New Sidewalk Film Center and Cinema debuts for 21st festival

“Safe Spaces” at Sidewalk

by Lee J. Green

The 21st annual Sidewalk Film Festival will run from Aug. 19 to 25 across downtown Birmingham, going back in time to the 1980s while also ushering in the future.

Its opening night film, on Aug. 23 at 8 p.m. at the Alabama Theatre, will be the documentary “I Want My MTV” featuring original VJ and Birmingham native Alan Hunter. Over the weekend, it will be accompanied by “Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back,” 1984’s “Karate Kid” as well as a documentary about the lead singer of the band INXS, Michael Hutchence.

The Sidewalk Film Festival also marks the debut of the Sidewalk Film Center and Cinema, located on the lower level of the Pizitz building.

Scheduled to open to the public the first week of September, the Sidewalk Film Center and Cinema includes two theatres that will seat approximately 90 people each, showcasing independent films. It will also include a room for events and education along with a restaurant, lounge and bar area. It will also be the home of a planned Jewish Film Festival.

“This is something that has been in the discussion and planning stages for years. It’s exciting to see this come into fruition,” Sidewalk Executive Director Chloe Cook. “Birmingham can showcase independent films year-round” from local, national and international artists.

The Sidewalk Film Festival will screen more than 300 narrative, documentary and short films in 10 venues, along with panel discussions, parties and related events. A couple of selections by Jewish filmmakers include the narrative “Safe Spaces” and the documentary “Circus of Books.”

Daniel Schechter’s “Safe Spaces” centers on physical or metaphorical spaces in which people can be fully self-expressed without facing judgment or harassment.

Discussion of safe spaces most often revolve around college campuses, and Schechter’s film follows suit. In “Safe Spaces,” Justin Long plays an adjunct creative writing professor who is forced to grapple with the backlash to a class discussion that he saw as innocent, but others felt crossed the line.

Schechter said Long’s character is partially inspired by himself and his experience as a teacher. Fran Drescher plays Long’s mother, and the character is based on Schechter’s mother.

Beyond the college controversy, “Safe Spaces” follows this family, all of whom are brought together by the siblings’ ailing grandmother, played by Lynn Cohen.

“The big thing that I hope people take away from the movie is, just have more empathy for people and their struggles and where they’re coming from,” said Schechter.

“Safe Spaces” will be at the Alabama Theatre on Aug. 25 at 12:15 p.m., and is the film being sponsored by Southern Jewish Life.

“Circus of Books” directly focuses on Jewish filmmaker, artist and musician Rachel Mason’s family. Mason tells the story of her parents, Karen and Barry Mason, who had fallen on hard times and were looking for a way to support their young family.

They answered an ad in the Los Angeles Times seeking distributors for Hustler magazine. What was expected to be a brief sideline led to the straight Jewish couple taking over a local store, Circus of Books, beloved in the West Hollywood LGBT scene, and becoming fully immersed in that community at a time when the culture was not yet accepted. The film details how they kept their business separate from their friends and children, and how it became a place of refuge during the height of the AIDS crisis.

It will screen at 6 p.m. on Aug. 24 at the Alabama School of Fine Arts Recital Hall.

Joel Fendelman returns to Sidewalk with “Adam and Eve Eat Again,” a 10-minute narrative short that will be part of the “Shorts: Start Here” block on Aug. 24 at 10:25 a.m., at the ASFA Recital Hall. The film’s description is “Adam’s late and Eve won’t play his song. Now they must perform together.”

There will also be a short film about being a religious minority in the Deep South, though it’s not about the Jewish community. “Hidden Voices,” directed by Matthew Brooks, Michael Cooper and Holly White, is a nine-minute film on the challenges faced by those who leave their churches for pagan practices. It will be part of the Alabama Docs block on Aug. 24 at 3:15 p.m., at the ASFA Recital Hall.

For complete schedules to the 2019 Sidewalk Film Festival, along with more information about the Sidewalk Film and Cinema Center, click here.