Fetzer brings festival in a bag

By Kyle Stegerwald, Asst. Red Pulse Editor

The key moment for filmmaker, songwriter and festival organizer Brian Fetzer came when he was invited back to his alma mater, East High School, to entertain a gymnasium packed with teenagers.

Playing schools is nothing new to Fetzer. During the past 40 years of his singing, filmmaking and storytelling career, he’s heavily toured the elementary school circuit (along with the prison circuit, college circuit and retirement home circuit). His challenge wasn’t coming up with new material, it was communication. Would these teenagers8212;usually stereotyped as apathetic and disdainful of their parents’ tastes8212;respond well to Fetzer, who at the time was in his 50s?

The answer was yes. They cheered his short acoustic set wildly. After he discovered that “a song that is just one guy standing on the stage with a guitar, could impress 2,000 high school students,” he said he knew he had something, and all of his toil was not in vain.

Not that Fetzer has sought the limelight, or even success. The East High School performance is just one recent example of hundreds he’s given over the course of his dynamic career, many of them to audiences he described as “sparse.” His attitude toward thin audiences and lack of public support is to take it in stride.

“Anything that was different had a hard time of getting an audience,” he said. “If hundreds of people had showed up, I might have wondered what I was doing wrong.”

Still, an audience did eventually develop. His films have been shown on projectors in classrooms, on public television and at the megaplex.

“It’s been far from easy,” he told me while we sat in the front row of the Post Theater, with posters for the various films he will be showing this weekend spread out in front of us. The films are largely self-directed and self-financed. One of them, “Ghostly Guardians,” is a paranormal documentary dealing with the ghosts and spirits that, according to legend, haunt the Fort Douglas grounds. Another is “The Music of Mathematics,” which explores the connections between numbers and music, set to a soundtrack derived from important numbers (pi, for example) and mathematical formulas.

These films, along with storytelling classes, short films and live acting, make up the Salt Lake City Freedom Film and Storytelling Festival, which takes place Saturday as well as Nov. 1 at the Post Theater at Fort Douglas.

The festival’s unconventional mix of content is a product of Fetzer’s equally unconventional approach to his art. Like many directors operating outside the movie industry’s corporate structure, Fetzer draws sharp lines between his approach to film and the Hollywood approach. His festival and the films shown in it celebrate what he terms “the nobility in liberty,” liberty, in this case, being the opportunity to discover great ideas and bring them to a wide audience, instead of peddling smut and violence.

Another point of the festival is to bring back or highlight films that either didn’t receive their due at the theaters or are classics still worth seeing from long ago. Short films from other directors whose work Fetzer enjoys and “Errand of Angels,” which appeared in theaters earlier this year, will all be shown in addition to Fetzer’s own work.

He’s also interested in bringing children and families back to the theater for storytelling and motion pictures. Fetzer’s long history of dealing with kids8212;either teaching them mathematics or entertaining them with songs and films8212;has led him to a few conclusions about the treatment they are receiving from Hollywood.

“They have insulted the intelligence of children,” he said. “Children don’t need contrived plots and a lot of mind-numbing quick-shifting.”
Fetzer said that a critic, after seeing one of his films, remarked that “(Fetzer) was not willing to concede to the attention deficit of the modern child.”

The deficit, in Fetzer’s mind, doesn’t even exist as long as what’s on screen is compelling. “Even though we’re family-friendly, we’re trying to be erudite,” he said of his films and the overall effort involved in the festival.

His ideas and ambitions are lofty, especially considering the humble nature of the festival itself, which Fetzer brags he can fit into a single briefcase. The way he gets his films across to his public is based on the idea that his audience might have been turned off from the idea of film by Hollywood’s choice to alienate them.

His solution is simple: “If the public isn’t coming here, I’m going to the public.”

This weekend and next, however, he’s asking the public to come to him. You can oblige by heading up to Fort Douglas this Saturday or the next. General admission to any of the morning, afternoon or evening sessions is $5 ($2 for children). A full schedule and additional information is available by calling 801-532-2766.

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