A Meeting of Minds at the SCAD Film Fest

Maltin and Jenkins at the SCAD Film Fest. (JGA)

When creative people at the peaks of their professional careers have something to say, I listen. My recent attendance at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival was a great learning experience.

“Never lose your amateur enthusiasm,” film critic Leonard Maltin coached me … even as he confessed he had borrowed the line from late actor Ronald Colman. (Not only are Maltin and I the same age; we both consider Humphrey Bogart’s “Casablanca” the best movie ever made.)

Writer Peter Hedges dug back considerably further … to the ancient Roman philosopher, Seneca. “Luck is what happens when opportunity meets preparation,” he recalled. “My whole life, I’ve been around people so much more talented than me.” Yet Hedges’ screenplays show tremendous talent: They include “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Pieces of April,” “About a Boy” and the new “Ben Is Back,” starring his son, Lucas Hedges.

Director Barry Jenkins, whose movie “Moonlight” won the Academy Award for best picture in 2017 — and whose brilliant new film, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” will be an Oscar contender — said that he escaped the predictability of Hollywood productions by studying foreign films as a youth. Memorable among them, he said, were “Chungking Express” (Chinese, 1994) and “301/302” (Korean, 1995). His underlying message? Step away from the box. And surround yourself with people who share the same “vibe.”

Savannah College

Before my visit to Savannah (you’ll find my “Notes on a Visit to Savannah, Georgia,” here), I had never heard of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Shame on me. That’s what happens when one’s knowledge of American educational institutions is mainly linked to those with prominent football or basketball programs.

SCAD’s Lucas Theater. (JGA)

Indeed, “SCAD” does have men’s and women’s soccer teams, as well as swimming, fencing and a great equestrian program. But that’s not why nearly 14,000 students (including 2,500 post-graduates) travel from around the world to study at this private university in the Deep South. (SCAD has additional programs in Atlanta, Hong Kong and Lacoste, France, near Aix-en-Provence.)

These scholars come to study painting and sculpture, fashion and photography, architecture and historic preservation. They learn graphic design, interior design and industrial design. They come for education in the digital media, from visual effects to animation and game development. They come to study art history, administration and management.

A great many attend SCAD as a portal to the entertainment industry, through its highly regarded School of Entertainment Arts.

With this infrastructure and a tremendous incentive package, it’s no wonder that Georgia has surpassed California as the No. 1 location for feature film production. Atlanta, four hours’ drive from Savannah, has been nicknamed the “Hollywood of the South.”

The annual highlight for these students is the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, held from the last weekend of October through the first weekend of November.

Film Fest Stars

Festival goers at Trustees Theater. (JGA)

The world’s largest university-run film festival was everything I expected it to be, only more. Unlike other fests I’ve attended, much of the fare was new, major studio releases, including such Oscar frontrunners as “The Front Runner,” “Green Book,” “Boy Erased” and “The Favourite,” along with documentaries “Free Solo” and “RBG.” Several actors were honored, among them Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman and John David Washington, son of Denzel.

More than 40,000 movie lovers attend annually. While most events were held at SCAD’s two historic theaters in downtown Savannah, the Lucas and the Trustees, others were staged in the SCAD Museum of Art, nearly a mile away but served by shuttle buses.

Over the course of several days, I enjoyed one-on-one conversations with people like Maltin, Hedges, novelist Stephanie Bond (“Coma Girl”) and director Josh Huber (“Making Babies”). I especially enjoyed making the acquaintance of young Boston filmmaker Noah Canavan, whose dramatic short about Cuban refugees, “93 Miles,” is making waves.

In all, 167 films (features, documentaries and shorts) were presented between 9am and midnight for eight consecutive days. But there was also time for dining (the central Marshall House had great buffets for pass holders) and for nightly parties in the balmy weather.

The best of three parties that I attended took place at Peregrin, the rooftop garden lounge at the new Perry Lane Hotel. I had just arrived in Savannah, hungry after flying all day. I found a glass of Spanish tempranillo, a crab-and-shrimp lettuce wrap, and found a seat with a city view among a small group of important looking attendees.

Patron of the Arts

I wound up in a long conversation with Dr. Walter Evans, a retired surgeon and a patron of the arts with Obama-like charm. Born in Savannah 75 years ago, he spent his medical career in Detroit, Michigan, before returning to his hometown.

Poetter Hall, SCAD’s first building. (JGA)

Evans told me he was in his 30s when he began collecting African-American paintings, sculptures, books and photographs to enlighten his daughters about their cultural heritage. Growing up in the segregated South, he was forbidden from visiting white-run galleries and museums. Teachers and family instilled in him a pride in his culture, and when the civil-rights movement opened those formerly forbidden museum doors, he was motivated to correct the absence of African-American works among the collections. As years passed, Evans purchased hundreds of pieces of 19th- and 20th-century art. In particular, he owns the largest private collections of works by Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden.

A couple of days later, I had the good fortune to tag along with SCAD alumni J.J. Maxwell and Karen Smith on a tour of the campus, which extends across 67 buildings from one end of Savannah to the other. We started at red-brick Poetter Hall (built in 1892) facing Madison Square, where founder (and still president) Paula Wallace started the school in 1978, and peeked into the whimsical Shop SCAD gallery of student and faculty creations before heading crosstown to the SCAD Museum of Art <scadmoa.org>.

I should not have been surprised when the first gallery we entered was “The Walter O. Evans Center for African American Studies,” home to one of the world’s largest, privately owned African-American art collections. By all measures, it was a highlight to visit this gallery — currently exhibiting works by Lorraine O’Grady — after having met its patron.

A Tour of SCAD

Student Anthony Walker checks out the “Isle of Dogs” display. (JGA)

Also on display at the SCAD Museum, in association with the film festival, were 20 newly designed costumes from the Starz television series “Outlander” (the cast attended an opening reception) and models from the animated Wes Anderson feature “Isle of Dogs.” Much of the collection at this teaching museum, which adjoins SCAD’s School of Building Arts, is avant-garde and multimedia.

(Savannah’s Telfair Museums — including Telfair Academy (first public art museum in the South, founded in 1886), Jepson Center (opened in 2006, featuring modern American art) and the 1819 Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters — exhibit more traditional art. They are not a part of the SCAD system.)

Grad student Patricia Hecht in a room of her design. (JGA)

At Alexander Hall, a converted 1940s flour mill, I discovered SCAD’s painting, photography, printmaking and ceramic-arts programs. Artist Patricia K. Hecht, completing work on her Master of Fine Arts degree, was proud to show me her thesis project: “You Are Here / Exit Unlikely.” Hecht superimposes aerial images and architectural plans of city streets and structures, notably correctional facilities, atop one another “to convey a sense of claustrophobic insecurity,” as she described it to me.

Nearby Hamilton Hall is the home of the SCAD School of Entertainment Arts. Film and television are the main curricula, with student ensembles starring in their own sit-coms (telecast on YouTube). Dramatic writing, sound and production design, visual effects, production and related subjects are integral.

No one was in the sound studios when I visited. Many students, I imagine, were attending a panel on the visionary technology of the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda, as depicted in this year’s “Black Panther” movie. But I don’t doubt that scads of SCAD students will make their marks in the world of film in years to come.

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