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Fantastic Fest is often a fun, gory mess, but it's about much more than just blood

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
Tim League

Fantastic Fest gets a little bit of an unfair rap at times. People seem to think it's simply a delirious blood-splattered journey into the darkest recesses of men's minds, a shock-and-gore fest par excellence.

OK. Maybe that's not terribly unfair. But it's not the whole story.

While the fest, now in its seventh year, focuses on genre films, including horror, that does not mean that a filmmaker simply has to overwhelm an audience with violence or psychopathic characters in order to clear the bar for entry.

"I watch a ton of horror movies," Fantastic Fest co-founder Tim League said last week. "And we end up rejecting a lot of them because unless they have something new or interesting to tell in a narrative sense — if it's just straight-ahead, run-of-the-mill, slasher run amok, choppin' up kids in the woods, I don't have really interest in (it). I think (the amount of horror films at the fest) is probably thinner. ... It's got to be pretty interesting horror."

Many of the films at this year's festival have themes one may find in more traditional indie cinema. They just happen to have that extra little twist that makes them undeniably "fantastic."

League holds up as an example "Bullhead," from Belgian filmmaker Michael Roskam. The movie tells of two warring families of cattle ranchers who become ensnared in a drama fueled by the illegal cattle steroids trade. At the heart of the story is a kid who has his testicles smashed by a brick, a brutalization that leads to a testosterone and steroid addiction that fills him with a complicated mixture of anger and self-esteem issues.

"It's a really rich story, but it's got enough ‘oomph' and brutality and genre elements that it fits right in for our festival," League said. "I see genre elements flowing into all sorts of other story lines and more traditional narratives having a tinge of the rough stuff."

Roskam will be among the record number of filmmakers attending the festival this year. He is also one of more than two dozen first-time filmmakers who will have their movies screened at Fantastic Fest.

The proliferation of new voices is partly by design. Since the festival began its AMD Next Wave programming in 2007, a segment that included the well received premiere of Nacho Vigalondo's first film, "Time Crimes," the sidebar has become increasingly important to League and fest organizers, and slightly altered how they look for films. First-time filmmakers make up a large portion of the 72 features accepted at this year's festival.

"A lot of times it comes down to some tough decisions at the end," League said. "Seventy-two slots sounds like a lot, but we're tracking close to 800 movies in a year. So it just comes down to the priorities and decision-making: Do we want to go with something in this direction, or do we want to really focus on emerging filmmakers? That's been a big focus this year."

While it's impossible to forecast who might be the next emerging talent along the lines of a Vigalondo, League says he is high on "Penumbra" director Adrián García Bogliano, whose "Cold Sweat" was programmed by Fantastic Fest at South by Southwest earlier this year.

"Every single movie he does he gets better and better and better, so I think this could be something of a breakout for him," League said. "If not, it might set him up to have a larger budget and move on to bigger things for the next one."

Joining the AMD First Wave, Horror and Fantastic juried categories this year will be a comedy competition tentatively titled "Gut Busters." Among the entries in this category is "You Said What?," from Norway, which, along with Japan, always seems to have robust representation at the festival.

"I don't know what it is. They both produce some really odd movies," League said of the two countries. "I think in different ways, Japan has a culture of really economically minded crews, so they produce films very, very cheaply, and I think that's just part of their training and methodology, and that fosters some creative freedom. And then Scandinavian countries have very significant government-financed opportunity for film production. So in both of those scenarios it opens up the door to a lot of freedom and for whatever reason, something weird is running deep within their culture."

League has his own ideas that some may describe as "weird," if not downright crazy. He is probably the only film festival director who annually subjects himself willingly to bodily harm. After facing off in a relatively harmless fight with "Girlfight" star Michelle Rodriguez last year, the new father to twin daughters will step into the ring again this year for the Fantastic Debates.

But this time, injury seems much more possible. Even likely. League will square off in an oral debate with Irish bare-knuckle boxer James McDonagh, the subject of the documentary "Knuckle," which screens at the festival. After that brief formality, the two men step into the ring for hand-to-hand combat.

"I assume the way that it's going to go down is that he'll beat the crap out of me and I'll go down and then it's going to be over pretty quick," League said. "I'd like to go all the way, but I don't know. He's bigger than me, stronger than me and an undefeated Irish bare-knuckle boxing champ, so I assume I'll go down pretty fast. But I'm taking it seriously."

This year at Fantastic Fest, it seems there will be blood. Both on screen and off.

modam@statesman.com; 912-5986