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100 Words Film Fest Winners Talk Old, New Entries

by Nicole Fisher

October 30, 2015

Photos: (top) On the set of David Johnson's Beyond the Skyline, 2014's documentary winner; (middle) fiilmmaker Cecil Stokes, whose Hey Jason won 2014's dramatic category; (bottom) Johnson on location for Silent Images.


For Charlotte filmmaker Cecil Stokes, cinematic inspiration struck when he heard the story of how his friend adopted her first child.

"I told her, 'I want this to be my 100 words,'" Stokes says. "She knew exactly what I meant."

Stokes and his friend were discussing his entry into the 2014 100 Words Film Festival; the brainchild of independent filmmaker and founder of Charlotte-based Susie Films, Scott Galloway. Conceived as a means to encourage filmmakers to sharpen their storytelling skills, the festival limits dialog and narration to 100 words. A lower-third screen counter fosters audience buy-in by displaying the number of words remaining as each entry unspools.

The festival was such a hit in its first year that this year’s festival—whose screenings take place Friday and Saturday, Nov. 6-7, at 8 p.m. at Spirit Square’s McGlohon Theatre—has seen the entries more than double to almost 100. In addition to an extra night of screenings, Saturday’s schedule also features a 3-5 p.m. seminar (also at McGlohon) featuring Shadow Distribution President Ken Eisen, actress/filmmaker Karen Young, and award-winning documentary filmmaker Andy Abrahams Wilson. Additionally, Charlotte Viewpoint will host a cocktail hour on Saturday (5-6 p.m.) at the Dunhill Hotel and introduce its next Conversation Series with a free Distinguished Guests Meet & Greet featuring festival filmmakers, producers, and directors (6:15-7 p.m.). That event (RSVP here) will include filmmakers from Italy and Turkey, yet another sign that the 100 Words Film Festival has grown not only in prestige, but in scope, as hopefuls from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Switzerland, Turkey, United Arab Emirates joined American would-be entries from coast to coast.

Memories and Marshmallows

With his short, Hey Jason, Stokes took home first prize in the dramatic category at last year's festival, also hosted at the McGlohon Theater.  In Stokes’ film, a young man plays a voice mail from his mother on his phone as he travels to meet her. The journey takes a few twists on its way to an unexpected conclusion, including a stopover at a grocery store for a bag of marshmallows.

Why marshmallows? "I remember we couldn't find my 3-year-old goddaughter," Stokes says. "We looked everywhere until finally we opened the pantry door. There she was, stuffing her face with marshmallows."

Stokes likes to "plant little truths and memories"—like his goddaughter's marshmallow feast—into his projects because they "resonate with the viewer." It's one of many lessons he learned over the course of a 22-year career in which he wrote and produced "about 513 television shows, over 400 of which have been in the documentary realm." Hey Jason is only his second dramatic piece, after the faith-based feature October Baby, a top 10 theatrical release the week it opened opposite The Hunger Games in 2011. "No other movie had the business savvy, or was dumb enough, to go up against The Hunger Games," says Stokes, laughing. "When there are only three or four movies opening, you're going to make top 10."

Stokes already had a working relationship with the 100 Words Festival founder prior to last year. "Scott Galloway gave me my first real job in television," says Stokes. After working for the Home Shopping Network, Stokes interviewed with Galloway for the Scripps Network in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1993. "He said they didn't have anything, but to call him back in two weeks," Stokes says. "I was young enough to think he meant it, so I called him every two weeks for nine months" until he got a job. Laughing, Stokes says he won over his future friend-and-employer with his single-minded tenacity.

A Raw Look at the City

A similar sense of purpose motivates filmmaker David Johnson, the 2014 festival winner in the documentary category. Produced by Silent Images, Johnson's company that produces videos for non-profit companies, Beyond the Skyline looks past Charlotte's shining towers to examine issues plaguing the Queen City.

Before Johnson launched his company, which is committed to helping charities tell their stories, he was a tennis coach and middle school English teacher.

"It was not an easy decision," Johnson says of walking away from a good-paying, comfortable job. "I loved teaching and coaching." After spending his summers working for charities, he began to see there was a “huge void in visual storytelling for nonprofits." In 2006, Johnson flew to Darfur, to document the genocide raging in southern Sudan. On that assignment, he formed the idea for Silent Images. "I decided a formal organization was needed that did this work full time. I traded in my tennis racket for a camera, and I haven't looked back since."

Initially, the company was just Johnson and volunteers—photographers and videographers inspired to use their cameras to tell untold stories in the midst of injustice. Since 2006, Silent Images has served over 400 charities, and they currently boast a full-time staff of six, plus a pool of contractors they hire for special projects.

One such project was Beyond the Skyline, an undertaking that initially was "outside our wheelhouse," says Johnson. When Galloway first approached Johnson in 2014 about a 100 Words Film Festival entry, he initially demurred because "we'd never been in a festival before because it's not really our goal. We never wanted to go to Sundance." Johnson agreed to participate if he could make something "that serves non-profits and challenges the city to consider their needs."

The resulting short film opens on a silhouette we seldom see: Under a blood red sun, the skyline looms above a gritty rail yard. It's the back door to Charlotte known best to the city's underprivileged. Beyond the Skyline presents short segments documenting homelessness, the plight of refugees, the cancer of human trafficking, and the needs of those with disabilities. Johnson says these four topics are among Charlotte's most pressing issues, and "the most often misunderstood." Each is "something people miss because they're not paying attention."

From shoots in 10 countries, one solid month of work and over 20 hours of film, Johnson and his crew assembled their 4-minute short, an audience and critical favorite at the McGlohon last year. Silent Images donated their $1,500 winnings to the four charities featured in the film—Love INC (people with disabilities); All We Want Is Love (human trafficking), A Child’s Place (homeless children), and Catholic Charities (refugees). For their entry in this year's 100 Words Film Festival, Aspire, Silent Images is partnering with United Way.

Sending a Message

"I love my city, but I have to realize that it's broken in some areas," says Johnson of Beyond the Skyline's message. "I want people to say they'll be part of the solution," because "the richest part of the city is not the buildings. It's the people."

Similarly, Stokes feels the takeaway from his winning 2014 entry revolves around our shared humanity, though Hey Jason's focus is more intimate. "The night I spoke after we won, I told people to call someone they loved.”

That message is enhanced in Stokes' festival entry this year, Chosen. Returning to his documentary roots, he's telling the story of his friend and her adopted daughter. It's a subject that resonates with Stokes because he has also become a parent, recently adopting an 8-year-old boy.

"My feelings are even more defined this year," says Stokes. "Parents call your children. Children call your parents. Don't let tomorrow come without telling them that you love them."

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Tags: Susie Films, film festival, short films, Scott Galloway, Silent Images, Love INC, All We Want Is Love, A Child’s Place, Catholic Charities

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