What to see at Wilmington's 28th Cucalorus Film Festival: Best movies, performances

Hanging out with Cucalorus Film Festival director Dan Brawley on an early November day, two weeks before the 28th annual festival is set to open, it feels like the calm before the storm.

Sitting in the refurbished screening room at the festival headquarters known as Jengo's Playhouse, his gorgeous dog Izzy napping nearby, Brawley is as laid-back as ever. But his cool composure belies what's swirling through his brain: the dozens of events, from film screenings and performances to panels and parties, set to to be held in a half-dozen venues Nov. 16-20.

"There's a different energy this year," Brawley said. "It feels like a return."

A return, that is, to the Cucalorus Film Festivals of old, before the pandemic-dictated drive-in/virtual festival of 2020, and even before the festival experimented last decade with adding a (since-discontinued) "Connect" portion focused on business innovation and entrepreneurship.

In some ways, Brawley said, the pandemic shutdown gave Cucalorus staffers "time to consider what we're all about." And, after last year's tentative re-opening, the festival in 2022 is getting back to the basics it's always thrived on since starting as a one-night event at the old Water Street Restaurant back in 1994: screenings of new, independent films you can't see anywhere else, as well as fringe-fest-style performances of music, comedy and more.

This year's Cucalorus takes place during the middle of a boom for Wilmington's film industry, which "raises a lot of awareness and enthusiasm for film in general," Brawley said. "And we get swept up in that."

As always, there's a ton of stuff going on at Cucalorus this year, with plenty of tough decisions about which events to attend. Here's a day-by-day, event-by-event, non-comprehensive guide to your best bets for film, performances and more. For a complete schedule, go to Cucalorus.org.


'The Devil's Stomping Ground'

7 p.m., Thalian Hall main stage

In 1994, longtime Wilmington filmmaker Jon Landau had a short film that closed the first Cucalorus Film Festival.

Now, 28 years later, a feature written and directed by Landau is opening the 28th festival. "The Devil's Stomping Ground" is also the only Wilmington-made feature in the festival this year.

An independent film about independent filmmakers making an independent film, it's probably the most meta way Cucalorus could possibly open. Landau said "The Devil's Stomping Ground" is a found-footage horror movie in the tradition of "The Blair Witch Project." It's about a group of college filmmakers who decide to spend the night shooting at a supposedly haunted, perfectly circular clearing deep in the woods. Naturally, things don't go so well for them.

Landau said he shot the film over the course of six nights in a real place called The Devil's Tramping Ground, in the woods outside Siler City.

Following the screening, an after-party at Hi-Wire Brewing on Princess Street will feature the reunion of legendary Wilmington band The Majestic Twelve, Kenyata Sullivan's dramatic pop/rock act. Also playing will be former Wilmington musician Kim Ware (of The Good Graces) and Wilmington's own Sean Thomas Gerard.


The festival's opening day only has three simultaneous events to choose from, and the choices don't get easier. Basically, between Thursday and Sunday you can take in a total of up to five events, maybe six if you count a late-night party. With anywhere from two to five different events going on simultaneously, however, that means making some hard choices. Here's what mine might end up being.

Leafy Seadragon Shorts: Land

10:30 a.m., Thalian Hall black box

Most of the 130-plus films at Cucalorus this year are short films, many of them made by Wilmington filmmakers. (Brawley notes that less than a quarter of locally submitted films get into the festival, but that's still better odds than the one-in-12 acceptance rate for films submitted from around the world.) The quirkily named Leafy Seadragon block features short films that explore the idea of land and the injustice that often lives there. Highlights include "wilminGton: A Historic and Modern Account of Gentrification in Downtown Wilmington" from director Audrey Brooke Smith, and "Freedom Hill," about the North Carolina town of Princeville, the first in the United States chartered by Blacks, and the severe flooding that threatens it. Leafy Seadragon shorts also screen 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20, at Jengo's Playhouse.

'Conversations: The Red Orchid'

2 p.m. Nov. 17, Thalian Hall ballroom

New this year, Cucalorus is screening several short films as part of its Conversations series in which a single short, often challenging film is followed by an extended, 45-minute-or-so discussion. The idea, Brawley said, is that "when you watch a movie about something together first, it can make difficult topics easier to talk about."

In "The Red Orchid," director Montana Cypress follows a Native American tribe as they search for a rare, endangered orchid in the Everglades as part of an ancient, tribal tradition.

'Our Father, the Devil'

4 p.m. Nov. 17 at Jengo's Playhouse

One of the most highly touted films at this year's festival is this French feature from director Ellie Foumbi. The psychological thriller is about an African refugee in small-town France whose life is thrown into upheaval by the arrival of a charismatic priest she knows from her hometown. Also screens 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18, Thalian Hall main stage.


7:30 p.m. Nov. 17, Thalian Hall main stage

The Dance-a-Lorus performance blending dance and film is always a hot ticket at Wilmington's Cucalorus FIlm Festival.
The Dance-a-Lorus performance blending dance and film is always a hot ticket at Wilmington's Cucalorus FIlm Festival.

This long-running blend of dance and film, which pairs area choreographers with area filmmakers, is an annual festival highlight, not to mention a guaranteed high-energy, packed-house performance. Look for a preview feature soon at StarNewsOnline.com/entertainment.


9:30 p.m. Nov. 17 at Hi-Wire Brewing

Kind of like Dance-a-Lorus, this annual, immersive Cucalorus favorite features music videos projected in a variety of creative ways: multiple screens, multiple surfaces, etc. This year's Visual/Sound/Walls is heavy on hometown Wilmington musical talent in a variety of genres, from hip-hop (Sheme of Gold's "Stacy") and indie rock (Billy Heathen's "Mammoth," Pinky Verde's "Stick to You") to blues/rock/soul (Rebekah Todd's "Realign") and freak folk (Justin Lacy's "Sweet Mango, Short-Grain Rice").

More: Wilmington musicAfter stints in jail, Wilmington rapper Sheme of Gold turns to music 'as a way out'


Striped Pyjama Squid Shorts: Portraits

10:15 a.m., Thalian Hall main stage

Sculptor Karen Paden Crouch (left) and photographer Susan Francy at Art in Bloom gallery. [COURTESY OF AIB GALLERY]
Sculptor Karen Paden Crouch (left) and photographer Susan Francy at Art in Bloom gallery. [COURTESY OF AIB GALLERY]

Having attended every Cucalorus festival since No. 2 back in 1996, I've found that my favorite way to start a multi-event day is with a block of short films, saving the longer features for later. This shorts block is exactly what it sounds like: portraits of fascinating, colorful people. Highlights include "Karen Paden Crouch In The Land of Make Believe" from director Christina Capra, about a Wilmington artist's transformation from lawyer to metal sculptor, and "Danceable," about a trio of dancers with disabilities.


1:15 p.m. Nov. 18, Jengo's Playhouse

I love a good UFO movie, and this Korean feature from first time director Jude Chun absolutely fits the bill. It's about giant, spherical ships that suddenly appear in the sky above every major city in the world, and then ... do nothing. For 30 years, which is plenty of time for rumors and lore about the mysterious crafts, if that's what they are, to run wild.

'After Sherman'

4:15 p.m. Nov. 18, Thalian Hall black box

This documentary from Jon-Sesrie Goff started off being about the Gullah Geechee culture of coastal South Carolina. But when the massacre at Charleston's Mother Emanuel AME Church occurred in 2015, filmmakers found themselves going down a much more fraught path. Heavy, but vital.

'Dirt Trip'

8 p.m. Nov. 18, Thalian Hall ballroom

Wanna get weird? The performance artist and Cucalorus alumna Alex Tatarsky, who had a previous brush with fame after claiming to be the late comedian's Andy Kaufman's daughter as part of a stunt orchestrated with Kaufman's actual brother, brings her latest absurdist piece to Wilmington. It's a literal, and perhaps metaphorical, look at rot. Tatarsky has performed "Dirt Trip" at other festivals, and one review said it's "like a right-winger’s conception of what performance artists are doing in the big city" while also being fascinating, gross, funny and surprising: "Some things (she) did with shaving cream, red lipstick and a banana are carved into my memory forever."

'De Humani Corporis Fabrica'

10 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18, Thalian Hall black box

This documentary, part of Cucalorus' "Convulsions" series of horror films and other disturbing fare, comes with an actual warning label: "Distressing imagery, not for the faint of heart!" Basically, it's a no-holds-barred look at the human body and all of its disgusting glory. The camera does not look away, but you might.


Conversations: 'wilmingtoNColor'

11 a.m., Thalian Hall ballroom

Cedric Harrison, director of Wilmington's Port City United group that aims to combat community violence, screens his documentary about the history of the Black people in Wilmington. An in-depth discussion will follow.

'Mama Bears'

1:15 p.m. Nov. 19, Thalian Hall black box

Director Daresha Kyi's documentary takes a look at women, the so-called Mama Bears of the title, whose conservative Christian beliefs have been challenged, and sometimes changed, by their love for their LGBTQ children. The acclaimed doc has screened at festivals all over the world, including SXSW in Austin.

'Body Parts'

4 p.m. Nov. 19, Jengo's Playhouse

Documentary from director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan takes an in-depth look at the history of sex in cinema, except this time from a woman's perspective. Interviews with famous actresses (Jane Fonda, Rosanna Arquette and others) reveal uncomfortable truths about the reality behind iconic scenes while imagining a better way forward for the depiction of sex on screen.

'Darwin's Smile'

7:30 p.m. Nov. 19, Thalian Hall main stage

The premier event of this year's Cucalorus Film Festival features acclaimed actress Isabella Rossellini's first visit to Wilmington since she starred in David Lynch's 1986 masterpiece "Blue Velvet."

Getting Rossellini to the festival has been years in the making, said Cucalorus director Dan Brawley.

"We have reached out to her multiple times in the past," Brawley said, adding that he's talked to people who know the actress and "I think she's starting to get excited about coming back."

Rossellini, 70, is the daughter of the Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman and the Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini, and her one-woman show "Darwin's Smile" is part of Cucalorus' long-running "Bus to Lumberton" series of events, tours and performances inspired by or related to "Blue Velvet."

"Darwin's Smile" aims to exist at the nexus of science and art (Rossellini has a master's degree in animal behavior) and posits that we are perhaps most closely related to animals in the way we express emotions.

More: Wilmington arts'Blue Velvet' actress will return to Wilmington to perform one-woman show for Cucalorus

Acme Revue

10:45 p.m. Nov. 19, Jengo's Playhouse

Wilmington comic Julia Desmond, brainchild behind the the Acme Revue variety show, held monthly at the Opera Room in downtown Wilmington.
Wilmington comic Julia Desmond, brainchild behind the the Acme Revue variety show, held monthly at the Opera Room in downtown Wilmington.

Former Wilmington comedian and artist Julia Desmond, who moved to New York City earlier this year, makes her triumphant return to the Port City with another installation of her Acme Revue variety show, this one curated especially for Cucalorus.

"This is the coolest thing that could possibly happen," Desmond said. "Cucalorus has been part of my life since I moved to Wilmington" late last decade, eventually graduating from UNCW's film studies program earlier this year.

Desmond made her mark on Wilmington through her comedy − a self-and-others-effacing mix of observational stories and absurdist asides − and also by starting the Acme Revue at downtown dive The Opera Room, a show that paired stand-up comedy with musical performances and featured an associated art show.

Acme Revue, Jengo's edition, will feature comics from across the state, including Triangle stand-ups Julie Mitchell and Mike Mello and Wilmington's own Drew Harrison. Music will be from the seldom-seen-live outfit Western Media, the solo project of Wilmington's Max Agee. A pop-up art gallery will be on site as well.

"I'm really excited to be in a new space," Desmond said. "There's so much creative energy in (Jengo's) already."

Desmond will also be making some hand-crafted, Cucalorus-centric merch, including DIY, punk-rock-inspired clothing.

More: Wilmington artsLove and laughs: With Acme Revue, Wilmington comic Julia Desmond unites creative community


Sarcastic Fringehead Shorts: Comedy

10:30 a.m. at Jengo's Playhouse

Start your Sunday morning, the final one of the festival, with a laugh. These comedic short films include strong work by Wilmington filmmakers, including "Plantastic!" from director Emily Gold, which stars Wilmington comic Daisy Faith and asks (and answers) the question, "What if plants could talk?" Also screens 3:45 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18, Thalian Hall main stage.

'The Pez Outlaw'

1:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 2, Thalian Hall main stage

One of the few features to get two screenings at Cucalorus this year, this documentary tells the unlikely true tale of a man who got rich smuggling and selling the rarest and most valuable Pez dispensers of all time. Then, another man who calls himself "The Pezident" set out to destroy him. Tasty stuff.

Also screens 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 16, Thalian Hall black box.

'Relict: A Phantasmagoria (2020/2022)'

4:45 p.m. Nov. 20, Thalian Hall ballroom

Another one-of-a-kind, fringe-fest-style performance you won't see anywhere besides Cucalorus, this so-called "experimental documentary" includes antique lanterns, hand-drawn animation and challenges to both your beliefs and your perceptions. Must be seen to be believed, and even then ...

'Rise and Rebuild: A Tale of Three Cities'

7 p.m., Thalian Hall main stage

This crucial documentary from directors Asako Gladsjo and Sam Pollard looks at how prosperous Black communities, so-called "Black Wall Streets," were destroyed in three cities: Chicago, Atlanta and Wilmington. The film features Black-owned Wilmington start-up incubator Genesis Block and Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo.

Secret screening

9:45 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20, Thalian Hall black box

Cucalorus 2022 will come to a mysterious close with an undisclosed film. It's under the Convulsions banner, so you know it'll be dark.

Contact John Staton at 910-343-2343 or John.Staton@StarNewsOnline.com.


What: 28th annual Cucalorus Film Festival

When: Nov. 16-20

Where: Primary venues are Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St. (main stage, black box and ballroom); Jengo's Playhouse, 815 Princess St.; and Hi-Wire Brewing, 1020 Princess St.

Info: Individual events start at $15. Festival passes are also available.

Details: 910-343-5995 or Cucalorus.org.

This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: What to see at the 28th Cucalorus Film Festival 2022 in Wilmington NC