Cucalorus Festival is more than just movies

 By Bradley Bethel

December 15, 2017

After 23 years, the Wilmington-based festival no longer considers itself exclusively a film festival. Officially, they dropped Film from the festival’s name, making it just the Cucalorus Festival. Having immersed myself in the festival’s concoction of film, music, networking and, of course, parties for four days last month, I have to agree with the name change. Cucalorus is more than movies.

Music pulsed, lights flashed, kaleidoscopic images paraded along the stage walls. While most of the crowd bounced and convulsed across the dance floor, a few remained stationary, transfixed by the spectacular music and video display before them. Even those who were dancing with the most vigor had to stop occasionally to gaze in wonder at the display. This was DJs & VJs BFs 4EVs. This was Cucalorus.

DJs & VJs, from

On my first night at the festival, I didn’t even attend a screening. I found my way to The Whiskey, an unpretentious downtown bar with a small stage and an intimate standing area that feels as though it should be filled with smoke. There, TJ Kong and the Atomic Bomb arrived from Philadelphia with their bluesy, alt-country garage rock and exploded onto the scene. Salute Magazine named the band’s latest record the #1 album you might have missed in 2017, but that night Kong and the band made sure they were noticed.

Not until after I got my rock-and-roll fix at The Whiskey did I venture over to the DJs & VJs show, where the music and video display was, as described above, a stimulating display of kinetic art. As the DJ spun the music, the VJ projected a continuous sequence of video footage that was captivating and yet left only impressions of shapes and colors. The multisensory display was itself a surreal, visceral form of cinema, a quintessential exhibit of Cucalorus’s style.

Filmmaker Q&A following Working in Protest

The following morning I attended my first screening, an arresting documentary titled Working in Protest. Shot over the course of 30 years, the film captures more than a dozen demonstrations of social activism across North Carolina and New York, from a KKK march in Chapel Hill to Occupy Wall Street in Manhattan to a Trump rally in Fayetteville. Unlike many documentaries, Working doesn’t include any formal interviews. Rather, the film immerses the viewer in each event, making the fervor of the participants palpable. Although the film has no obvious through line connecting the various events, the documentary vignettes of Working in Protest collectively offer poignant insight into the passions that have created and now define the current political climate.

Later that day I saw the film that was almost this year’s Moonlight. After its Sundance premiere in January, Dayveon received mostly positive reviews, but its theatrical release in September was limited to a handful of theaters. The film’s title character is a 13-year-old African-American boy who faces the difficult enough challenges of adolescence with the added hardships of rural poverty, family loss, and gang affiliation. Set in small-town Arkansas, the film is a welcome addition to the standard, urban-centered portrayals of African-American characters in pop culture. With attentive cinematography and meditative pacing, Dayveon possesses an aesthetic of intimacy and introspection. Although the film hasn’t attracted the same attention that Moonlight did last year, Dayveon deserves to be seen just as much.

After two serious films, I was ready for something more jovial. The Cucalorus Oyster Party was exactly that. Joining a couple hundred other festival goers at the swanky Bellamy Mansion downtown, I got to dine on freshly shucked oysters and sip fine beverages while sharing film critiques. It’s not every day that a lowly web writer like me gets to feast like an aristocrat, but Cucalorus knows how to make its guests feel like VIPs.

Cucalorus is a non-competitive festival, and so there are no awards to announce. But if there were, Dr. Brinks and Dr. Brinks, which I saw the next day, would surely have won one. As both a comedy and an existential reflection on sibling dynamics, Dr. Brinks tells the story of a brother and sister reuniting after their parents’ unexpected death. The two adult children had expected an uneventful inheritance process, but their parents’ financial past presents more troubles than rewards. At the same time, the sister develops a romantic relationship that creates further drama for both her and her brother. Dr. Brinks and Dr. Brinks is a comedy that is as thoughtful as it is funny.

The last party I attended was an an all-night bash at the Jengo’s Playhouse creative compound, Cucalorus’s year-round arts complex that includes a community cinema, three residency buildings for live-in artists, and a large backyard for lighting bonfires. The party itself became an artistic statement, an expression of Cucalorus’s distinctively wacky style, as costumed performers routinely inserted themselves into conversations to collect willing partygoers for theatrical games. I’ve been to dozens of film festivals, but none besides Cucalorus have included participating in late-night performance art and drinking around a bonfire at 3 a.m.

Party at Jengo’s Playhouse. Courtesy of

On the final day of the festival, the film that left the biggest impression on me was a short comedy titled “The Poet and the Professor.” In it, writer/director/star Ariel Kavoussi plays a quirky novelist bouncing between affairs with an erratic cinematographer and a forlorn professor. Kavoussi succeeds brilliantly at creating an endearing character who leaves the viewer wanting more. And we may in fact get more of her. At the party the night before, Kavoussi hinted that she hopes to adapt the film into a feature. If she does, I’ll be among the first to buy a ticket.

My only regret from Cucalorus is that I didn’t attend any of the panel discussions or presentations that were part of Cucalorus Connect, the festival’s innovation conference. What has propelled Cucalorus’s evolution into something bigger than a film festival is a vision for exploring the relationships between art, commerce, and technology. Connect is a clear manifestation of that vision, as demonstrated by “Gangs, Entrepreneurship, and Beer,” one of the presentations that caught my eye too late for me to attend. At Cucalorus, there’s too much for one to attend all of it, but that’s the kind of problem one would like to have at a festival.

Filmmakers’ lounge. Courtesy of

In an era when many people choose Netflix over the cinema, theaters could learn something from Cucalorus. Imagine if theaters were not merely auditoriums for the passive consumption of entertainment but were instead playhouses for active celebrations of creativity. If theaters could indeed become even just a little like Cucalorus, more people would have reason to return to the big screen.

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