Cinema St. Louis (CSL) is thrilled to announce plans to acquire the Hi-Pointe Theatre as their new base of operations and programming beginning in January 2023.

Opening in 1922, the Hi-Pointe Theatre has been a cherished landmark for multiple generations of film lovers, and CSL plans to continue that tradition for years to come.

The Hi-Pointe Theatre is the oldest locally owned and continuously-operating arthouse theater in St. Louis. In 1977 the James family acquired the theater, and under their stewardship, the theater has become an iconic St. Louis landmark.

The James family shared: “After 45 years of owning the beloved Hi-Pointe Theatre, we have decided that it is time to end our run. We have been blessed to share this theater with 3 generations of our family and have had the privilege of helping it reach the magical age of 100 years. We know that Cinema St Louis is the perfect sequel to our story. They share the same passion and vision, and we are confident that they will be able to carry on our family’s legacy for the next 100 years. We thank you for your continued patronage, dedication, and support through the years. We will miss you all.”

Hi-Pointe Theatre

Cinema St. Louis’ vision is to create cinematic experiences that enrich, educate, entertain, and build community. The organization has presented programming for more than 30 years when they’ve been able to secure venues.

This acquisition would allow the organization to offer diverse, year-round programming and affordable experiences in the most continual and sustainable manner possible.

CSL’s Executive Director, Bree Maniscalco, stated that “Cinema St. Louis is grateful for this opportunity to not only preserve the last remaining arthouse cinema in St. Louis but also to finally create a permanent home for the organization and make film accessible for the entire St. Louis community. CSL will host its annual film festivals, educational programming, and filmmaker seminars at the Hi-Pointe Theatre. The organization will also offer repertory film series throughout the year as well as screenings of first-run films.”

This acquisition will:

  • Use film festivals and special events to establish the Hi-Pointe as a unique regional destination to draw visitors to St. Louis.
  • Increase access to film and filmmaking for underrepresented audiences.
  • Showcase local talent and bring global, well-recognized films to St. Louis.
  • Expand free educational and enrichment opportunities to K-12 students through filmmaking camps and screenings throughout the year.

For additional information on CSL visit: https://www.cinemastlouis.org.

Cinema St. Louis

For more than 30 years, Cinema St. Louis (CSL) has served as the region’s go-to arts nonprofit for educating and inspiring audiences of all ages through film. Annually, the organization hosts the St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF) —  included among USA Today’s 10 Best “Film Festivals Worth Traveling To” — as well as the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase, QFest St. Louis, Classic French Film Festival, and Golden Anniversaries. In addition, Cinema St. Louis seeks to engage younger audiences, exposing them to the possibilities of becoming filmmakers, through free hands-on filmmaking camps and screenings through Cinema for Students.

Inside the upstairs Backlot

By Lynn Venhaus

After decades in the entertainment business, Alex Winter has become a multi-hyphenated mainstay, renowned for his work in front of and behind the camera.

Now 57, he remains the face of Bill S. Preston, Esq., in pop culture, but has directed notably high-profile documentaries “Zappa,” “Showbiz Kids” and his tech trilogy, “Downloaded,” “Deep Web” and his latest, “The YouTube Effect.”

“The YouTube Effect” will be one of the opening night films of the 31st annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival. It will be shown at 6:45 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 3, at the Galleria 6 Cinemas.

This cautionary tale is meant to be a nuanced look at the tech revolution, how it has evolved, good and bad.

Produced with Gale Anne Hurd, the film examines the impact of YouTube on society, how it has made our lives easier and more enriched, while also presenting dangers that make the world a more perilous place.

“The growth of the online community since I made ‘Downloaded’ and ‘Deep Web’ has made a big impact on society, and Gale and I were looking to tell a story about the changes occurring, and where do we go from here,” he said during a phone interview.

The film had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in June and is currently on the festival circuit, most recently at the Montclair Film Festival.

“It’s been going great,” he said. “We’re bringing it to a lot of festivals, and really happy with the reception.”

Winter is pleased that it’s included in this year’s fest in St. Louis, where his previous films “Downloaded,” “Deep Web” and “Zappa” were also screened.

“I love the festival. It’s my third time in it. I’m always really happy to be part of it and I’m grateful for the film to be shown there so that people in St. Louis can see it,” he said. “I’m not able to be there, things didn’t work out with my schedule, but I’m long overdue for a visit back. I have family and friends there.”

Winter lived in St. Louis as a child, and his first acting gig, a commercial for Kentucky Fried Chicken, was filmed under the Arch, while his first stage role was at the Muny, when he was 10, as one of the orphans in “Oliver!” that starred Vincent Price as Fagin.

His father co-founded Mid-America Dance Company (MADCO) and his mother worked in the dance department at Washington University.

In a previous interview, he spoke about his bond with St. Louis.

“I have a special place in my heart for the city. I’ve always considered myself a Midwesterner. The Midwest has a strong cultural identity, and I have an affinity for it, those core values. I still have a lot of friends there. I spent my formative years there, from 5 to 12, and my dad and brother stayed there, so I was back a lot. It’s always been a second home to me. I feel anchored there,” he said during a phone interview in 2015.

The YouTube Effect

Looking at YouTube

Self-described as a research fanatic dove into this expansive subject.

While he thinks YouTube has been “very equitable in its business model,” for people being able to monetize it as a platform, there needs to be safeguards.

“So that people can have the full spectrum of experiences. There needs to be accountability. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s good for people to be aware about it,” he said.

Winter thinks the public needs to take more responsibility about the input and influence, and push for more regulations, not be passive about it.

Winter said he is concerned about “the misinformation apocalypse” and the negative fallout from political ideologies, especially conspiracy theories.

“There is a lot of power in that,” he said, noting how social media gave voice to marginalized people.

YouTube has been singled out as how the Christ Church mass shooter in New Zealand in 2020 (51 people in two mosques) became radicalized.

The movie seeks to find a balance, he said.

“There are a lot of good things going on on You Tube. I’m not wagging a finger at them,” he said. “I respect technology. It’s here to stay. We need to figure out safeguards, changes need to be made.”

Here’s the trailer: https://www.facebook.com/YouTubeEffect/videos/1137513703766536/

Winter said he is in negotiations for the film to become available on streaming services.

“I can’t talk about it, but we’re hoping to have it wide in early January-February,” he said.

For more information, visit: https://www.cinemastlouis.org/sliff/festival-home

Alex Winter (left) and Keanu Reeves in a promotional photo for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Fest Favorite

Winter appeared at the festival in 2015, when he received the prestigious Charles Guggenheim Cinema St. Louis Award after his documentary, “Deep Web,” kicked off that year’s St. Louis International Film Festival.

“Deep Web” is the inside story of a digital crime saga that caught his attention. With access to the Ulbricht family, he told the story of  Ross William Ulbricht, the 30-year-old entrepreneur who was accused of being “Dread Pirate Roberts” as the creator and operator of the online black market Silk Road. He looked at the thought leaders behind the so-called Deep Web and its future.

A finalist for a distinguished Cinema Eye Honors Award, “Deep Web” was produced and narrated by Keanu Reeves, Winter’s good friend since they portrayed Bill and Ted.

He was also in attendance to present the 1989 cult classic that catapulted him into pop culture history, “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” recounting anecdotes about the making of the movie prior to its late-night showing at the Tivoli.

The fest also showed acclaimed 2013 documentary, “Downloaded,” about the rise and fall of Napster and a look at the digital revolution.

“I was fascinated by the online communities that started in the late 1980s. It was clear that this was a major shift in communication. Bitcoin, Silk Road and other anonymous digital sites were the first on a large scale,” he said in 2015.

In 2020, when the fest went virtual, his documentary, “Zappa,” was in the line-up.

His look at the complex and visionary iconoclast Frank Zappa took six years to make, and he received cooperation from the family.

“Getting the family’s support was vital to the project,” he said. “There has never been a definitive biography about him. I am extremely happy to do it. He was a great artist at a turbulent time in history.”

It is available to watch on Hulu and can be rented or purchased on several platforms.

The year “Zappa” came out, during the global coronavirus pandemic, was also the year his very personal documentary, “Showbiz Kids,” premiered on HBO, and the third installment of “Bill and Ted,” “Face the Music” was one of the most anticipated films in 2020.

“That was a very strange year,” he said. “Things I had been working on all popped out at once.”

“Face the Music” shot to no. 1 in U.S.

“It came out at the right time, and a lot of people got to see it. I’m glad it gave fans some fun then,” he said.

Winter said he and Keanu had a great time making the film and won’t shut the door on another one.

“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “We’re always playing around with ideas on where the story could go, what are the possibilities. I always say never say never.”

Other Career Highlights

His movie career took off with “The Lost Boys” in 1987, then came the juggernaut of Bill & Ted, and they reunited for a sequel in 1991.

His 1993 science fiction-horror-comedy “Freaked,” which he co-wrote and co-directed with his college pal-collaborator Tom Stern, is revered as another cult classic.

Another feature he wrote and directed, “Fever,” a 1998 dark tale starring Henry Thomas and Teri Hatcher, was selected for the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival.

His work on Cartoon Network, where he voiced the Adult Swim character the King Mole Man and on “Robot Chicken,” and MTV’s “The Idiot Box,” a sketch comedy series he developed with Stern, was also highly regarded.

He is a graduate of New York University’s film school. Today, his production company is behind commercials for Ford, Peugeot, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, Nickelodeon and 1800 Tequila.

He’s directed music videos for Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ice Cube, Extreme and Helmet.

He was on Broadway in productions of “The King & I” with Yul Brynner, and “Peter Pan” with Sandy Duncan.

With Stern, Winter starred in, co-directed and co-wrote the hit MTV comedy series, “The Idiot Box” and starred in their theatrical co-directing debut, “Freaked,” released by Twentieth Century Fox.

Another documentary was “The Panama Papers,” about the corruption scandal and the journalists who broke the story.

Next up is a cameo role as a cab driver in “Blue’s Big City Adventure,” to be streamed on Paramount Plus on Nov. 18. He’ll be seen in “Absolute Dominion” on Netflix next year, and a film “Destroy All Neighbors” on Shudder.

For the 2015 BND feature: https://www.bnd.com/living/magazine/article42065412.html

Cover Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for AwesomenessTV/AP Images

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 30: Director Alex Winter speaks onstage at the TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2013 at The Manhattan Center on April 30, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

Cinema St. Louis is delighted to again offer in-person screenings during the 30th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), held Nov. 4-21, 2021.

Because the effects of the pandemic continue, this year’s fest will be a hybrid — with a significant number of virtual screenings also available — but in-person screenings will be held on all three screens of the Tivoli Theatre from Nov. 4-14 and Nov. 18-21. 

Other in-person screenings will take place at Washington University’s Brown Hall Auditorium (on the weekends of Nov. 5-6, 12-14, and 19-21) and Webster University’s Winifred Moore Auditorium (on the evenings of Nov. 5-14). 

In addition, the St. Louis Public Library’s Central Library Auditorium will serve as the in-person venue for six Golden Anniversaries screenings of films from 1971. Those screenings will be held on the afternoons of Nov. 6-7, 13-14, and 20-21. 

Finally, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis will partner with SLIFF on two in-person screenings on the evenings of Nov. 4 and 11.

For those who prefer to view from home, many (though not all) of the films that receive in-person screenings will be available virtually through our partner Eventive from Nov. 4-21. SLIFF will also feature a substantial number of films, shorts programs, and livestreams that can only be accessed virtually. 

To protect the safety and health of patrons, SLIFF will require masks and proof of vaccination at in-person screenings. No concessions will be available at any of the venues, including the Tivoli, to ensure audience members remain masked throughout films. Full information on the festival’s Covid-19 policies appear below.

Program Overview

The 30th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival, a presentation of the nonprofit Cinema St. Louis (CSL), continues to provide the opportunity for St. Louis filmgoers to view the finest in world cinema — international films, documentaries, American indies, and shorts that can only be seen at the festival.

 This year, after an all-virtual festival in 2020, SLIFF is pleased to offer a large selection of in-person events, including at all three screens of the Tivoli Theatre, which has been shuttered since the onset of the pandemic. For those who prefer to watch at home, we’ll still provide plenty of options, with nearly 100 virtual programs and livestreams.

Robert Greene

            SLIFF begins on Nov. 4 with a powerful new Missouri-based documentary, “Procession,” which is directed by Robert Greene, the filmmaker-in-chief at the Murray Center for Documentary Journalism at the University of Missouri. In the film, six men from Kansas City, Mo. — all survivors of childhood sexual assault at the hands of Catholic priests and clergy — come together to direct a drama-therapy-inspired experiment designed to collectively work through their trauma. Greene, who will receive SLIFF’s Contemporary Cinema Award, and many of the film’s subjects will attend the screening to participate in a compelling post-film Q&A.

            On the festival’s final day, SLIFF offers a Tribute to Mary Strauss, which includes a screening of Mary’s favorite film, “Sunset Boulevard.” Mary has played an absolutely essential role in Cinema St. Louis’ evolution, and we’re delighted to honor her with a Lifetime Achievement Award during our 30th edition.

            We’ll also honor two other filmmakers: Documentarian and native St. Louis Nina Gilden Seavey, who will present a free special-event program called “My Fugitive” at the fest, will receive the Charles Guggenheim Cinema St. Louis Award; and documentarian Deborah Riley Draper, whose film “Twenty Pearls: The Story of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority” screens at SLIFF, will receive the Women in Film Award.

The festival will screen more than 400 shorts and features, and the 2021 SLIFF offers an especially impressive array of the year’s most heralded films, including selections from such destination fests as Sundance, Berlin, SXSW, Hot Docs, Tribeca, Cannes, Venice, Telluride, Toronto, and New York. 

            Among the most enticing English-language studio films are Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” (winner of the People’s Choice Award at Toronto), Mike Mills’ “C’mon C’mon” (with Joaquin Phoenix), Michael Pearce’s “Encounter” (with Riz Ahmed and Octavia Spencer), Stephen Karam’s “The Humans” (with Richard Jenkins, Beanie Feldstein, Stephen Yeun, and Amy Schumer), Clint Bentley’s “Jockey” (with Clifton Collins and Molly Parker), Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “King Richard” (with Will Smith), and Eva Husson’s “Mothering Sunday” (with Colin Firth and Olivia Colman). 

“Belfast”

Major international titles include “A Chiara” from Jonas Carpignano, “Ahed’s Knee” from Nadav Lapid, “France” from Bruno Dumont (“Slack Bay”), “A Hero” from Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”), “Hit the Road” from Panah Panahi, “Memoria” from Apichatpong Weerasethakul (“Tropical Malady”), “One Second” from Zhang Yimou (“House of Flying Daggers”), “Paris, 13th District” from Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet”), “Petite Maman” from Céline Sciamma (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”), “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” from Ryūsuke Hamaguchi (“Happy Hour”), and “The Worst Person in the World” from Joachim Trier (“Oslo, August 31st”). SLIFF also offers a pair of films from Radu Jude (“Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn” and “Uppercase Print”) and a trio of works by Hong Sangsoo (“In Front of Your Face,” “Introduction,” and “The Woman Who Ran”).

Significant documentaries include Joshua Altman & Bing Liu’s “All These Sons,” John Maggio’s “A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks,” Rex Miller & Sam Pollard’s “Citizen Ashe,” Andrea Arnold’s “Cow,” Mobolaji Olambiwonnu’s “Ferguson Rises,” Brandon Kramer’s “The First Step,” Matthew Heineman’s “The First Wave,” Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s “Flee,” Julie Cohen and Betty West’s “Julia,” Peggy Callahan & Louie Psihoyos’ “Mission: Joy,” Max Lowe’s “Torn,” Debbie Lum’s “Try Harder!,” and Emily and Sarah Kunstler’s “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America.”

And that’s just scratching the surface of the 2021 lineup, which includes nearly 20 American indies, 29 shorts programs, and eight free archival selections. Below are some of the other highlights of this year’s SLIFF:

The Divided City 

SLIFF’s The Divided City program focuses on the racial divide in St. Louis and other U.S. cities. The films are supported by The Divided City: An Urban Humanities Initiative, a program of Washington U.’s Center for the Humanities that addresses one of the most persistent and vexing issues in urban studies: segregation. 

Sponsored by the Center for the Humanities at Washington University

“The First Wave” documentary

Free and Discounted Programs

SLIFF continues our tradition of offering a large selection of free and discounted events to maximize the fest’s outreach into the community and to make the event affordable to all. In addition, for the 18th year, we present the Georgia Frontiere Cinema for Students Program, which provides free screenings to St. Louis-area schools. This year features 31 free in-person programs, including all screenings at the Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis Public Library, and Washington University. We’re also offering a pair of free screenings at the Tivoli, a free in-person master class, and six free livestreams. And the fest features 31 virtual programs at the special price of $5. 

Georgia Frontiere Cinema for Students Program

SLIFF offers free daytime screenings for children and teens from participating St. Louis-area schools. This year’s selections include shorts, documentary features, narrative features, and shorts programs. See the Cinema for Students section of the SLIFF website for full information.

Sponsored by Chip Rosenbloom and Lucia Rosenbloom (in honor of Georgia Frontiere) and the Hawkins Foundation, with support from the Jane M. & Bruce P. Robert Charitable Foundation 

Human Rights Spotlight

This selection of documentaries focuses on human-rights issues in the U.S. and the world. 

Sponsored by Sigma Iota Rho Honor Society for International and Area Studies at Washington University and the Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute

Master Classes and Seminars

SLIFF provides four free master classes — one in-person event and three livestreams — and a seminar. See the Special Events section of the SLIFF website for full information.

Sponsored by the Chellappa-Vedavalli Foundation

New Filmmakers Forum

The New Filmmakers Forum (NFF), a juried competition of works by first-time feature filmmakers, is an annual highlight of SLIFF. The featured films this year are “Delicate State,” “Papaw Land,” “Shellfish,” “Walk with Me,” and “We Burn Like This,” and the filmmakers will participate in a free roundtable discussion. The screenings and roundtable are hosted by the Missouri Film Office’s Andrea Sporcic Klund. The NFF Emerging Filmmaker Award — nicknamed the Bobbie in honor of the late Bobbie Lautenschlager, NFF’s longtime curator — is presented at SLIFF’s Closing-Night Awards Presentation. 

Sponsored by Barry & Jackie Albrecht and Pat Scallet

Race in America: The Black Experience

Because the events in Ferguson continue to resonate in St. Louis and the country, SLIFF again offers a large number of programs organized under the title Race in America: The Black Experience.  To maximize accessibility and promote dialogue, 12 of the 26 programs in Race in America are free. 

Sponsored by William A. Kerr Foundation 

Show-Me Cinema

Films made in St. Louis and Missouri or by current and former St. Louisans and Missourians are an annual focus of SLIFF. This year’s lineup of Show-Me Cinema is typically strong, featuring 18 feature films, three shorts programs, and four special events.

Sponsored by the Missouri Division of Tourism and Missouri Film Office

SLIFF/Kids Family Films                                                         

Cinema St. Louis presents a selection of eight family programs, including two documentaries and two free collections of shorts. Because patrons younger than 12 are not able to attend in-person screenings this year, all SLIFF/Kids programs are offered virtually.

Tivoli Theatre in University City

COVID-19 POLICIES FOR SLIFF IN-PERSON ATTENDANCE

The safety of our patrons, filmmakers, and volunteers is Cinema St. Louis’ top priority. To ensure everyone is protected, SLIFF has instituted a number of policies for the duration of the festival. 

These policies will be strictly enforced for the protection of everyone. 

Guests must follow the instructions of SLIFF staff members and volunteers. SLIFF reserves the right to deny admission or dismiss any customer for noncompliance. 

The following policies will apply during SLIFF:

  • Proof of full vaccination (at least two weeks after the final dose) of any FDA-approved vaccine is required for all staff members, volunteers, audience members, and filmmakers at each in-person screening and event.
  • Methods of confirming proof of full vaccination are:
    • CDC Vaccine Card and valid photo ID.
    • A photo of a CDC Vaccine Card and valid photo ID.
  • Guests should arrive no earlier than 30 minutes before the scheduled screening time. Any guests arriving earlier will be asked to wait outside in line until the theaters are prepared for seating.
  • Only guests age 12 or older will be permitted to attend.
  • Masks are required for everyone at all times in indoor spaces, and the face coverings must be consistent with the current CDC guidelines.
    • Paper masks, scarves, neck gaiters, shirts pulled up, masks with holes/filters/breathing valves, and makeshift masks are not acceptable.
    • New disposable surgical masks are available to all audience members.
    • Masks must completely cover the mouth and nose and must be replaced if wet or soiled.
    • PPE may be inspected for compliance or issued as needed.
  • No concessions will be available at any venue, and no eating or drinking will be permitted in the theaters. Outside food or drink will also not be permitted.
  • Guests should stay home if not feeling well or exhibiting symptoms of Covid-19 in the past 10 days.
  • Guests who have tested positive for Covid-19 within the past 10 days must stay home.
  • Guests are asked to wash hands as often as possible, use hand-sanitizing stations, and cover nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing.

Gloria Swanson and William Holden in “Sunset Boulevard”

TICKET AND PASS INFORMATION

TICKET PRICES

Individual tickets, for either in-person or virtual screenings, are $15 for general admission, $11 for Cinema St. Louis members and students with valid and current photo IDs. Prices are all-inclusive; no additional fees will be added.

The Tribute to Mary Strauss (held on Nov. 21) is $25 and includes a screening of “Sunset Boulevard,” which follows the event.

SLIFF also offers 31 free in-person screenings, six free livestreams, and 31 virtual programs for a special $5 price. Complete information can be found in the Free Events and Discounted Events sections of the festival website.

Free in-person screenings do not require a ticket.

PASS PRICES

Passes can be used for either in-person or virtual screenings and can be used to purchase multiple tickets for an in-person event. Three forms of passes are available:

Sponsors

Title Sponsor: Whitaker Foundation

Sustaining Sponsors: Albrecht Family Foundation, Chellappa-Vedavalli Foundation, Hawkins Foundation, Jane M. & Bruce P. Robert Charitable Foundation, Ward & Carol Klein, Nancy & Ken Kranzberg, Missouri Arts Council, Missouri Division of Tourism, National Endowment for the Arts, Regional Arts Commission, Chip Rosenbloom & Lucia Rosenbloom, Mary Strauss, Trio Foundation of St. Louis, TV5Monde, William A. Kerr Foundation

Presenting Partners: Center for the Humanities at Washington University, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, The Divided City, Eventive, Film & Media Archive at Washington University Libraries, Film & Media Studies Program at Washington University, Simple DCP, St. Louis Public Library, St. Louis Public Radio, Webster University Film Series

For more information, the public should visit cinemastlouis.org

By Lynn Venhaus

During the month of March, PopLifeSTL.com will recognize significant female contributions in filmmaking. Today we spotlight “Test Pattern,” a debut feature I saw in February 2021, and stayed with me throughout the year, voting for it on several occasions.

Shatara Michelle Ford was raised in St. Louis, so it was fitting for her film “Test Pattern” to be shown at the St. Louis International Film Festival in November 2020. After Kino Lorber agreed to distribute it, I was able to see it a few months later, and was impressed by Ford’s first-time feature, her story and her cast, particularly breakout Brittany S. Hall.

At last week’s Film Independent Spirit Awards, Ford was nominated for Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay, and Hall for Best Actress. Ford, who identifies as they/them, did not win, but she has received other critical acclaim, Gotham Award nominations for Breakthrough Director and Independent Film, and hopefully more opportunities. There has been no announcement or update on her IMDB page.

But she is definitely one to watch. Here is my review of “Test Pattern,” which is now available on Starz (subscription) and to rent via video on demand platforms, such as Amazon, Google Play, DirecTV and others.

A New Female Filmmaker’s Voice Emerges In Realistic ‘Test Pattern’

By Lynn Venhaus
In a powerful feature-length film debut, Shatara Michelle Ford presents a gripping, relevant view of how traumatized women are still treated in the aftermath of sexual assault and the prevailing patriarchy about womanhood and consent.

Ford, who grew up in St. Louis, wrote and directed “Test Pattern,” which was shown at last year’s St. Louis International Film Festival. It won the inaugural Essy Award for best narrative feature, which is given to a film shot in St. Louis or made by a St. Louisan.

It’s about how an interracial couple’s relationship is tested after Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) is sexually assaulted and her live-in boyfriend Evan (Will Brill) drives her to several hospitals in pursuit of a rape kit.

Defying stereotypes, and with its exploration of identity and race, this work has flourished on the festival circuit, and as of Feb. 19, Kino Lorber is distributing it as a video on demand through their Kino Lorber Marquee platform (https://kinomarquee.com)

Ford’s realistic drama veers into psychological horror as everything about Renesha’s girls’ night with best friend Amber (Gail Bean) turns into a nightmare, from the predatory actions of brash e-commerce entrepreneur (Drew Fuller) to its day-after blurry, drugged, foggy trauma.

Not only does Ford delve into these ongoing systemic issues, but also features a frustrating quest to seek answers and justice that serves as an eye-opening indictment of health care inequities.

It is a lot to take on in one film, and Ford has much to say, but she uses one couple’s experiences as an intimate portrait of modern relationships and the framework to look at external forces affecting life today.

Using flashbacks in key moments, self-assured Ford establishes a loving opposite-attracts relationship between an easy-going white tattoo artist, Evan, a superb Will Brill, and a bright, beautiful black development director, Renesha, played shrewdly and delicately by Brittany S. Hall.

Interestingly, they meet during an innocuous girls’ night out of drinking and dancing. Their awkward encounters lead to a first date, then a first night together, then fast-forward to ‘now.’

As their mutual attraction has led to commitment, they have moved in together in a small starter house in Austin. Convincing in every way, their performances are intertwined in a truth.

Bored with the corporate world, Renesha has started a new job working for a non-profit, the Humane Society.  

That night, her pal Amber wants to celebrate, so she reluctantly goes to the Hacienda Social Club. Everything that unfolds screams “bad idea” – Amber, eager to party and already losing her inhibitions, falls prey to a pushy guy, Chris, (Ben Levin), who is toasting a business deal with his friend.

The flashy white guys keep the champagne flowing as they pressure each girl to drink more and dance – and despite Renesha’s repeated attempts at no, and that “I have a boyfriend,” she is stuck in this situation with her fun-loving friend, who is having a good time.

At some point, Renesha is slipped a “roofie,” the illegal date-rape drug Rohypnol, and when incapacitated, she is taken to Mike’s apartment, where he rapes her. She wakes up with little knowledge of how she got there or what happened.

A concerned and devastated Evan wants answers, insistently pursues a rape kit, but Renesha doesn’t want to go through the process. The tense journey does not go well, as each deal with their own emotional responses while facing the bureaucratic red tape of health care hell and a police report.

What is in no doubt is that they have been forever changed as a couple, tested both by gender roles and prejudice.

At only 88 minutes, the film leaves out some pertinent details, and the abrupt ending is not satisfying. But Ford’s flair for dialogue and crafting authentic characters is strong.

Cinematographer Ludovici Isodori’s has contrasted the two storylines masterfully, locations are well-chosen for a low-budget indie, while Robert Oyuang Rusli’s string-heavy score accents an entire gamut of emotions. Tchaikovsky’s “The Waltz of Flowers” from “The Nutcracker Suite” is a clever choice for a compelling scene.

Oscar Wilde’s quote, “Everything is about sex, except sex, which is about power,” is used as the film’s tagline, and Ford has wisely applied it to a modern exploration of how women are conditioned about sex and consent. Add institutional racism from a black woman’s perspective and the power shifts between couples, and you get one potent thought-provoking film.

“Test Pattern” addresses similar territory that “Promising Young Woman” tackles and will add more to the national conversation.

Like the impressive female-directed and written 2020 social commentaries “The Assistant” and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” with this film, Ford proves she is an exciting new voice. Her name can be included in the growing list of formidable female directors with something to say.

Shatara Michelle Ford

“Test Pattern” is a 2019 drama written and directed by Shatara Michelle Ford, starring Brittany S. Hall and Will Brill. It is not rated and the run time is 1 hour, 22 min. The film is available as a video on demand through Kino Lorber Marquee. Lynn’s Grade: B+