I was lucky enough to live in Austin in the 1990s during the great rise of their film festivals. I got to see SXSW come into its own and do all of the Quentin Tarantino Fests and all the horror ones that happened at the first Alamo Drafthouse ever. That being said, my all-time favorite is The Loft Film Fest in Tucson, now in its 12th year, which ran from October 12-20, 2022.

Where else can you see Gary Farmer from Dead Man and Reservation Dogs get onstage outside and do a tune with musician and filmmaker Howe Gelb of Giant Sand jamming away? I was getting zonked on some very strong coffee, waiting for the big opening night premiere of Quantum Cowboys, an animated psychedelic western co-written by Gelb. It was a blast. Afterward, director Geoff Marslett got up onstage with Gelb as well as many cast members, including Kiowa Gordon from Dark Winds and Lily Gladstone from Reservation Dogs and Freeland. Gladstone remembered when she had flown in overnight with two hours of sleep and filmed a bunch of scenes for the movie before immediately being flown out for another project. Like a hawk, she flies through a canyon of movies, much like the fest-goers will in this wild nine-day celebration. 

The Loft Cinema in Tucson, home to the festival, is turning 50 years old this year. It rode out the 20th century as an independent cinema that started with adult movies but soon transitioned to art and foreign movies. In the 21st century, it has become a non-profit art house wonderland, sporting three screens, including the largest in the state. On top of first-run art house fare, The Loft shows revivals, anime, cult classics, and grindhouse oddities. It also has the longest-running Rocky Horror in the world. A rotating program with special features throughout the week means you can go there every day and still see a different movie.

As Tucson has huge amounts of retirees as well as college students, the Loft’s cornucopia of rich and unusual cinema is well-received by the city. The Loft Film Fest utilizes this fantastic resource to bring films and film people from all over the world. Funding includes a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which only a few festivals receive. The Loft Film Fest is the only U.S. Festival that is a member of CICAE, the International Confederation of Art Houses. Some of the films screened here are under consideration for the CICAE awards, which include screenings in 22 festivals all over the world. 

Also given out onstage by Jeff Yanc, program director for the Loft, are the coveted Lofty Awards for Lifetime Achievement, whose previous recipients include Udo Keir, Roger Corman, Charles Burnett, Rita Moreno, Noam Chomsky, and Alex Cox. The statues are in the shape of El Jefe, the elusive North American jaguar that has been living in the mountains here for a decade. The first Lofty was presented on the second night of the fest to Gary Farmer at a screening of a new restoration of his 1989 movie Pow Wow Highway, directed by Jonathan Wacks under Beatle George Harrison’s Handmade Pictures studio. The place was packed, including many from the Tohono O’odham reservation.

Outside, Farmer graciously posed for pictures while the smell of fresh native fry bread filled the air. Farmer’s long career has crested onto an interesting plateau of a newly anointed stoner icon due to his role as Uncle Brownie on Reservation Dogs. This was evident during his Q & A when Farmer was asked what strain of weed was the ounce his Pow Wow Highway character trades for a ’64 Buick. “Homegrown,” answered Farmer. Also screening that Thursday was an international shorts showcase, the Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Utama by Alejandro Loayzca Grisi, following the struggle of an elderly farming couple in the highlands of Bolivia, and You Can Live Forever, the 90s set queer coming-of-age story from Canada by Mark Slutsky and Sarah Watts.

Haute Couture

Peggy Johnson, executive director of the Loft, pointed out in her introduction on Friday morning’s first screening that the Loft Film Fest has always strived to make sure women direct at least half of the films selected. Johnson said that goal has always been met with ease as there is a plethora of great films helmed by women every year. Two she was especially excited about in the fest this year were Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage, about Austria’s Empress Elizabeth, and Sylvie Othayon’s Haute Couture, which was about to screen. The reception for this French film was enthusiastic, with many audience members referring to it as one of their favorites in the informal polls held prior to other screenings.

Screening at the same time in the next theater over was Marissa Maltz’s The Unknown Country, also starring Lily Gladstone. Other movies screened directed by women included Amanda Kramer’s Give Me Pity!, Kathryn Horan’s The Return of Tanya Tucker: Featuring Brandi Carlile, Lola Quivoran’s Rodeo, Annette K. Olesen’s A Matter of Trust, Laura Lehumus’s Sweet Disaster and Subject by Camilla Hall and Jennifer Teixeira.

At the beginning of each screening, the Loft would acknowledge the theater is built on the ancestral land of the Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui tribes. On Friday afternoon, it presented the  Sundance Film Festival Indigenous Shorts Tour 2022, featuring six short films by native creators. Meanwhile, to celebrate Friday afternoon’s showing of Lynch/Oz, the Loft held a free outdoor screening of The Wizard of Oz down the street in a nearby public park. On Friday night, another Lofty was issued to indigenous actor Wes Studi for lifetime achievement in film.

A special 30th-anniversary screening of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans featuring Studi’s acclaimed turn as the villain Magua. Studi spoke about his approach to Magua of fleshing out the dimensions from the version in the novel, giving him a back story to explain his cruelty. He also had an amusing story of how he got cast in Mann’s Heat. Studi asked Mann if the indigenous henchman had been cast yet, even though there was such a character yet. A montage of Studi’s work was shown, including a running tally of how many different languages he has performed with. Studi’s family was also on hand. It was a special evening.

Later the Loft’s huge main screen played host to a late-night showing of Dario Argento’s Dark Glasses. Not only was it a treat to see the first new Argento film in a decade, but it was also surprisingly good, showing a return to form by the midnight maestro. Next screen over was Meet Me in the Bathroom, directed by Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern, a tribute to clubbing. It was an electric Friday deep into the night.

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