FilmScene’s Refocus Festival announces slate of features, from a VR documentary to a ‘secret’ animated film

Refocus Film Festival

Thursday-Sunday, Oct. 6-9, Various Locations, $12-230

Still from ‘Framing Agnes’ (2022)

As the start date for single ticket purchases quickly approaches, FilmScene has announced the lineup of films for its inaugural Refocus Film Festival, which runs Oct. 6-9 across Iowa City. (Ticket sales begin Sept. 16; passes are on sale now and range from $65 public/$60 members for a five-show pass to $230/$195 for all access.)

Refocus is leveraging Iowa City’s status as a UNESCO City of Literature to celebrate adaptation and transformation. The works screened during the festival are all somehow derived from or in conversation with earlier art in a different medium.

“All of the films are adaptations in one way another, but the priority is always to the quality of the films. We want to showcase the best films from diverse voices,” Ben Delgado, FilmScene’s programming director, said of the selection process in an email. “Keeping quality front of mind and balancing discoveries with films from established masters makes for a well rounded festival experience.”

Director Charlie Shackleton’s The Afterlight (2021) is a fascinating example of the transformative process. It doesn’t pull from a single source, but combines archival footage of now-deceased individuals from hundreds of different films. It exists only as a single 35mm print, and is expected to deteriorate as it tours and is watched repeatedly, echoing the fate of the subjects in the stories it tells.

“[Shackleton] is someone who pushes cinema in creative and interesting ways, breaking form and taking chances in ways that are meaningful and enhance the work,” Andrew Sherburne, FilmScene executive director, said in an email, naming The Afterlight as his personal most-anticipated film of the fest. And because only one copy exists, he noted, “if you’re in Iowa City, and don’t see it at the festival, you’ll probably never see it.”

Also wildly experimental, On the Morning You Wake (To the End of the World) incorporates audio testimony, spoken word and an immersive score into a VR experience of a 2018 ballistic missile threat in Hawai’i. And in Framing Agnes, director Chase Joynt and an all-trans team take 1950s case files from the UCLA gender health clinic and spin them into a compelling talk show format.

In the world of literary adaptations, the festival docket includes Aleph (dir. Iva Radivojevic, 2021), loosely based on “The Aleph,” a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. Last and First Men (dir. Jóhann Jóhannsson, 2020), based on Olaf Stapledon’s 1930 cult sci-fi novel, hit the festival circuit just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping it from U.S. screens until just recently. Meet Me in the Bathroom (2022), from directors Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, interprets the early 2000s Lower East Side indie rock scene, as detailed in Lizzy Goodman’s 2017 book of the same name. Hold Me Tight (2021, dir. Mathieu Amalric) offers an adaptation of the play Je reviens de loin by Claudine Galea.

In addition to films from the past couple of years, Refocus will also screen a handful of recent reissues, including 1992’s Orlando and 1951’s Miracle in Milan.

“A festival is of course a showcase for brand new work, but it’s also a place to rediscover classics, particularly when they have been lovingly restored,” Delgado said. “In some cases, these are films that were not appreciated fully in their initial release or were only available in poor transfers if at all until very recently.”

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Although FilmScene didn’t solicit submissions this year, “there is a hunger and an energy for the festival that excited filmmakers to reach out with their work,” Delgado said. “We were happy to see that positive response and are taking everything into consideration for future iterations, including opening up to submissions.”

There also aren’t any world premieres at this fest — although “all of the films are area premieres,” Delgado said — but there is one film they are listing only as Storybook. It’s a “secret screening” of a new 2022 animated children’s feature, playing at Refocus ahead of its official U.S. premiere. There’s not a lot the team can reveal, but they offer the following as part of their official description: “Sweet without being saccharine, this film is a clever, sprightly romp through an enchanted European city and a rumination on art as a reflection of a creator’s own hopes and dreams.”

“I think we have an incredibly eclectic lineup,” Delgado said. “And I’m excited for people to see it all! But if I had to pick one, I would have to say Sansón and Me is the one I am most excited for people to see. It plays with form and has a unique vision of adaptation using letters, conversations, songs and poetry combined with re-enactments of memories to tell a very important and very personal story of the immigrant experience in this country. Director Rodrigo Reyes will be at the festival to talk about the film, and I know people will have plenty of questions for him after they see it. And if I could cheat and add one more, I would say Rewind & Play is a must-watch, especially for jazz fans.”

See the full lineup on the festival website.