Next Wednesday night, two things are combining in the theater of the Washington State History Museum: the Seattle True Independent Film Festival is making a debut appearance in Tacoma, and T-town filmmaker Mick Flaaen is seeing the final-cut screening of his fascinating 2012 documentary “A Funeral Dance,” capturing the backstage drama at MLK Ballet’s Moving Company as they prepare a new show.
For both festival and filmmaker, it’s a big deal.
“Any time you get into a festival, it’s a big deal,” says Flaaen, who caught STIFF’s attention last year with his short film “Paint” about Tacoma’s graffiti murals. “It’s so competitive now because of digital film. Festivals used to get around a thousand entries; now they’re getting three times that. Sundance got 11,000 entries last year.”
But Flaan is proving he’s got competitive chops.
The 50-year-old Tacoman was making 8mm films as a kid and studied acting in Europe’s Lee Strasberg Institute, but then drove trucks for a living, only recently appearing in local theater and studying filmmaking at the University of Washington, Tacoma. “Paint” screened at the 2011 Tacoma Film Festival and again last year at STIFF. Flaaen also made a movie about the Lakewood Playhouse that got played in local theaters.
“A Funeral Dance” is Flaaen’s first feature film (watch the trailer here), and it’s (mostly) a gripping watch. Spanning two months of rehearsal as the Moving Company, the former professional company of Tacoma’s MLK Ballet tuition-free dance school, prepared a new work “Funeral” for the 2011 Fall Free for All festival. Flaaen began the project after his producer Kim Whelan introduced him to company director Kate Monthy at a Jazzbones show.
“I didn’t know anything about dance, but that’s like the graffiti story, it works well because I’m finding things out at the same time as the audience,” says Flaaen.
The most fascinating thing that Flaaen finds out, though, is that – spoiler alert – things are falling apart between Monthy and her company while he films, turning the movie into a funeral for the company itself. For the first half, everyone’s on their best behavior, extremely self-conscious in the way only dancers can be, as Flaaen alternates between head-shots of Monthy explaining the background and process, and rehearsal shots. The cuts could be smoother, but Flaaen gets tight, expressively angled dance shots that shine a light on what most people never know – exactly how new choreography gets created and learned by heart. He also delves into just why dancers dance, and the unlikely day jobs they need to support it, all to an ominous-sounding score by Tacoman Justin Tamminga (and credits to Mozart also).
Then things start to change. Unbeknownst to Flaaen, Monthy was at the time rehearsing a difficult piece about domestic violence with Seattle’s Spectrum Theater (with whom she now dances full-time). She’d arrive back each night in Tacoma wiped out, and meanwhile the dancers themselves were jostling with those twin dance demons: self-esteem and hierarchy.
In unguarded moments Flaaen’s camera catches exhaustion, frustration, despair, vulnerability and honesty as the dancers work through not only the piece’s deep grief, but their own relationship with dance and each other. Monty juggles being a director and a friend; the conflict between professional (do it unquestioningly and get paid) and amateur (do it only because you like it) bubbles like a volcano. This is – surprise, surprise – a dance movie with an actual plot, and it keeps you glued like a soap opera.
The last half gets a little touchy-feely, and could have been edited more tightly. But in the end, as “Funeral” goes onstage in a passionate performance and Monthy wonders when to tell the other women she’s leaving, “A Funeral Dance” is exactly the kind of good, independent, local film that make festivals worthwhile.
And this time around, Monthy will be at the screening herself, unlike the rougher-cut premiere at TFF: Next Wednesday she, Flaaen and most of the cast will give a Q-&-A session after the screening.
“They’re very excited about it,” Flaaen says.
The other part to the evening is that it marks the first time STIFF has shown outside Seattle in its eight-year-history.
“For the last six years we’d gotten a lot of Tacoma-made films,” says festival director Tim Vermor. “Then last year I met Mick. When I saw his film made about a Tacoma dance company, it made sense to show it in Tacoma. We have a lot of support down there.”
If there’s enough support, Vermor says, the festival will make the T-town screening a regular gig.
Meanwhile Flaaen is dedicating this year to promoting “A Funeral Dance,” submitting to festivals and with several digital distributors already interested. He’s also just begun a feature film “Hearts and Fists,” about two Tacoma brothers, a riff on a 1926 Tacoma film of the same name.
The STIFF show also includes a screening of “Look Up in the Sky,” a suspense short by Arthur Rains-McNally about a murder on Mt. Rainier. An after-party at the Harmon Brewery (1938 Pacific Ave.) follows the Q-&-A.