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New Palm Beach festival attracts independent films, quirks of Florida

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Maria Loohufvud and Love Martinsen
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Calendar Girls by Swedish directors Maria Loohufvud and Love Martinsen.

Must-see independent cinema from over 20 different countries this month is coalescing into the arts scene in Palm Beach County.

A new, eclectic film festival is showcasing a range of work, from comedies to documentaries to dramas, with stories exploring themes such as Jewish identity and LGBTQ+ experiences — as well as the always-fascinating quirks of life in Florida.

The 22-day Donald M. Ephraim Palm Beach Film Festival will hold 100-plus screenings of international premieres and local films.

“We have family films. We have educational films. We have lots of stuff that will just entertain you,” Festival director Ellen Wedner told WLRN. “And we really try to make this a film festival for all ages, for all segments of the population, and also try to bring back some of the excitement. — the red carpet, if you will.”

The annual festival, presented by MorseLife, will hold screenings and Q&A programs at seven theaters throughout the county.

Opening the excitement Jan. 26 at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach is director Marc Fitoussi’s comedy Two Tickets to Greece, staring Laure Calamy from Netflix series Call My Agent, Olivia Côte and Kristin Scott Thomas, from the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. Peace By Chocolate, directed by Jonathan Keijser, about a Syrian family fleeing war to start a new life in Canada, will close out the festival on Feb. 16.

But local film-goers can explore films that underline why Florida stands out from other states.

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Calendar Girls, directed by Swedish directors Maria Loohufvud and Love Martinsen, for example, takes an outside-looking-in perspective on the personal joy and struggle of being in an all-woman senior dance troupe from Fort Myers, in the southwest part of Florida.

“Just because you're aging, you're not invincible,” said Katherine Shortlidge, 72, the founder of the dance squad and star of the documentary. The film made an appearance at the 2022 Sundance festival in Utah.

The troupe — in their colorful, hand-made costumes — is made up of women between the ages of 50 and 80, and the ladies perform “about 200 shows a year” for fundraising shows, parades, and other events.

“It can be biker rallies, country clubs, private parties, nursing homes,” Shortlidge said. “There are a lot of festivals in Florida because of our weather, so we're often outside at street parties, and that's where the filmmakers spotted us.”

The Calendar Girls started off as senior dancers for the now-defunct Florida Flame, an NBA Development League team out of Fort Myers. The dancers eventually stayed together to dance on behalf of Southeastern Guide Dogs for Veterans charity.

The first-person documentary, Shortlidge said, interweaves between dance work-ethic and the complicated moving pieces of life as an aging woman. She said the film shows that older people are still “very active and vibrant.”

“It's not just about dancing here. There's some storylines for women in their current situation,” Shortlidge said. “One woman has a husband problem and one woman has a serious illness. And one woman has never danced. And so it's a challenge for her to learn to dance and to put on a costume and get up on a stage. And I'm the other woman, and I'm portrayed as a drill sergeant, even though I'm really not that strict.”

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Sasha Levinson
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Sylvie Bellanca, star of the film "Sylvie of the Sunshine State."

Documentary captured 'multi-generational reckoning'

Another film showcasing emerging Florida-based talent is Sylvie of the Sunshine State, a film exploring various struggles and joys surrounding the relationship between mother and daughter.

Director Sasha Levinson, who lives in Delray Beach, spent most of her 22-year career in Los Angeles.

Levinson said her documentary explores her multi-generational Jewish background and the ebbs and flows of modern day motherhood through the lens of her “intuitive, free-spirit daughter” who has some learning challenges that make her “super interesting.” The COVID-19 pandemic also serves as a pressure-cooking backdrop.

“During those early days of the COVID shutdown, I was having a lot of anxiety about doing the craft as a filmmaker that I had done for so many years that sort of keep me feeling sane and connected and fulfilled,” Levinson said. “And suddenly the ability to do that while also being a mother, that one piece was taken away.” 

Levinson said she saw filmmaking during the early stages of the pandemic as a way to do something creative with her child. But the film captured a period that turned out to be a “multi-generational reckoning” among other family members — including her 96-year-old grandmother and her "worry wart" mother.

The provocative Jewish documentary, shot on a phone, premiered at the 2022 indie-art film festival Slamdance in Park City, Utah. Levinson says that the "complexity" she captured has made it somewhat divisive.

She said audiences who love the film described it as a great “vulnerable expression of the imperfection of motherhood.” And folks who disliked it found it to be “so uncomfortable to watch and question how, as a mother, I could turn my camera on my daughter in that way.”

From Jan. 26 through Feb. 16, the new festival will present films at eight venues throughout Palm Beach County, including CMX Gardens in Palm Beach Gardens, Regal Royal Palm to Movies of Lake Worth and Paragon Theaters in Delray Beach. For more information, film goers can visit Palm Beach Film Festival.

Wilkine Brutus is a reporter and producer for WLRN and a guest faculty member at the Poynter Institute. The South Florida native produces stories on topics surrounding local news, culture, art, politics and current affairs.