Sept. 30--Sometimes, the story a filmmaker starts out telling isn't the story he winds up telling in the end. Just ask Stephen Dest.
When he was first dreaming up his feature film, "My Brother Jack," Dest wanted to create an homage to his father, who died when Dest was young. His father's death was the inspiration for a short film Dest had made, called "Blind."
Then, in Dest's mind, the story turned and turned and turned. "My father died of natural causes, a heart attack. But what if that's not exactly what happened? It was like 'Hamlet,' if all was not well in Denmark," Dest, of New Haven, said. "Then I started to get into a narrative fictional space.
"I didn't know I had a psychological thriller until the media told me," he said. "I thought it was a love letter to my dad."
"My Brother Jack" in the end, is the story of two brothers dealing with the aftermath, decades later, of their parents' Christmas Day murder, and discovering who was really behind it. It will be shown on Saturday, Oct. 5, at the University of Hartford, as the sole feature-length film in the third annual New England Underground Film Festival. It will be preceded by a program of independent shorts, many of them from local filmmakers.
The film was shot in New Haven, using locations including the town Green, at Upcrown Studios, the Diesel Bar on State Street, a penthouse in the Taft Apartments. It stars Paul Sagorsky of "Boardwalk Empire" amid a cast of relative unknowns.
Dest, who runs the drama department at New Haven's Neighborhood Music School, was awarded last year by the Arts Council of Greater New Haven,.
Dest won the best first feature award at the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival this year, and after the New England Underground Film Festival, Dest will take "My Brother Jack" to the Napa Valley Film Festival. "Films I'm up against are already sold and will get a theatrical release," Dest said. "Hopefully we'll be following suit."
Another festival filmmaker with Connecticut ties is Kieran Valla. The Woodbury native's short film, "Hangdog," was made for the graduate program at American Film Institute in Los Angeles, where Valla lives now.
"Hangdog" tells the story of two men: a young lawbreaker, Kelly, and his older cousin, James. James, who has hit hard times, wants to straighten out his life. But he finds it difficult with Kelly around.
Valla, 29, a 2002 graduate of Nonnewaug High School in Woodbury, had two inspirations. "When I was a kid, a squatter lived on land we owned, a down-on-his-luck guy who lived in his car. That's where the character James comes from," Valla said. "I was also inspired by Cormac McCarthy's novel 'Suttree,' about a guy who's living on a riverboat on a river in Tennessee and he befriends a young, troubled, down-on-his-luck kid."
The movie is a drama but has a streak of dark comedy in it, as the younger man memorizes the names of people who, like him, dropped out of high school. He reveres them, not realizing that those people were smart and he is not. "In the darkest corners of life there are moments of levity," Valla said.
'Protector Of The Kingdom'
To find his subject matter, Kelly DeMauro looked no farther than Theater 4 in New Haven. The stage company was co-founded by Mariah Sage. After taking a Hartford Stage acting class with Sage, DeMauro got involved with Theater 4 and discovered "Protector of the Kingdom," by Caroline V. McGraw.
"The play was so good. The script was fantastic," said DeMauro, 54, who lives in Middletown, works at Total Communication in East Hartford and does theater work on the side. "I have an affinity for strong female characters. The plays I've produced have aways centered around strong women."
"Protector" tells the story of a teenager, Gladis, rebelling against her stepmother, who runs her father's store. Sage plays the stepmother, Reenie. The short was shot on location at Fair Haven Furniture in New Haven.
DeMauro, who also is founder of the Middle City Stage Company in Middletown, likes both of the plays flawed characters.
"Reenie feels trapped. She meets this guy and marries him, and now she's running his business while the girl resents her," he said. "Gladis is troubled and misguided."
Other NEUFF Films
An oddity at the festival is "Mechanical Doll," a 1922 silent short. The film is one of the "Koko the Clown" series by Max and Dave Fleischer, who are most famous for creating Betty Boop and Popeye.
Ben Model, a New Yorker who preserves and exhibits very old films that are rare and considered "lost," found "Mechanical Doll" in his uncle's house.
"He had a collection of films in his basement. I wound up with his film collection. Mostly it was lesser-quality prints of old Chaplin films, but mixed in with this stuff that was pretty common were a few gems like this short."
Koko cartoons were extremely popular during the silent era, when movie screenings usually had four parts to them: a cartoon, a newsreel, the feature film and a comic short.
"This series ran throughout the 20s, but after a time the clown character became a background character in support of Betty Boop," he said.
Other films at NEUFF are "Common Misconception" by Jared Marmitt of Connecticut, "Some Assembly Required" by Luke Bittel and Fred Warren of Massachusetts, "Not Clear Cut" by Paul Turano of Massachusetts, "Monochromia" by Michael Legge of Massachusetts, "Real Change" by Adam Michael Becker of California, "Zori" by Jack Niedenthal and Suzanne Chutaro of the Marshall Islands (in the Marshallese language with subtitles) and "Rose Mary and Time" by Hardeep Gianni of England.
NEW ENGLAND UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL runs Saturday, Oct. 5, from noon to 6 p.m. at the Wilde Auditorium at University of Hartford, 200 Bloomfield Ave. in West Hartford. Admission is $10, $5 students with ID. Details: http://newenglanduff.webs.com/.
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