It’s refreshing to meet new Lower East Siders dedicated to not selling out. For example, take LES Film Festival founders Damon Cardasis and Shannon Walker, who made an ultra-low-budget film (under $10,000) in seven days back in 2010.
“You do all this hard work and nobody really gets to see it at the end of the day,” says Cardasis. That was the inspiration to bring just such movies to a bigger audience: he felt there must be other people in the same position and decided to create a platform for screening them. And what better neighborhood to give such unpretentious, underground art a start than the Lower East Side?
Cardasis and Walker teamed up with young guns Roxy Hunt and Tony Castle, two fresh thinkers who studied film at the Stan Brakhage school at the University of Colorado, Boulder. They had created their own film festival, called “The Big Freakin Deal Festival,” out there. The four energetic transplants started screening films in the storefront/creative space, Grand Opening.
“What was so exciting is, it wasn’t typical,” says Castle. “All the events there were BYOB, so it was really cool to have a really relaxed audience watch the films. It wasn’t a stuffy, VIP kind of event. It created an atmosphere where, though the filmmakers were there, it wasn’t intimidating.”
Indeed, the Tribeca Film Festival started by Robert DeNiro has become a glamorama of big stars, red carpet events and sponsored parties that are more about top-shelf hard-boozing and exchanging business cards than film appreciation. The Lower East Side itself, with its oft-seedy past filled with broke, innovative artists lends its character perfectly to a more authentic scene.
“‘Lower East Side’ is synonymous with arts and indie,” Cardasis agrees. “It is about what the history represents.”
In just three years running the festival, Cardasis, Walker, Hunt and Castle have stepped squarely into the limelight from their storefront BYOB days. They have featured talent like Willem Dafoe, Abel Ferrara, Dolly Parton and Harvey Wang. Their judging panels have included the likes of Susan Sarandon, Judah Friedlander, Justin Vivian Bond, Lizzy Caplan — and the list of stars goes on.
“We want to keep it growing organically,” Cardasis says. “What we like about it is the personal feel. All four of us still do everything.”
Last year, for example, the partners carried their festival logo backdrop to the Crosby Street Hotel to shoot pictures with Willem Dafoe, and then carried it back.
Being neighborly and approachable are qualities all four founders want to retain.
“The kind of films that we like tend to be made by the people that are the most humble,” explains Hunt.
“Yes, the directors that make really great films, tend to be the most awesome to work with,” chimes in Castle.
“We want to make sure it’s a fun night, too,” Hunt says, getting excited. “For many festivals, you get the impression they never thought about how the audience was going to feel. We have more serious films, it’s not all a party, but we also have themes like ‘mind-fuck night.’”
Now Cardasis jumps in, getting hyped, too: “Yeah, we started out to prove that no matter what your budget these films could still have a heart, could be powerful, having that experience where you’re moved by [the film itself] instead of being moved by the stars that are in it.”
The Lower East Side Film Festival kicks off at the Sunshine Cinema on June 13 and continues at venues around the neighborhood through June 23. Visit lesfilmfestival.com for details.