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The Taos Talking Picture Festival

By Marjorie Baumgarten

MAY 1, 2000:  You know you're at the Taos Talking Picture Festival when the first question a viewer asks during the director's post-screening Q&A is: "Why did you allow the lead character to be seen smoking a cigarette onscreen?" This kind of social consciousness is pervasive in the festival's programming and the audience sensibilities -- even though the viewer's question pertained to a documentary in which the subject was a known smoker who mysteriously vanished more than 50 years ago, long before the Surgeon General's first warnings on smoking were issued.

Another way you can tell you're at Taos Talking Picture Festival is when you read the film program book's opening remarks by Josh Bryant, the festival's founder, who quotes the Dalai Lama on the power of the media and the responsibility of those who work in it. He also re-dedicates the festival's mission as the encouragement of thoughtful production and informed consumption of the mass media.

Begun in 1995, the sixth annual TTP was held this year from April 13-16. And even though much of the festival focuses on the pure celebration of cinema, the event has managed to stay remarkably true to its activist roots and goals. This has caused the festival to forge a unique identity, one that has catapulted it into one of the top festivals in the country.

Well-attended by representatives from film industry and national media, TTP draws its strongest base of support from the Taos locals. In fact, the film festival seems a logical outgrowth of Taos' long and venerable cultural tradition that has nurtured such writers and artists as Mabel Dodge Luhan, Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, D.H. Lawrence, and Georgia O'Keeffe, as well as scores of local craftspeople and artists' communities. The town's addition of a film festival to its full palette of arts appreciation becomes also a celebration of Taos itself and its rich cultural heritage.

The festival also addresses the area's cultural and economic diversity in which great wealth and poverty exist side by side. Films by Southwestern artists and films that speak to specific Native American and Latino concerns are presented along with some of the best new American and international independent productions.

One of the festival's most unusual aspects is its presentation of the Land Grant Award, an award whose intent is to foster the growth of the area's filmmaking community. The director of the film deemed the best new film of the festival is awarded five acres of undeveloped land on the Taos Mesa, with the idea that, eventually, the land will grow into a filmmakers' colony. This year's winner was Daniel Yoon, the director of Post Concussion, a semiautobiographical film about a Fortune 500 executive who specializes in corporate downsizing but finds himself disoriented and out of work when he suffers brain damage as the result of a car accident. Yoon also made this film during his own post-concussion rehabilitation, and since his symptoms made it impossible to keep a crew together, Yoon produced, directed, wrote, filmed, and edited the movie himself. The four previous winners of the award include Gary Walkow for Notes From Underground, Constance Marks for Green Chimneys, Chris Eyre for Smoke Signals, and David Riker for La Ciudad.

Another distinguishing characteristic of TTP is its Media Forum. The Forum includes four days of free panel discussions, seminars, workshops, and screenings, as well as the adjunct Teen Media Conference, which this year brought together 120 student film- and videomakers in an effort to encourage activism, networking, and dialogue among emerging media leaders.

Remarks by three speakers highlighted the Media Forum. Jean Kilbourne, the author of Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising and a pioneer in examining the effects of alcohol and tobacco advertising, spoke on "Deadly Persuasion: Advertising and Addiction." Texas gadfly and populist Jim Hightower spoke on "Election 2000: A Space Odyssey." James Fallows -- whose multiple involvements in the politico-media complex include being the national correspondent for Atlantic Monthly, a commentator for National Public Radio, and a former White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter -- spoke on "Surviving the Media: A Guide to the 2000 Election." Also, the Forum spotlighted documentaries in a discussion titled "Filming a Better World: Documentaries and Social Action." Participants included Elizabeth Barret, the director of Stranger With a Camera and a participant in Appalshop, the famous grassroots media organization in Kentucky; Caroline Liberesco of the Independent Television Service, an eminent nonfiction film funding source; and Haskell Wexler, the Oscar-winning cameraman and documentary filmmaker who has made more than 20 films on political issues. Wexler was also honored with screenings of his most famous film, Medium Cool, and his most recent film Bus Riders Union, which examines the public transportation struggles of the inner-city residents of Los Angeles. The Media Forum also showed works from the Chiapas Media Project and a performance installation called "The Mexterminator Project," which turns Latino stereotypes on their heads.

The Taos Talking Picture Festival has achieved its success by staying true to its roots and satisfying the cultural needs of its local community. In doing so, the festival has brought more variety to Taos' world-famous arts calendar and created a unique voice in the increasingly similar film-festival circuit.

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