Cinema in the canyon, Topanga style

Tributes to David Lynch, Dennis Hopper bookend breakout year for burgeoning film fest.

By Michael Aushenker / Special to The Malibu Times

It all began in a backyard. Urs Baur and Sara Baur-Harding, founders of the Topanga Film Festival, remember when they used to screen cinematic shorts behind their house. Next week, neighbors and businesses in their Topanga Canyon community will take part in helping the couple stage their sixth annual showcase of independent and experimental films, which runs Aug. 19 through Aug. 22 at various Topanga Canyon venues.

“It’s coming closer to the vision to what we had when we started,” Baur said. “The way we started was very small. It grew from a one-day event to a two-day event and now it’s where the whole town is getting behind it.”

For the first time, the festival will honor established talent, this year paying homage to director David Lynch and late actor Dennis Hopper.

“These are two people who have influenced our lives,” Baur said.

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Hopper’s seminal independent film, 1969’s “Easy Rider” (which he directed, co-wrote and co-starred in), will be screened on the festival’s first night.

“It’s the ultimate ‘Easy Rider’ experience that we can show it here,” Baur said, noting that “some of the campfire scenes were shot right here [in Topanga],” as explored in the James Chressanthis film “No Subtitles Necessary: Lazlo and Vilmos,” also screening next Thursday night.

“No Subtitles” chronicles how Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond, two Hungarian film students, escaped communist Hungary in 1956 and, during the next 50 years, reinvented Hollywood moviemaking as cinematographers on such classics as “Five Easy Pieces,” “Deliverance” and “Easy Rider.”

One of Hopper’s most memorable roles was the sicko Frank Booth in Lynch’s signature film “Blue Velvet.” Honoring Lynch seemed a perfect fit, Baur said.

“He’s the consummate artist. He’s not just a filmmaker,” Baur said. “We love how he just breaks the rules and works on all these different media. Coming from advertising myself, I see how it’s all melding and he’s one of the pioneers.”

In many ways, 2010 will be game changing for the Baurs’ labor of love. Erecting a tent at Pine Tree Circle has allowed for concurrent programming all day long.

“We’ve expanded it to include longer films and documentaries,” Milena Merrill, the festival’s executive producer, said.

About 10 films and 50 shorts comprise Topanga 2010, including the environmental documentary “Dirt!,” J. Kevin Swain’s “Soul Train” retrospective and Amy Do’s bunny convention documentary, “Rabbit Fever.”

Topanga filmmaker Scott Garen, who directed the submission “Greening Fashion,” will receive the inaugural Coyote Achievement Award.

“He submitted film to our first film festival, and we had to turn him down at the time because his film was too long for our shorts,” Baur recalled. “But he’s been on our radar ever since.”

The Baurs moved to Topanga Canyon 12 years ago.

“Over the last 10 years, the demographics changed,” Baur said. “We realized how many filmmakers, musicians and composers had moved here. We wanted to create this network of people to exchange and collaborate, and share with.”

“It’s insane how many people from the entertainment industry, per capita, happen to live in Topanga,” Merrill said.

“For [my] family of artists…this is a perfect place to live,” Chressanthis, a native Topangan, told The Malibu Times. “It’s a refuge where you can work without distraction and, at the same time, be influenced by all the artists, musicians and filmmakers who reside here.”

“We’re close to nature and this is the kind of people we are, and the canyon attracts,” Baur said. “We like inspiring films and building cultural bridges and making these international connections and expanding awareness.”

“Easy Rider” may open the event, but what’s not an easy ride is mounting a film fest, given the recession and the oversaturated festival market. Ask Don Franken, driving force behind Calabasas’ Method Fest, or Bob Sharka, who downsized his Pacific Palisades Film Festival last spring from three days of playhouse programming to two backyard screenings.

“It’s no secret that times are tough, particularly for nonprofits,” Sharka said. “Just as I was about to put the festival on a year’s hiatus, I figured we’d try something different. We asked local families to offer their own private homes.”

“This year, Anaheim has started a film festival,” Baur said. “Disney puts a lot of money into it and they bring in the stars. Here in Topanga, it’s more organic. We like to grow it deeper.”

Topanga businesses have also stepped forward. Trust Ranch is where the international shorts competition will take place, with KCRW’s Nic Harcourt emceeing a pre-party. Abuelita’s Mexican restaurant will host opening night, Lynch’s short, “Lady Blue Shanghai,” screens at the Mountain Mermaid and Froggy’s Topanga Fish Market will present the festival’s awards-show closer.

“It’s very rewarding,” Baur said. “It’s like pushing something uphill. It’s two months work for those four days. But now the excitement has become palpable.”

More information and tickets can be obtained online at topangafilmfestival.com or by e-mail at info@topangafilmfestival.com

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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