My Mom used to say that if she cut her finger while cooking, the dish would turn out sensational. I feel that same parallel with movies. If one cuts into me emotionally—whether the result is to laugh, sit on the edge of my seat, or cry—then I know it was sensational. I don’t care if it wins awards or wins over critics. Did it win over my heart? 

                There were a lot of films at the sixth annual Central Florida Film Festival, or as those in the know refer to it—CenFlo, that were five tissues worth of sensational. Some of them did become audience or critics favorites, but by the time the four-day September festival wrapped, they’d left an imprint I have yet to erase.

                There were six that stood out to me like a bright beacon on a starless night, casting a soft halo that radiated in spreading directions. Five of the six had me dabbing at my eyes, pretending my allergies were in attack mode.

                Thank goodness I wasn’t judging, so I don’t have to rate them in order of preference. Many of these can be found online if you want to see for yourself. I’ll first tell you about the one that didn’t leave soaked tissues gripped in my fist, though it was no less powerful in the telling.

                Vidal Sassoon: The Movie—How One Man Changed The World With A Pair Of Scissors documents the impact his revolutionary geometric hair designs made on stylists,  their clients, and on fashion. Bumble & Bumble hair products founder Michael Gordon produced and hosts this feature-length film that pays homage to his mentor, Vidal Sassoon. Through in-depth interviews with Sassoon and those he influenced, the movie reveals a perfectionist who overcame his somber beginnings to emerge as a world-class innovator, creating the first fashionable salons and first line of salon-quality hair products sold retail.

                The winner for Best Documentary was In The Footsteps of Elie Wiesel. Twelve American high school students, led by the film’s Director Stephanie Ansaldo, followed the path of the famed Holocaust survivor’s beginnings to his current day role as Nobel Peace Prize recipient and advocate for world peace. There were some strong photographic images of concentration camp atrocities, but as a person who grew up rereading The Diary of Anne Frank until I should have had it memorized, it was the emotional journey these teens took that shook me as strongly as if I was walking alongside them as they passed preserved remnants of ovens or dormitories. Presented by the Echo Foundation, Producers are Paul Barrett and Tony Elwood.

                A third feature-length documentary captured the birth of the Blues Revival at the Café Au Go Go, which in the mid-60’s was The Place for musicians to be discovered by co-owners, Howard and Elly Solomon. 7 Years Underground: A 60’s Tale followed the Solomons as they created a no-drinking-allowed nightclub that introduced future stars such as Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, The Cream, Jefferson Airplane, Mothers of Invention, George Carlin, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Lily Tomlin, and Richard Prior. Their son, Jason Solomon—now a Hollywood Talent Manager, produced the film in honor of his mother’s forthcoming 70th birthday, so his parents’ invaluable contributions to music weren’t forgotten. I reveled in the story behind Café Au Go Go and enjoyed grooving to the musical footage and photographs of its celebrated musical history, but it was Jason Solomon’s tearful announcement of how much he missed his (deceased) father that had me welling up. (Not a day goes by that I don’t miss my parents, too.)

                Even as I mention this, I have to wipe away moisture gathering around my eyes. While I pause to get past that, and before telling you about the other films I loved, here’s some background on CenFlo.

                It’s always held Labor Day Weekend and has found a permanent home at the West Orange 5 Cinema in Ocoee, FL. “That way no one has to worry about the dates or where to find it,” says Executive Director, festival creator and owner of B.C, Entertainment Group, Inc, Bob Cook. “Patrick Sirois, co-owner of the West Orange 5, is an independent distributor and I’m an independent filmmaker. It’s a perfect marriage for one of the few festivals in the world that promotes Florida produced films.”

                I know a bit about producing films. For many years in the 80s and 90s, there was a community of people known as the Florida Motional Picture and TV Association who bought into the dream that Central Florida was knighted Hollywood East. I drank the Kool-Aid, was active in the Association, and even acted in various commercials, on TV and in bit parts for film. My dream vanished when other states offered better film incentives than Florida could muster. 

                Bob Cook’s dream didn’t vanish. He and his wife Ginger, a vivacious tireless fount of energy who works as Technical Director for the festival, decided to continue investing in their passion, promote Florida filmmakers, and give back to the community that welcomed them.

                “My mission is to create jobs for Central Florida and to create economic development. When a film is shot here, like Whisper Home shot in Ocoee last year or Homecoming that shot around Celebration this year, it stimulates business: from local restaurants, hotels, printers… anything that is in the community. I met Russ Wagner, the Community Redevelopment Director in Ocoee, at a city commission meeting. He said Ocoee wants to build up cultural arts. His support and that of the commissioners gave us a foundation on which to grow.”

                Grow it has. This year more than 70 films were shown, including entries from 19 universities (including one from Germany). The cocktail parties at night brought out both the film community and residents, along with a whole lot of raucous karaoke at the Sable Hotel where the parties were held. Listening to his patrons, Cook added a new award category: Audience Choice. They selected Writer-Director Repici’s stark examination of mortgage fraud in Subprime.

                “The audience really got involved. We gathered demographics along with the votes, which will help direct our film selections next year. We want to show what the audience wants to see,” says Cook.           

                What I wanted to see was Glenn Morshower up close and personal. If the name doesn’t immediately ring any bells, think Secret Service Agent Aaron Pierce from 24 (a family addiction when it aired on Fox) or maybe you’d recognize him as General Morshower in Transformers movies. If the latter strikes the chord, you’ll be eager to see the Transformers exhibit when it opens at Universal Studios Orlando.

                Morshower’s film career spans more than 35 years and encompasses more than 160 projects, from episodes of CSI to movies like Under Siege. He plays a lot of military or government agent parts. Maybe it’s that look-you-dead-in-the-eye-and-dare-you-to-move stare.  

                What’s less known is his reputation as an international Speaker to both film and corporate audiences.  CenFlo was the first time he presented his program, “The Extra Mile” to filmgoers and filmmakers. “The Extra Mile” is a combination of motivation speaking, story telling, dramatic and comedic performance, acting instruction, and life coaching. His passion for instruction was evident. I can’t tell you his hysterically-funny advice on how to successfully win roles (you’ll have to ask the approachable, down-to-earth star yourself), but he does begin by advising: “Don’t think of it as auditioning. Look at it as if you’re ‘taking a meeting’. That immediately changes the dynamics.”

                Also adding lots of color and fun to CenFlo was local 6’7” actor, Jeff Chase. He introduced Swamp Shark, a movie shot in New Orleans for the Sy-Fy Channel (so keep an eye on that channel’s listings). You may recall Chase from his towering role at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in the Indiana Jones Stunt Show, or perhaps in his challenging role in The Mechanic. He just finished shooting Rock of Ages in Miami for seven weeks. Based on a Broadway musical about 80’s rock n’ roll, the film stars Tom Cruise, Russell Brand, and Paul Giamatti. Next up for Chase is a film being shot in Bulgaria.

                As part of the Festival’s mission to give back to the local community, there were two special presentations at CenFlo. Proceeds from the showing of Swamp Shark were donated to the Mickel-Begg Memorial Foundation, a scholarship begun for two Osceola County firefighters who died in a 2002 training fire. Although both Osceola and Ocoee fire departments were to share in the firefighter funds raised, Fire Chief  Pete McNeil gave the full check to Osceola. The second presentation went to Donna Wagner, head of the Ocoee High School’s Digital Media Academy. Wagner (no relation to Russ Wagner) is the Director of Community Relations for CenFlo. Many of her production students volunteered throughout the festival.  

                I didn’t see Best Feature winner, Paradise Recovered, produced by Andie Redwine and directed by Storme Wood.  I did see three other CenFlo winning films, dampening many tissues in the process. 

                The Paul Leder Award for Student Films went to Fawaz Al Matrok’s To Rest In Peace. The USC short about Kuwait in 1990 examines what happens when one man cannot simply stand by as two slain men are left to rot in a car as a “lesson” against rebellion. When asked why he dared defied being shot himself to bury the two men, he replies, “All men deserve to be buried.” This wasn’t a gruesome, bloody film. There was little dialogue but volumes of humanity.

                Best Short film went to Touch, a moving story of how two people who have endured tragedy and loss rediscover their worthiness during a therapeutic massage. Grief, loneliness, and a desperate need to feel wanted and whole are etched in their eyes, rigid shoulders, and tight mouths. I’m not sure if I cried more for their despair or for their joy in rediscovering a human connection. Justin Bowler wrote and starred in it. Director: Jane Lanier.

                The final film was Homecoming, a film shot around Orlando and Celebration, co-starring Brea Grant, John Robinson, Colleen Camp, Tom Fox Davies and Sean Hackett, who also wrote and directed this poignant story of three friends in their 20’s who reunite when the army medic Estelle Szymanski comes home on a two-week leave from Afghanistan. It’s not a war film, nor one of politics. No one dies. It’s about quirky friends, their misadventures, and the inescapable bonds that unite these three “social outsiders.” 

                Then why did I weep? I come from a military family, father and brother. I’ve said goodbye too many times, not sure if there would a follow-up hello. This film brilliantly touched my core and proved you can go home again. There’s a campaign afoot to get it played in local theaters. If you’re interested, check out the trailer online and contact Hackett or Producers Tim and Mary Larson.

                Credits have scrolled across the screen for this year’s CenFlo, but it’s not too soon to produce your next year’s entries or put it on your calendar to enjoy a festival of film. Labor Day Weekend, 2012. Ocoee. West Orange 5 Cinema.

                See you at the movies!

Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries.  She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI, for which she is on the Membership Advisory Council and the Industry Advisory Council. She writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, Karen has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. karenkuzsel@earthlink.net; www.ThePsychicLady.com

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