Special Feature by Yvonne Wright, Artist & Owner
Studio YNW | 100 W Broadway Jim Thorpe
“The cinema is not an art which films life: the cinema is something between art and life.” – Jean-Luc Godard
Movies are arguably one of the very few art mediums in which we, as a collective creative intelligence looking for new forms of expressing ourselves, have managed to successfully depict the multifaceted realities of our existence - adding entertainment value to artistic vocabulary. Whether reflecting general principles of eternal truths shared globally, or distinguishing intimate and psychologically complex aspects of human nature, the ongoing success of the art of filmmaking lies in its ability to provide an avenue of escape and a distraction from the realities of everyday life, igniting our imagination. As a medium of communication, movies also provide a different kind of social interaction, one that can be used for spreading ideas and views across the globe.
Louis Lumière, a French engineer and photographic equipment manufacturer, is often credited with the invention of the first motion picture camera, following his movie’s successful screening in 1895. Lumière’s portable, suitcase-sized cinematograph was a camera, a film processing device and a movie projector all in one, enabling him to shoot footage in the morning, process it in the afternoon, and then screening it to an audience that evening. Its ease of use made the cinematograph a popular attraction, enjoyed by people of all classes and social standings; the era of the movies had begun.
Increasingly an art form, early movies reached greater complexity in the late 1920s, after years of experimentation, when a means of recording sound synchronous with the recorded image was discovered. Simultaneously, the development of a broad spectrum of movies became possible (e.g., Action, Adventure, Comedy, Musical, Horror, etc.), financially underpinned by the great American film studios, with crossbreed/hybrid films added in the late 20th century. Being one of the art forms democratized by advancements of technology, film as a medium quickly spread around the world, connecting and influencing different cultures with new ways of capturing reality. Today, cinematography has become the backbone of the film craft, encompassing technical and creative elements by which we judge a film’s aesthetic and communicative values. Evolved over decades to high levels of sophistication, cinematography, more than any other form of visual arts, offers its enthusiasts a self-reflective and self-referential narrative with multiple perspectives - often blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction. Since 1990s, following the decline of traditional Hollywood studio systems, there is a resurgence and continuous development of independent cinema projects enjoying great commercial and artistic success - adding documentary and short film genres to the mix. Short film is a technical term for an interface medium, which has come to be a tenet for aspirant young filmmakers to show their skills. An ideal platform for screening new artistic signatures is film festivals… Jean Cocteau once remarked that “The Festival is an apolitical no-man’s-land, a microcosm of what the world would be like if people could contact each other directly and speak the same language.”
Fantastically, the historic Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe, the 138-year-old grande dame of vaudeville theaters, will soon proudly host the Fifth Annual International Jim Thorpe Independent Film Festival (JTIFF) as a live, in-person event on April 21st through April 24th, 2022. The Mauch Chunk Opera House seats approximately 380 persons, and is one of Pennsylvania’s premiere spaces for concert and movie venues. During last year’s screenings, Jim Thorpe audiences had the opportunity to enjoy over 90 highly innovative films from around the globe that covered “every style and subject, from gritty underground and experimental works to polished traditional narratives.” Since its launch in 2017, the Jim Thorpe Independent Film Festival has successfully secured its place among “the Top 100 Best Reviewed Festivals" out of more than 5,000 according to FilmFreeway (an online platform for nearly two million registered filmmakers). “Proudly channeling the rebellious spirit of the Molly Maguires, JTIFF welcomes the boldest, and most defiant filmmakers to present their work of every genre (drama, documentary, comedy, horror, sci-fi, experimental, animation and LGBTQ subject) and budget levels, to shatter convention and incite spirited debates.” This year, there will be films by maverick filmmakers who strive to expand their creative boundaries without fear of controversy. As for the Late Saturday Night screenings, one needs to be prepared for films “that not only push the envelope, but rip it to shreds” as organizers continue with their immensely popular GRINDHOUSE program; their credo is “eyes and minds wide open,” but no one under 18 will be admitted.
I recently met with the JTIFF’s co-founders and creative visionaries, Todd Morris (Executive Director and Juror) and Jocelyn O’Neil (Co-director and Juror) to talk about their brainchild. How did it all come about? “The original idea to start a film festival in Jim Thorpe came to me back in 1991” said Todd “when I first visited the town on a weekend getaway. I was enchanted by this quaint little hamlet nestled in the Pocono Mountains that reminded me of a miniature Victorian village you’d find under a Christmas tree with shops and restaurants conveniently condensed into a fairly small and totally walkable area. Living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn felt as though New York had become so corporatized and sterile, that all of the grit and the character that originally drew us there had been totally washed away.” When Jocelyn became pregnant with their first son, Wyatt, they both knew it was time to leave. Starting a film festival was a challenge back in 2017, with no money, no sponsors, and no track record for running it, but the townspeople and local businesses started taking them more seriously after seeing the quality of their films and how professionally they operated. Every year since, Todd brings in his trusted technical crew from New York City to create the highest-quality screenings with the best possible picture and sound that they can deliver. What are your goals, now that the Jim Thorpe film festival has been globally recognized? Their long-term goal has always been to become a major player in the film festival universe, putting Jim Thorpe permanently on the map alongside major international venues. As film directors, they’ve attended the biggest film parties in Cannes, rubbing shoulders with cinema royalty, and Todd sat on the Jury of a genre film festival in Porto, Portugal. All of these experiences fueled their passion for hosting their own film festival, and taught them what is necessary (from the point of view of both festival goers and filmmakers) to succeed in fashioning JTIFF into a world class film festival.
What makes JTIFF so special? Todd didn’t even hesitate “We are so fortunate to have this beautiful old Mauch Chunk Opera House as our main screening venue. Since 1881, so much incredible talent has performed there, from stage actors to symphony orchestras, comics to crooners to vaudeville acts. Mae West and Al Jolson played there. It was also a Capital movie theater in the 1950’s. I believe that all that wonderful history and the energy absorbed within those hallowed walls brings a palpable feeling of magic to our film festival.”
Todd Morris grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, with no connection to the film industry. He graduated from Penn State University where he studied Pre-Law per his parents’ insistence; fortunately, also able to minor in Film, his true passion. When Todd moved to Brooklyn in 1986 he landed a Studio Manager job at a Manhattan production company, which taught him “more about filmmaking than any film school ever could.” Over the years, Todd produced “hundreds of commercials and promos of every description, won several awards, and shot everywhere from Cairo to Rio De Janeiro for clients such as Coca-Cola, Honda, Pepsi, Benjamin Moore, NBC, etc.” Todd has also written and directed several short films, including the legendary 1996 cult film, A Gun For Jennifer, that has been screened at dozens of festivals around the globe, “and can still be seen in Parisian art houses from time to time.” In 2017, he started his own commercial production company, Search and Destroy Media. Jocelyn O’Neil grew up in Indiana, outside Chicago in a devout Polish-Irish family that had zero connections to the entertainment industry. Her first exposure to film came on Sunday afternoons, when her whole family would gather around the TV to watch Family Classics. “It wasn’t until high school that I felt the call of the theater” Jocelyn smiles, “that seed took root the moment I stepped on stage […] playing Appassionata Von Climax in a musical production of Lil Abner.” She would never forget the buzz she got from the audience - it was electric, and she was hooked. Jocelyn went on to study theatre at Indiana University, but always dreamed of acting in New York City. In 2001, Jocelyn packed up and headed to The Big Apple - there, she continued her professional education with the Atlantic Theatre Company, Aquila Theatre Company, Patsy Rodenburg, and Shakespeare & Company. “My favorite projects included a two-year residency with the Rabbit Hole Theatre playing the monster in a deconstructed version of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein; touring with the Aquila Theatre in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing; and working with Mud/Bone Theatre reimagining and performing Richard II as a clown.” She also landed roles in several national and regional TV commercials for clients like Coca-Cola, NASA, and Phisoderm. When Jocelyn started dating Todd in 2008, it didn’t take long for the two of them to start working jointly on films. Their writing and producing collaboration tackled difficult social and political themes using dark comedic satire to make a point.
This April, join hundreds of movie buffs flocking to the Jim Thorpe Independent Film Festival! But don’t just pick one film and imagine that you’ve ‘done the festival thing’ -experience the many different formats reflecting various social issues and cultural narratives. Multiple screenings will help you to thoroughly appreciate the full scale of the program, and the cultural significance it makes. Nearly 90 films were carefully selected again, to tickle anyone’s cinematographic fancy, presented during the four-day event. Therefore come, with your eyes and minds wide open and enjoy a cultural event like no other, it may change your life forever…