WILMINGTON – In 2019, Cucalorus returns to downtown Wilmington, Nov. 13-17, for its 25th anniversary run, with expanded offerings on stage, screen and technology. “It all began in 1994 with a single film projector sitting on a table in a restaurant,” Dan Brawley, current director and self-described “Chief Instigating Officer” of the festival, recalls.

Brawley came on the scene around the time of the third Cucalorus as a volunteer and swiftly found himself heading the fledgling film festival, a position he’s held for 20 years. Backed by his enthusiasm, Cucalorus grew into a five-day event, with entries from around the world. Named one of “50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee” and “One of the Coolest Film Festivals in the World” by MovieMaker Magazine, the Wilmington event became known for its filmmaker-friendly vibe and legendary parties.

Dan Brawley, executive director of the Cucalorus Festival for the past 20 years. All photos by Renee Wright. copyright Capitol Broadcasting A.R.R.

“The liquor companies love us,” Brawley admits.

In 2018, Cucalorus attracted more than 2,000 film entries from 84 countries, and counted an attendance of over 22,000. By then, the festival had expanded beyond films, to include stage presentations and a tech conference.

A couple of years ago, Brawley announced that the name of the festival would officially change from the Cucalorus Film Festival to the more inclusive Cucalorus Festival, comprised of three branches. The film festival remains, joined by Cucalorus Stage and Cucalorus Connect, a conference that, Brawley says, exists “at the intersection of the technology and creativity that is shaping our region.”

An Incubator of Creative Ideas

The expanded Cucalorus, Brawley says, takes the energy and passion of the film festival as a base. “Cucalorus is an incubator for creative ideas,” he says. “Some of the most brilliantly creative humans on the planet come together for five days to share stories, connect with others and talk about the future.

“You never know when a spark will light up. Dance-a-lorus is a great example. These dancers collaborate with filmmakers and you just never know what will happen, where the flame will spread.”

Dance-a-lorus is the foundation of the Cucalorus Stage programming, which explores the boundaries between music, theatre, dance, comedy, art installation, and film, in a mashup of different performances, Nov. 13-15. “It’s like our mini-Fringe festival,” Brawley says. “Three days full of juicy stuff.”

A couple of highlights:

OK Gurgle, an evening-length mixed media performance that explores what’s funny and what’s scary about our deep relationships with electronic devices. (Fri., 11/15)

It Is Time, a multiscreen program of clips and short films curated by Durham filmmaker and historian Tim Whiteside, founder of the Durham Cinematheque, that examines how film makes creative use of time. (Thur. 11/14)

reVERSE-gesture-reVIEWed, a commentary on Kara Walker’s “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War” series using shadowplay, dance, and image subtraction technology. (Thur. 11/14)

Also on stage: Comedians Shirley Gnome and Ben Gleib, a Latin Soul concert by the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra, an explanation of String Theory told through mime, and more.

A cucalorus casts shadows in downtown Wilmington.  Photo by R. Wright.

Breaking Paradigms

From the start, Cucalorus has been a bit outside the film festival mainstream. For one thing, there are no awards, no audience voting, no juried prizes.

“No carrots,” Brawley says. “Not having awards slowed our development down a bit in the early years, but it turned out to be the right decision. After 25 years, a sort of mythology has grown up around Cucalorus. Sort of like Sundance and Burning Man had a baby and moved to the beach.”

Adding a technology conference to the film festival mix in 2015 was another Cucalorus innovation but is actually a good fit, since the festival is named for a technical device. Unfamiliar to most, outside of photographers and film buffs, “cucalorus” is derived from a Greek word meaning “a dance with shadows.” Used by lighting technicians in theater and film, as well as still photographers, a cucalorus filter has cutouts of various shapes that, when placed in front of a light source, throw shadows or silhouettes.

The device was used by early film directors such as Joseph Von Sternberg to cast just the right shadows on close ups of actresses such as Marlene Dietrich.

Cucalorus now includes Film, Stage and Connect components. Official logo, Cucalorus Festival.

Celebrating 25 Years

According to Dan Brawley, 2019 is a year of definition for Cucalorus. “We getting back to our heartbeat,” he says. “We’ve always been fiercely supportive of filmmakers, but this year we want to have something for everyone. We have a powerful feature film lineup, some fun dark comedies, and a huge number of short films – more than 150 films organized into thematic blocks named after hairstyles like Pigtail, Beehive, and Bouffant.”

Another innovation this year will make it easier for audience members to catch the films that interest them most. Most programs will screen twice, making scheduling easier.

Cucalorus is adding a brand new/old venue this year as well. Most of the Connect conference sessions and many of the Cucalorus Stage performances will take place in the newly renovated Brooklyn Arts Center and Annex.

One of the films Brawley says he is most honored to screen this year is Jackie Olive’s documentary Always in Season, winner of the Special Jury Prize for Moral Urgency at this year’s Sundance. Cucalorus has a special link to the film: Olive worked on the project during a Cucalorus residency in 2015. Jackie Olive will lead a discussion after the Saturday screening of the film, besides participating in a Connect workshop on Friday afternoon, titled “Reparations and Reconciliation in the US South.”

“I’m so personally touched by Jackie’s telling of a story that most people just don’t want to hear,” Brawley says. “But it’s so important to document our history.”

Cucalorus is committed to having half of the films it screens made by women filmmakers.

“One of the fun things we’re doing as part of the 25th anniversary celebration will be showing some of the Cucalorus TV commercials from over the years before each film screening,” Brawley says. “There are some really fun ones, including a spoof on the pharmaceutical industry – very topical right now.”

Tickets and passes to Cucalorus are on sale now at the online box office: cucalorus.org/boxoffice. For general information visit cucalorus.org or follow on social channels @cucalorus or using hashtags: #cucalorus #cuc25 #cucalorus25.