Jeff Spevak previews the Rochester Teen Film Festival

Aug 5, 2019

The premise is two guys sitting across a table from a guy who’s found “a bag.” The dialogue is dry film noir, with amusing, non-sequitur detours. Who these guys are, and what is in this bag, we don’t know. And we never find out over the course of the seven-minute film. All we know is, when the bag is opened, something in it gives off a yellow glow.

This is “The Bag,” the grand-prize winning film by Nick Baum at last year’s Rochester Teen Film Festival. Baum, a student from Honeoye Falls, wrote and acted in the film, which maddeningly and brilliantly offers no explanation for what is going on. The bag is a classic MacGuffin – the unexplained prop that moves the story along, in typical Hitchcock fashion – and is a nod to the equally mysterious black briefcase, and its unexplained glowing contents, in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.”

The Rochester Teen Film Festival returns Thursday, August 8 to The Little Theatre, with 11 finalists vying for the Philip Seymour Hoffman Best of the Festival Award, named for the late actor and Fairport native. Anywhere from 30 to 60 films are submitted each year, but not exclusively from here: This year’s finalists are high school students from Allendale Columbia, Geneseo, Fairport, Penfield, Pittsford Sutherland, Edison Career and Technical High School, as well as Dake Junior High and, going farther afield, Randolph Academy in Cattaraugus County and AP Mays Media Conservatory of the Arts in Miami, Florida.

Past submissions have come from Harlem, Poland and Rome, Italy. “How did the find us?” muses Festival Director Linda Maroney.

She knows the answer: The internet.

The films often draw on the limited life experience of the teenage filmmakers. “So many start off with a kid in bed, the alarm goes off and he gets up and starts brushing his teeth,” Maroney says. Yet the films also range from “crazy, gory horror films that you can’t follow,” to music videos, documentaries, public-service announcements, animation, experimental, poetic and narrative stories, to the kind of heist film represented by “The Bag.” Some are simply shot on iPhones, but most utilize modern filmmaking equipment. “Fairport and Edison, they have some great equipment there,” Maroney says. “Some students are taking classes, or doing after-school, projects, or just working on their own.” And some turn to Fred Armstrong’s Animatus studio in downtown Rochester.

In this film fest-heavy city, the Rochester Teen Film Festival was created in 2005 by Brian Bailey as an urban youth event. When Moroney came on board in 2010, it was expanded to “an urban, suburban rural” festival, Moroney says. They ran the fest together until a couple of years ago, when Bailey moved to Chicago; staff from WXXI and The Little continue to contribute support.  (The Little is a subsidiary of WXXI)

“They may not be into sports or whatever,” Maroney says of the students. “But if filmmaking is your thing, you get to write scripts, plan production, construct sets, communicate with actors, learn time management.”

Many of the films use music without regard to copyright issues, but “at the next level they’re going to have to learn to deal with it,” she adds.

The films are generally downloaded onto YouTube, and winnowed down to the finalists by a panel of three judges, led by Maroney. The Emmy-winning filmmaker’s credentials include documentaries shown nationwide and on PBS; she also programs the One Take Documentary Series and Film Festival at The Little, and teaches filmmaking courses at St. John Fisher College.

After the judges pick the finalists, the films are reviewed by a panel of 10 more judges, including former winners. Along with the Hoffman Best of the Fest, the Marilyn O’Connor Award – named for the retired Monroe County family court judge, and Hoffman’s mother – goes to the film that presents the top social commentary. The Alex Ketchek Award is presented to the best animated film; Ketchek, who passed away a few years ago, was the 2011 winner for his whimsical “No Unicycles in the Gym,” which is shown each year at the fest. The three awards come with cash prizes, and all finalists get a swag bag and a gift certificate for film equipment. The Best of the Fest’s winner’s name is also added to a plaque at The Little.

The finalist are generally all on hand, although, “One kid can’t make it because he’s going to be in California, looking at film schools,” Maroney says.

The fest also often includes a showing of a silent, black-and-white film starring a teenage Hoffman, shot by his brother Gordie.

With a 10-minute limit on each film, and most are much less, Thursday’s free, 5:30 p.m. program at The Little, 240 East Ave., doesn’t run for much more than an hour.

And the only other guideline for the films? “If you’re OK,” Maroney says, “watching this with your grandmother.”

Jeff Spevak, a cultural arts contributor to WXXI, is a Rochester-based writer. His web site is jeffspevak.com.