"Twenty Feet from Stardom"
"Twenty Feet from Stardom"

I thought I was the canary in the coal mine, attending the First Louisiana International Film Festival, a first for Baton Rouge and for me: I've never before attended a film festival's inaugural iteration. But it turned out to be a fabulous four days, with more movies, parties, and panel discussions than one girl could humanly attend. Not to mention crawfish. 

Scarcely a year before, the Festival was just a gleam in the eye of Chesley Heymsfield, a film business vet who moved to Louisiana in 2011. She decided to create an event to draw attention to the state's booming yet fragmented film industry.  Thanks to tax incentives and state-of-the-art facilities (such as Baton Rouge's Celtic Media Centre, home to such recent productions as "Twilight: Breaking Dawn" and "Oblivion"), Louisiana is the third-busiest state for film production. And last year's "Beasts of the Southern Wild," nominated for four Oscars and winner of numerous other awards, including two at Sundance and four prizes at Cannes, brought attention to Louisiana's homegrown film community.

Heymsfield enlisted the help of famed multihatted movie guru Jeff Dowd, perhaps best known as the inspiration for the Dude in the Coen Brothers' "The Big Lebowski," but a familiar figure. Dowd brought in as co-artistic director Dan Ireland, the writer-director of such films as "The Whole Wide World,"  Renee Zellweger's first starring role, and "Jolene," starring Jessica Chastain in her film debut. Ireland co-created the Seattle International Film Festival in 1975, now the U.S.'s largest film festival.  As programming director, the team turned to Ian Birnie, longtime festival programmer for the Toronto, Bangkok, and Palm Springs festivals, among others, as well as curator and director emeritus of the Film Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

They put together a rather dazzling 60-film, four-day slate, more impressive than many I've seen this year from far more venerable festivals. Ian pointed out an emphasis -- tailored for the region -- on three themes: music films, Francophone movies (from Quebec, the Middle East, and Africa, as well as France), and films that deal with environmental issues, both because of Earth Day and because of Louisiana's habitat issues.

But for me the program just spoke to general cinephilia: the high caliber of the films I'd already seen -- "The Iceman," (shot in Shreveport, Louisiana, which believably doubled for New York and New Jersey), "Blancanieves," "West of Memphis," "The Hunt," "The Attack," "Happy People: A Year in the Taiga," "Renoir," "Innocente," "Hannah Arendt," "Therese," and "Room 237," among others -- gave me confidence in attending virtually anything else on the schedule,

And LIFF was especially blessed in its choice of opening and closing night films, a delicate problem that has bedeviled film festivals from time immemorial. The Festival opened at the Art Deco Joy Theater on Canal Street in downtown New Orleans, thereby justifying the Louisiana, as opposed to just Baton Rouge, in its name, with the irresistible, affecting, crowd-pleasing "Twenty Feet from Stardom,"  about largely anonymous and prodigiously talented backup singers, which premiered at Sundance in January, where it was nominated for both the Grand Jury Prize in documentary and the editing award, and was acquired by the Weinstein Company. (Clip below.)

On the red carpet, while waiting for the arrival of Merry Clayton, one of the singers prominently featured in the film (and a New Orleans native), Jonathan Batiste and his Stay Human group played lively second-line influenced jazz, inspiring many to dance along. You're never very far from a party in New Orleans.