The 8th Annual Las Vegas Film Festival kicked off last night with nary a mention from some of the more mainstream press here in Las Vegas. This is unfortunate as the Las Vegas Film Festival is a showcase of artistic feature films, student projects, documentaries, and shorts that any cinema fan will appreciate.

For a lot of movie fans the words “film festival” may conjure up images of visually challenging art-house fair that typically better appreciated by “industry types”. While this may be true so some extent for some films, overall the Las Vegas Film Festival exudes a different “vibe” consistent with one of its stated purposes: “to inspire festival attendees and offer a creative outlet to passionate independent storytellers in the energetic theaters in Downtown Las Vegas, Nevada”.

“Energetic” is the operative word here. This is Las Vegas, after all! As many of the films on the schedule were either filmed in Las Vegas or produced by Vegas-based crews, the energy and artistic mania of Las Vegas is an evident undercurrent in most of the films showcased on this first day.

Nowhere was this more evident than at the UNLV Emerging Filmmakers Showcase. This was definitely a highlight of the day, and after attending this session I can honestly say I’d rather watch an hour or two of UNLV student films than about 90% of the movies being shown in mainstream theatres. This opinion is a testament not only to the creativity and hard work of the students themselves but also to the UNLV film program. The student films were approximately 5-10 minutes each and were a refreshing mixture of college humor, bravado, and youthful optimism that only a set of student filmmakers can present. Where else can you find love stories about pinatas, zombie family dramas, Hunter S. Thompson-esque drug riddled quests for pizza, borderline X-rated comedy about the dangers of advanced technology, stoner comedies about aliens, heartfelt innocent love stories involving a gumball machine (featuring the filmmakers girlfriend of course), and honest approaches to the fears of long-term commitment from the perspective of the young? Only from the minds of those young and bold enough to film the material they want to film without having to worry about the inevitable dollars and cents of the actual industry. Oh to be young again, if only for an hour or two! In that respect the student films were excellent escapist fare, and the equally enthusiastic and responsive crowd ate up every minute.

UNLV Filmmakers during Q & A.

The feature film of the evening was Violent by director Andrew Huculiak. While I enjoyed the film aesthetically it was a challenging view in some ways. Foremost, the movie is a foreign language film (I believe it was Norweigan) with English subtitles. The movie quite brilliantly also created a continuous feeling of tension that something was ABOUT to happen, until you eventually realize that the something has already happened and the the movie is focusing on not the violence itself but the way a person processes it. Once I realized this I enjoyed the movie a bit more, but I can certainly understand how some viewers may have left somewhat disappointed that the movie didn’t deliver upon its tension build-ups. The movie was, however, aesthetically beautiful. It was filmed on location in Norway and featured moving musical pieces from the Canadian band We are the City. Simply seeing the location shots of fjords, lakes, and mountains on the big screen transported the viewer and set the tone for a film that was essentially a metaphysical reflection on the moment of death. If this sounds a bit much for you, don’t worry-the beauty of the Las Vegas Film Festival is that it is located in the brand new state of the art Inspire Theatre, which features the gorgeous, ultra-swanky Wayfarer Bar in the lobby just outside the theatre. After all, since we are discussing metaphysics I will pose the following hypothetical-if you aren’t having cocktails and discussing art, are you truly at a film festival?

The standout film of the day, for me, was Semicolon: The Adventures of Ostomy Girl by director Robin Greenspun. It was a documentary about Dana Bernstein, a 25 year old girl who has suffered from a severe case of Crohn’s disease since she was approximately four years old. If the name sounds familiar it’s because Dana is the daughter of noted Las Vegas billboard personal injury attorney Ed Bernstein. (You know, “Enough said, call Ed”).

Director Robin Greenspun and Dana’s mother Cari Marshall.

If I told you that Semicolon was a comedy, you’d probably give me a confused look. But the at times heavy documentary scored the biggest laughs of the day not because of the subject material but due to fiery spirit and sense of humor of the film’s true star-Dana herself. The documentary takes the viewer through a history of her fight with the disease, interviewing her family members and playing clips of home videos through the years. The filmmakers strength is their ability to walk the viewer through the emotionally charged decision making process Dana must make throughout the years as she attempts to balance her desire for a “normal” life with the possibility of ending her condition via a risky transplant surgery. The filmmakers masterfully balance the heavy subject material with moments of levity wherein Dana herself interviews her team of doctors regarding her condition. During these interviews her strength and sense of humor are on full display as she engages in honest, open, and often humorous dialogue regarding her Crohn’s disease treatment and future outlook. Spoiler alert-in case the title of the movie didn’t make it readily apparent, there is an abundant amount of scatological humor in the film which is clearly a necessity when battling a disease of the nature of Crohn’s.

The film is truly special as Dana makes a point of demonstrating the film is not just about herself, but others who suffer from Crohn’s as well. The film displays how she has helped create an online community for people with Crohn’s disease, and discusses how this online community has been a crucial support system for her. The film also makes sure in the credits to list the numerous online communities Dana utilizes as well as links to further information and resources regarding Crohn’s disease. Overall it was a highly emotional and enjoyable film which people of all ages will appreciate, and I highly recommend it.

For further information on Crohn’s disease please visit the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America.

Finally, the night concluded with a party and live music at Backstage Bar and Billiards on Fremont Street. The beauty of the Las Vegas Film Festival so far has been its location on Fremont Street-the Inspire Theatre, the Yelp Lounge, and the after parties are all within a few blocks of each other, creating a close-knit party type atmosphere that is conducive to socialization and networking. My only critique is that the film Violent was scheduled for 10, with the after party featuring local bands Hidden Levels and Echo Stains starting at 11. Violent being a feature film, however, it got out around 11 and so when I arrived Hidden Levels had already been playing for some time. I was only able to catch a portion of Hidden Levels show but was impressed with the young trio. Their echo laden reverb fuzz rock was enjoyable and upbeat yet surprisingly relaxing. Since it’s going to be a long week I only caught a few songs then headed home to store my energy up for the rest of the week.

Las Vegas band Hidden Levels rocking the Backstage Bar & Billiards.
Las Vegas band Hidden Levels rocking the Backstage Bar & Billiards.

Day 2 begins this afternoon, I’ll be providing updates again tomorrow morning. See you all tonight!