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Austin filmmakers heed the call of Cannes

3 area movies to be shown at various events

Charles Ealy
Jason Marlow's short film 'The Big Bends' is set in West Texas. While in France, he'll try out ideas for a new, full-length script.

Although "The Tree of Life" from Austin director Terrence Malick wasn't completed in time for its widely rumored premiere as part of the Cannes Film Festival's official selection, three other movies with Austin connections will play at concurrent events along the French Riviera this year.

Producers Booka and Edythe Michel will take their narrative feature "Baghdad Texas" to the Cannes Film Market, with the aim of selling international DVD rights. And two other Austin filmmakers — Jason Marlow and Jason Wehling — will have screenings of their short films. Marlow will show "The Big Bends" in the Short Film Corner, while Wehling's "The GrownUps" will get a special screening as one of this year's winners of the 48 Hour Film Project contest.

All of the hullabaloo at the world's most prestigious film festival begins Wednesday with the premiere of "Robin Hood," starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, and continues through May 23.

And though big-name stars such as Michael Douglas, Josh Brolin, Naomi Watts and Sean Penn will get most of the attention, tens of thousands of other industry professionals will flock to the festival's market area, which is open to almost any company that's willing to spend money to promote a project or make a distribution deal.

Located behind the glamorous Palais theaters, the market is essentially a sprawling convention hall filled with cubicles and connected to a series of small theaters unaffectionately known as "the Bunker."

The gregarious Booka Michel of "Baghdad Texas" says he plans to spend most of his time outside the Bunker. He has signed a deal with Tony Kandah, president and CEO of Hollywood Wizard, who'll lead efforts to sell the European and Middle Eastern DVD distribution rights to the Texas comedy.

The quirky feature film, which screened at last year's Austin Film Festival, focuses on a Middle Eastern dictator whose small plane crashes in Mexico, near the border. Only one man survives the crash, and he bears an eerie resemblance to Iraq's Saddam Hussein. (The satirical comedy is set before Saddam's capture and eventual execution in 2006.)

Stunned and disoriented, the survivor, played by the late Al No'Mani, stumbles across the border and ends up at a remote Texas ranch run by three bumbling cowboys. They suspect that he's the dictator but can't agree on how to proceed. Meanwhile, their housekeeper tends to the man's injuries and begins to develop a romantic attraction.

Directed by David Hickey, "Baghdad Texas" was co-written by the star, No'Mani, who was once the director of Iraq's national theater until he staged a satire dealing with Saddam. "Saddam didn't like it," Booka Michel says, "so Al had to leave Iraq quickly with his family."

No'Mani ended up teaching at Texas Tech University, Michel says, and Hickey was one of his theater students. Along with Shaneye Ferrell, the three came up with the "Baghdad" script.

The Michels have been involved with independent moviemaking for more than a decade in Austin. In the '90s, Booka Michel was a co-producer on "Ruta Wakening." And the Michels are well-known for founding Loudhouse Records, which has released albums by Mike Kindred, David Olney, R C Banks, Ponty Bone and Paul Metsa.

So it wasn't a stretch for the Michels to team up with Hickey and others to make "Baghdad" outside Kerrville in the late 2000s.

"From start to finish, the movie took about three to four years to make," says Booka Michel. "And it was quite a chore to whittle down all the hours of film that we had to only 90 minutes."

But the Michels say they are happy with the results. The movie won the best script award at the 2009 Strasbourg International Film Festival in France, and the Michels say they are discussing rights for U.S. theatrical and DVD distribution.

Like the Michels, Marlow has been making the festival rounds with his short "The Big Bends."

Set in West Texas, his movie won the best narrative short award last month at the Crossroads Film Festival in Jackson, Miss., and it also played at the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival in March.

Marlow, who grew up in Mississippi, moved to Austin more than three years ago after meeting a fellow plane passenger who sang the city's praises upon hearing that Marlow was a filmmaker.

"I changed my return flight (from New York) and came to Austin and found a house and took a big chance and just moved here on the spur of the moment," he says.

Since then, he has supported himself by doing freelance work in title design, art direction and visual effects for various filmmaking projects.

He shot "The Big Bends" in April 2009 near Terlingua and Alpine.

The short stars Jimmy Lee Jr. as a middle-aged man who learns that he has a terminal illness and decides to spend his final days in a camper near Big Bend. But his solitude is interrupted by a man and pregnant woman who stagger into the area. He then faces a decision: help the two strangers or remain in isolation.

"I'm intrigued by the ideas of failure and heroism," Marlow says. "So that's why I set up the problems like I did in 'The Big Bends.' "

In Cannes, he'll join hundreds of other filmmakers in the basement of the Palais, where the Short Film Corner is based.

Potential investors and other industry professionals visit the area to see the shorts, which screen in small, private rooms upon request. The shorts act as a virtual calling card, advertising the filmmaker's talents and possible ideas for feature projects.

Marlow, however, doesn't plan on trying to make a feature film based on "The Big Bends," at least at this point.

Instead, he's writing a screenplay for a film about a man who moves from Natchez, Miss., to Paris. And he'll be headed to Paris for a few weeks after the festival to write and test some of his ideas, he says.

"I think the Deep South and France are similar in that they're both haunted by the past," he says. "And I want to see how people in Paris will react in various scenes that I'm writing for the script. So I plan to role-play, going into stores and seeing how Parisians react, for example, to a scene where I have my main character try to buy something with his dollars."

Unlike Marlow and the Michels, Austin filmmaker Jason Wehling is skipping the festival.

"I didn't find out that it was going to be there until late April," he says. "I got an e-mail from the 48 Hour Film Project, saying 'The GrownUps' was one of 12 shorts that would be getting a special screening."

With such short notice — and with various other projects in the works — Wehling says he decided to stay in Austin.

He works at Arts & Labor, a group of independent filmmakers who share work as well as offices. He and co-workers "got together on a lark to shoot the short, and it was done in a day," he says. It was then entered in the 48 Hour Film Project contest, one of 3,000 films made in 76 cities around the world in 2009.

Its title is similar to that of one of this summer's biggest releases, "Grown Ups," starring Salma Hayek and Adam Sandler. But the short has nothing to do with the bigger movie. It focuses on a food fight that erupts between two couples having dinner.

"I'm happy that it was one of 12 chosen by the film project to be shown in Cannes," Wehling says, "but I'm not sure how much good it would do for me to go over there."

The Rice University graduate says he is working with Austin director Kyle Henry on a new feature called "FourPlay," which Wehling describes as four short films, each dealing with a unique sexual experience.

He's also working with Chris Eska, the director of "August Evening," on an untitled feature about a man and young boy traveling in Texas during the Civil War.

But he sounds most excited about his own animated project, tentatively titled "The Third Day."

"I can do it on my computer at home and work at my own pace," he says. And that's important these days: He recently became a father, so he says he needs to help with the baby.

His new feature, however, won't be geared to kids, he says. "It's a zombielike film set about 2,000 years ago. I describe it as being a cross between '300' and 'South Park.' "


Our man in Cannes

American-Statesman movies editor Charles Ealy will be reporting from the Cannes Film Festival starting Tuesday. Look for his updates on the Austin Movie Blog at in the Movies & Life section throughout the festival.