Life is great—Super Gr8, even. This month, Court Square Theatre will host the sixth annual Super Gr8 Film Festival, featuring two nights of silent films that are all exactly three minutes and twenty seconds long. That run time is imposed by the amount of footage that can be captured on a single reel of Super 8 film. “So far, we’ve had 205 films made in one town, in one place,” said festival co-founder Tim Estep, an achievement that puts Harrisonburg’s films produced per capita ranking through the roof. But perhaps the most unusual aspect of requiring entrants to make their submissions using Super 8 equipment is that every edit must be made in-camera and there are no do-overs. In fact, when these films are screened, it’s not only the audience that will be seeing them for the first time, but the filmmakers themselves.
The idea for Super Gr8 was born out of an exercise Estep went through during film school at Maine Media College. He was learning about the Lumière brothers and the dawn of film—a time when stories were told in a single shot. One class assignment had the students make their own short films using that same approach without editing or sync points. “It was one of the most exciting things we did in film school because you just had no idea,” said Estep. “You’re there to learn filmmaking, and you have this feeling of being in front of all these people and having no idea how it turned out.”
Estep later moved to Harrisonburg to continue filmmaking and brought up the idea of hosting a Super 8 festival with Paul Somers. The draw of a such an event, and the challenge of filming a movie without being able to see it before it debuts, is that it levels the playing field for amateurs and professionals alike. “You can have a film festival with people who haven’t shot anything before,” said Estep. “And there’s no other medium that looks like it, it has a dreamlike quality. To this day, some of the most beautiful images are from people who have never made a film before. Even if Spielberg was doing this, his film would look a lot like everybody else’s film.”
Finding participants for that first festival took some doing. After all, not many people are comfortable with the idea of showing off their work before they have a chance to review it themselves. Only 17 filmmakers signed up and the films were done exclusively in black and white, but Court Square Theatre still sold out. The following year, Estep and Somers decided to expand the festival to two nights, one for black and white and a second for color. Filmmaker participation swelled. There are awards for Best Director, Actor, and Film, but all are decided through audience voting. “It feels like an Oscars experience,” said Somers. “You’re sitting in the audience and you’re watching all these films, and all the people involved are in the audience with you. There’s an awards ceremony, an after party—it’s like this weird alternate universe if the Oscars were culturally legitimate.”
Brent Finnegan, a professional filmmaker who has participated in Super Gr8 since its onset, agrees, “It’s like a delayed live performance because you’re shooting it and there might be mistakes in there you don’t even know about until it’s on the screen.” His film, Drew, won the Audience Choice award in 2011, but he was still nervous about its debut. “There’s an energy to that that’s hard to put in words, but you feel it in the theatre with everyone biting their nails waiting for their film to be shown. In some ways it’s kind of scary, in other ways it’s liberating because you realize no one has had a chance to edit their film.”
Despite the excitement around the festival, the fact remains that Super 8 is a dying medium, and films that have been produced on it in the past are at risk of physical decay. “We’re on the cusp of losing a lot of history,” said Estep. “Unless we get this stuff archived and digitized, we’re going to lose it forever. If we wait another ten or twenty years, it’s going to be gone.” For that reason, the pair decided to work with Pro8MM in Burbank, California for their processing needs. “I think Super 8 is around because of them,” said Estep. “Without them saying, ‘We’re going to preserve this,’ I have no idea if Super 8 would still be around.”
To counter the medium’s decline, Estep and Somers are putting out the call to other Virginian film makers and event organizers, hoping they can help orchestrate similar festivals in towns across the state. “We can’t just go into Richmond and say ‘Hey, we’re doing this,’” said Estep. “We need somebody on the street level who has the pulse on the art community. I think it would do awesome in Richmond, Charlottesville, Roanoke, Lexington, Staunton. We will supply you with all the things you need to do this.” That supply includes the stock of forty Super 8 cameras they own as well as the crash course training they give to all festival participants.
Until the big night arrives, the duo will be concentrating on creating their own films for this year’s event as well as helping new filmmakers manage their anxiety and produce their own movie, frame by frame. “Being a part of this journey with them, they have to let go on not being experts on the cameras, not being experts on film, not being able to control the audio, not being able to see the film before its shot,” said Somers. “It initiates this level of acceptance. It’s like an annual community baptism.”
The sixth annual Super Gr8 Film Festival will be held at Court Square Theatre on November 18-19. For full schedule and advance tickets, visit supergr8.com.