Charleston International Film Fest unspools its fifth annual showcase

Owen Hamilton The Charleston International Film Festival begins Wednesday, showcasing more than 80 films from 13 countries, with 20-plus pictures representing the work of directors in the Lowcountry and the Southeast, including “The Dust That Floats Behind the Sky” by Charleston writer-director Charlotte Savage.

It was not unlike making your first cross-country journey with Lewis and Clark by your side, pioneering old hands who knew the customs and terrain.

When Jake Schreier signed on to make his feature film debut at the helm of the comedy-drama “Robot and Frank,” it was with the confidence of having a pair of venerable actors, Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon, on board.

Not to mention such young veterans as Liv Tyler, James Marsden, Jeremy Sisto and Peter Sarsgaard.

“It was very fortunate for me, certainly,” said Schreier, whose movie earned plaudits at the Sundance Film Festival. “I had great producers who really pulled this cast together. They really backed the project.”

Working with experienced talents was key, given that the Upstate New York shoot had only two weeks of prep and a mere 20 days before the camera.

“Robot and Frank” is the opening-night salvo of the fifth annual Charleston International Film Festival, which unspools Wednesday- April 15 at the Sottile Theatre downtown, with additional screenings at Cinebarre in Mount Pleasant.

The festival will showcase more than 80 films from 13 countries, with 20-plus pictures representing the work of directors in the Lowcountry and the Southeast. Entries range from features and shorts to documentaries and animations in all genres.

Apart from nightly parties, festival offerings include educational workshops hosted by the College of Charleston and the concluding awards gala.

“Robot and Frank” works from a quasi-science fiction premise, in which an elderly ex-cat burglar (Langella) with a crusty temperament is given a choice by his two grown children: accept banishment to a nursing home, where his difficulties with living alone will be “solved,” or agree to accommodate a walking, talking humanoid robot that is programmed to improve Frank’s physical and mental health.

This does not sit well, of course, but what Frank does not know, yet, is that his robotic companion may prove to be the best friend an old curmudgeon could have.

“The film has multiple themes,” said Schreier, who divides his time between New York and Los Angeles. “I would say the theme of memory is the one that comes to the forefront the most, because Frank is losing his, and the robot’s memory becomes a central feature of the story.”

The script derives from a short film that “Robot and Frank” screenwriter Christopher Ford made while in film school with Schreier.

“He was inspired by these stories coming out of Japan about real people who were acting as caretakers for older citizens. This was sort of our source material. The feature-length idea developed about three years ago when Christopher and I were looking for our first full-length project,” Schreier said.

After Sundance, the CIFF screening should be a more relaxed affair, said the director.

“The premiere at Sundance was nerve-wracking. At that point, you have no control of it anymore. You have to let it go and face the music,” he said.

Georgia’s new Pin Point Heritage Museum now welcomes visitors with an evocative documentary, “Take Me to the Water,” which explores the region’s rich Gullah/Geechee culture through recollections and experiences of those who’ve lived it.

Its director, Jeff Bednarz, is only too happy that CIFF is presenting its theatrical premiere in a state equally steeped in that storied Sea Island society.

“Each community has its own specific dialect and variations, but they are part of the same continuum,” said the Dallas-based filmmaker, who shot the picture at the behest of the museum’s designers, O&H Brand Design.

“Our film centers on the tiny community of Pin Point, which was the birthplace of (Supreme Court) Justice Clarence Thomas and is one of the last black-owned pieces of waterfront property on the East Coast.”

Nestled along the Moon River east of Savannah, Pin Point was founded in 1890 by freed slaves. Its livelihood was based on the A.S. Varn & Son oyster and crab factory, which employed most of the community from 1926 until its closing in 1985, after which most of the townsfolk began to disperse.

“But now you have all these people coming back and realizing how important that culture was. Even those who moved to the Savannah area still go to church in Pin Point. They are concentrating on saving it. What’s so appealing about this is that it’s a story of family.

“And the main thing for me as a filmmaker was to sit down and listen and make sure they know I was not there to exploit them, but to help them tell their story.”

A lyrical title does not obscure the dark cautionary tale that is Charleston writer-director Charlotte Savage’s short film of drug abuse, “The Dust That Floats Behind the Sky.”

The CIFF premiere, photographed by Owen Hamilton and co-produced by Marissa Power, stars Cierah Sargent, a student at the Charleston County School of the Arts, and Ellie Cutright, a student at Wando High School, as life-long friends Caroline and Kylie, who grow from carefree children to teenagers trapped in a morass of drug use. Playing the friends as children are Mya Long and Kennedy Coupe.

“It’s fiction, but a representation of something truthful,” said Savage, a CCSA grad currently enrolled at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

“I have witnessed people going though the hardships of involvement with drugs, and as with anything I write, I will consciously draw from real life and people I’ve known.

“What you see is more implied than graphic, but I hoping it is convincing.”

Reach Bill Thompson at 937-5707.