people from all over the country just to celebrate film."

Picture it.

On Friday night, a sold-out Tivoli Theatre. Movie lovers from near and far mingle with film producers, directors and actors staying in downtown hotels and eating and drinking in downtown restaurants.

Before the curtain rises, Porfiri and the next Chattanooga mayor invite a special guest on stage and present him with a Lifetime Achievement Award. He's a Chattanooga native whose entire body of filmwork has grossed more than any other actors' (and his new film will premiere that night at the Tivoli).

Samuel L. Jackson.

"Thank you so (expletive) much," Jackson might say. "It's about (expletive) time you got your (expletive) together as a city. It's real (expletive) good to be back here after so (expletive) long."

For the next three days, films are screened at the Tennessee Aquarium and IMAX, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus, the Tivoli and Majestic Theater. Don't imagine black-and-white movies with waif-like actresses, wearing berets and smoking skinny cigarettes while they read Prussian poetry and speak in mime.

Instead, think of those chest-swelling emotions and mind-expanding coffeehouse conversations that happen when we see powerful movies. Then triple it for a whole weekend's worth.

"Our goal is to get people downtown, like Riverbend, and spend a weekend celebrating film," said Porfiri.

Last week, we learned that "Iron Man 3" will feature Chattanooga in its plot, which is flattering and strange at the same time. How in the (expletive) will filmmakers include Chattanooga in the "Iron Man" plot? Will it be the Choo-Choo? The Walnut Street Bridge? The Hamilton County Commission in prayer?

Unfortunately, the Chattanooga scenes are being filmed in North Carolina, as small-town Kenansville, N.C., has become Little Chattanooga.

Porfiri says it's politics. To attract Hollywood movie producers, states offer incentives, he said. And while other Southern states are "aggressively" offering incentives to lure producers here, Tennessee ... ain't.

"Louisiana and Georgia especially are leaving Tennessee behind," he said, adding that a few years ago, North Carolina "reinvigorated" its policy toward movie-making incentives.

Formed after a community envisioning process, the Chattanooga Film Society has six lofty and contagiously cool goals: working with high schools to teach media arts, offering regular film screenings (like last night's Jonathan Demme film on post-Katrina New Orleans screened at the downtown YMCA) and promoting film culture here in dozens of ways. (Check out chattanoogafilmsociety.org)

But their best goal: Create an international film festival.

"Everybody loves movies," Porfiri said. "People got a taste of this with last year's 'Water for Elephants' premiere. What if we could do that every year?"

To pull this off, the festival must have grass-roots support and major sponsorship. But the biggest challenge?

"Apathy and Netflix," said Porfiri.

Blockbuster movies are fun, but do not represent the larger spectrum of film-making as an art form. Moviegoers must get past the idea that going to the movies means going to the couch to stream Netflix or paying $20 for the new 3D "Transformers." Experiencing a film is much more than that.

"We've got to get past the film nerds and into doctors, lawyers, midlevel executives and small business people. We've got to reach those people and get the message to them about the wonderful things film can do to build community," Porfiri said.

He's so (expletive) right. Film strengthens community, enlarges our understanding of the world, and like all good art, troubles and heals our spirit.

"Some people in this town have never even heard of a film festival before," he said.

I can only imagine what Samuel Jackson would say to that.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.