December 6, 2021

Topanga Film Festival 2013 Showcases Documentaries—“See. Change.”


By Katie Dalsemer

So many films, so little time.


Topanga Film Festival 2013 Showcases Documentaries—“See. Change.”

Festival director Jon Fitzgerald (center) worked with Festival founders Urs and Sara Baur, all seen here at the gala opening, in choosing socially relevant films for the four day festival.

The Ninth Annual Topanga Film Festival was a documentary-lover’s dream with three venues chock full of projects that showed the triumph and sometimes the heartbreak of following your dreams.

This year’s theme was “See. Change.” and featured documentaries that effected social change.

The four-day event opened with a gala event under the stars at the Theatricum Botanicum where, before the screening of Elemental, visitors enjoyed a reception with food catered by Whole Foods, Barefoot Wine, music and on-the-spot screen printing of the iconic coyote logo.

According to the festival director, Jon Fitzgerald, he chose the film because he’d seen it when he was on the jury of a Social Impact Media Awards event and thought it was one of the best that applied to social change.

“It showed just how vast these problems are and I knew this would appeal to a Topanga audience,” he said.

One of the highlights of the screening was the introduction of Elemental co-composer Scott Salinas. His soundtrack truly helped the film’s ebb and flow of life with the juxtaposition of organic, almost tribal rhythms against a jarring, clanging industrial sound.

Elemental focuses on three environmentalists whose seemingly insurmountable struggles left a visceral impression.

Topanga Film Festival 2013 Showcases Documentaries—“See. Change.”

From left, technical director William Preston Bowling and Festival producer Bruce Royer got set up for the screening of Elemental that opened the film festival at the Theatricum Botanicum.

The film documented Rajendra Singh’s crusade to clean up the Ganges and exposed the fact that this irreplacable river is absolutely killing itself. In one scene, Singh helped dredge up some sample garbage on the shore and started vomiting, no doubt from the stench but also, perhaps, from sheer exasperation.

Another environmentalist, Canadian Eriel Deranger, battled the Tar Sands, an oil deposit bigger than the state of Florida, which has been strip-mined for years. She and many other indigenous people blame it for not only destroying the environment, but also for causing rare forms of cancer.On the one hand, she’s a young activist whose raw anger overflows at times; on the other, she’s a tattooed hipster mom who’s trying to connect with her pre-teen daughter who is less than thrilled about the impending arrival of her mother’s new baby.

Finally, Australian inventor Jay Harman tries to find backers for a nature-inspired, anti-global warming device. Every time he has a slight verbal fumble in meetings, I found myself holding my breath until he righted himself; I so wanted him to succeed.

Screening at the Topanga Library was Tiny, which couldn’t have been more different from Elemental, except for its-me-against-the-world struggle. Before seeing the fiIm, I had no idea there was a movement of tiny house dwellers who believe their lives are enhanced by having only space for the barest essentials. I thought Tiny would seem claustrophobic, but it’s

Topanga Film Festival 2013 Showcases Documentaries—“See. Change.”

Catherine McClenahan, who volunteers at many Topanga events, was ready to serve Barefoot Wine, a sponsor of the film festival, at the gala opening.

beautifully shot in a way that helps you latch on to the dreams of this little-known movement.

Not only do filmmakers Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller interview endearing people in their beautiful, tiny homes, they actually build a place by themselves. Really. By themselves. Smith had so much to learn about every inch of wood, wiring and storage space that there was no way not to root for him and his new house that can be transported on a trailer.

Rounding out the night was a screening of Walking the Camino at The Rosewood, a lovely building with beautiful tile work , intricately carved wood panels and a popular venue that sits next to Froggy’s restaurant. The film tells the stories of a few of the thousands of pilgrims who make the 500-mile trek on foot across Europe on the ancient Camino de Santiago for reasons that are as varied as the personalities and quaint towns showcased along the way.

Topanga Film Festival 2013 Showcases Documentaries—“See. Change.”

(L-R) Walking the Camino producer and cast member Annie O’Neil and director LydiaB. Smith were thrilled to have their labor of love screened at The Rosewood.

It’s the perfect marriage of stunning landscapes and a glimpse into unforgettable characters’ lives, such as a young French mom with her headstrong toddler in tow. Walking the Camino documents the journey without necessarily explaining the mystery of why these pilgrims walked until their feet bled or tolerated a sleepless night next to a snoring stranger in a hostel.

One of the highlights of the evening was meeting the film’s director, Lydia B. Smith, who went on the journey herself and, like most pilgrims, at a time when she was at a crossroads in her life. Ultimately, she went back to make the film and was proud to show it in Topanga where she actually lived for 12 years.

Before the screening she asked the audience if anyone had already seen the film and a number of hands went up, which is a great sign for a filmmaker. Surprisingly, even more hands went up when she asked who had walked the Camino themselves.

Afterwards, she answered myriad questions that ranged from financing the film (connect with your school alumni groups) what happened to some of the pilgrims we met in the film (two of them had a short romance) and tips for making the trip (learn Spanish and check out, whose representative Marla Kersee was on hand with information). Also attending was producer Annie O’Neil who was featured in the film and was one of the most endearing characters. We see the very real experience when her body just quit and she broke down in tears. She triumphantly made it

Topanga Film Festival 2013 Showcases Documentaries—“See. Change.”

Screen printer Ducky Harris put the iconic coyote logo on anything and everything at the Topanga Film Festival.

through and, like many others, is going to do it again.

That’s the beauty of great documentaries: They expand our worldview and, if we’re really lucky, our view of ourselves in the process.

Viva la Cinema!


By JP Spence

In a town as beautiful as Topanga, being indoors is usually the last place you want to be—unless you love film.

Overcast skies may have brought in a few extra viewers to experience the uniqueness that is the Topanga Film Festival (TFF) and this year’s documentary theme: “See. Change.”

Then again, being a film critic, is there any other better place than being at a film festival regardless of location?

And therein lies the niche that is the Topanga Film Festival: Location, location, location. Now in its ninth year, the festival is still in its grassroots phase but there is clearly an elevation in sophistication in the delivery and content.

Among those changes was a panel on technology vs. story, a narrative feature spotlight and the festival’s highlight, a juried documentary competition.

The panel couldn’t be more apropos as the discussion focused on burgeoning technologies shaping the course of cinema and storytelling as a whole, locally and worldwide. As film gives way to digital, there is a wider platform for more auteurs to showcase their points of view. While the discussion doubled as a movie-geek’s dream, it also served as a foreshadowing of the weekend’s excellent documentary competition.There was no particularly weak film (Char and Elemental certainly lived up to their billing), but Go Ganges and Saturday’s headliner, Circle The Wagen, were the standouts. These two films show an individual quest rather than more topical fare. Topical documentaries obviously are the norm but profile documentaries have been emerging lately in cinematic circles and it was refreshing to see TFF reflect that.

Go Ganges tells the story of two friends on a mission to conquer the eponymously titled river. The transformation in appearance of the countryside from the river’s beginning to the river’s end makes this critic want to explore the boundaries beyond the cineplex and skyscrapers.

On the surface it may appear self-aggrandizing to appear in your own documentary, but with Josh Thomas and J.J. Kelley immersing themselves in the film, it gives the viewers an experience that is more tangible rather than an abstract film about a river. Secondarily, by having the Ganges being the de facto star, we see a duality in nature and spirituality with the river that is certainly not seen here at home. Directed by Kelley, Thomas, Ben Gottfried and Dave Costello, Go Ganges should be making the rounds on the festival circuit.

Premiering at the Topanga Library for the festival’s signature piece, Circle The Wagen closed Saturday night with an open-air screening. Focusing on the niche community of Volkswagen bus owners, director Ryan Green follows Dave and his jaunt along Route 66. The bus gets its rash of injuries but the outpouring from the bus community helps Dave and “The Croc” along the way.

As the panel from Friday discussed changes in cinema on a local and global scale, no two films better exemplified the spirit of the panel and TFF than Saturday night.


By Eamon Shea

Topanga Film Festival 2013 Showcases Documentaries—“See. Change.”

Topanga Film Festival producer Bruce Royer welcomed everyone to the gala opening at the Theatricum Botanicum on July 18 by leading the audience in a group coyote (TFF’s mascot) howl.

Have you ever wanted to rule the ocean mounting monstrous waves, laughing in the face of danger?

Raw, a film directed by Mark Brightwell and Cohan Banfield, winner of “Best Cinematography” at the New York Surf Film Festival 2012, was selected to screen at the Topanga Film Festival.

The film brings you as close as you'll ever get without a face full of ocean spray as it follows the adventures of some of the world's best surfers traveling the world for the best locations to hang ten. Every stop has a different cultural feel, and each beach has a different barrel to backside.

No wonder it won an award for best cinematography because that is one of the most remarkable things about the film. One has to wonder how some of the shots were humanly possible as they came directly from the surface of the water with colossal waves bearing down upon the cameramen at all times. The surf-riding shots are fantastic and a credit to the overall beauty of the film.

The theme of the 2013 Topanga Film Festival was “See.” Change.” and, at first glance, a surfing flick seems hardly fitting. Surfing has been around for a long time, but it hasn’t changed much. The mode of wave riding has simply evolved from old planks of driftwood to sleek, well designed wave carvers. Although records show that the earliest surfing was performed in the late 1700s, it’s hard to believe no one had surfed before then. Today’s version of this death-defying sport was founded by George Freeth, who is often called the “Father of Modern Surfing.” Although his skills were undoubtedly great, imagine what he could have done with a Channel Island or a Firewire board.

So how does Raw, this ode to the eternal wave, fit into the Topanga Film Festival theme? It’s simple. No two waves are the same; the ocean is changeless yet ever changing. In the water, a surfer, no matter how seasoned, has no idea what's coming; there is only the immediate, life-threatening, thrilling experience, the will to survive and the expectation of a good time.

The movie highlights how different locations provide different types of waves and, in turn, different rides, each providing an experience that's never possible to duplicate.

An important fact to note is that amazing, wave-riding feats, such as the ones shown in this film, might soon not be as frequent if pollution worsens. No one will want to surf through countless dead sea animals, while oil slicks could make the experience unbearable, if at all possible. One must remember beautiful, simple pleasures such as surfing can be gone in a heartbeat if our course as humans doesn't alter.

Change can be good, as long as what is being changed is our actions and not our environment.

Waves and beaches change, riders come and go, but the sport itself stays true, a never-changing venue for the intimate relationship and respect humanity shares with the ocean. ­­­­­­­­­