WILMINGTON – Stretching across five days – and nights – November 13-17, the 25th annual Cucalorus Festival brings a variety of entertainment to downtown Wilmington. This year’s motto is “something for everyone” and, with nearly 200 films, stage performances, and conferences, the schedule bears this out.

Cucalorus 2019 tackles issues that range from the black experience, the immigrant experience, gender identity, incarcerated women, and mental illness, to the plight of animals nearing extinction. Dance fans, scifi enthusiasts, and those who love a good laugh will all find plenty to enjoy as well.

According to festival executive director Dan Brawley, the 31 feature films and documentaries and 150 short films come from across the nation, and from 20 different countries, including Scotland, Canada, India and Brazil. They include numerous award-winners and buzz-worthy performances.

Best of the Fest: Award-winners and Hot Topics

Perhaps most eagerly awaited film at Cucalorus is Jackie Olive’s documentary Always in Season, which won the Special Jury Prize for Moral Urgency at this year’s Sundance. The documentary, set in rural North Carolina, examines the difficult subject of a lynching that took place in 2014. Cucalorus has a special link to the film: Olive worked on the project during a Cucalorus residency in 2015 and currently serves on the festival’s board of directors. 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.”

Documentary “Always In Season” won the award for Moral Urgency at Sundance.

Another North Carolina based project with a special connection to Wilmington is What The River Knows: From Screenplay to Silver Screen, a presentation that is part of the Cucalorus Stage program. Funded in part by a Filmed in NC Grant, the story, now progressing toward film, is inspired by the massacre that took place in Wilmington during the white supremacist coup in 1898.

Locally produced film, Lumberton, included in the Ponyhawk Shorts program, explores the experience of Lumberton residents who survived the catastrophic flooding from hurricanes Matthew and Florence in consecutive years.

Several films explore the black experience as lived today by Americans in cities across the country.

  • The Home Team examines the plight of the neighborhood that surrounds Atlanta’s multi-million dollar Mercedes-Benz NFL complex.
  • 17 Blocks includes footage that stretches across 20 years and four generations of the Sanford family living 17 blocks behind the U.S. Capitol building in one of the country’s most dangerous neighborhoods.
  • The House I Never Knew is a six-part documentary series set in Chicago, Houston and Boston that looks at the effects of housing segregation.
  • COOKED: Survival by Zip Code, from Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Judith Helfand, focuses on the heat disaster that took place in Chicago in 1995, when 739 residents – mostly elderly and black – died in a single week, and its links to disaster preparedness, one of the country’s biggest growth industries.

The Cucalorus lineup also includes a documentary that is one of the biggest award-winners of 2019. Kifaru documents the final days of the last male white rhino and the dedication of his caregivers. If you missed this powerful film at Full Frame and Riverrun, both among the many festivals that presented this film with the Audience Favorite award, see it now.

Animal conservationists will also be interested in the short film Being With Elephants, a documentary that follows a group of Maasai rangers as they educate their community about the importance of elephants and in methods to coexist on the land. It screens as part of the Cornrow Shorts: Doc 1 block on Friday at Thalian Main and Sunday at Jengo’s Playhouse.

Pariah Dog, a feature-length documentary from filmmaker Jesse Alk, tells the story of the street dogs of Kolkata, India and the dog-lovers who care for them. The film received the Best Feature award at the Big Sky Documentary Festival.

Other award-winners at Cucalorus:

  • Once Upon a River, the feature film debut from singer/songwriter Haroula Rose based on the best-selling novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell, won the Stubbornly Independent Award at the Tallgrass Film Festival and Best Actress and Best Narrative Feature at the Gallup Film Festival, for its depiction of a Native American woman who sets out on the Stark River in search of her mother.
  • Dom, winner of Best Narrative Short at Sidewalk Film Fest, will screen in the High & Tight Shorts: Excellent Block.
  • Finding Elijah, a work-in-progress that received the Favorite Documentary Short audience award at Philadelphia’s BlackStar Film Festival, tells of a young man’s descent to madness and suicide from the perspective of his mother, the filmmaker.

“A Great Lamp” filmed in North Carolina, screens at Cucalorus. Photo courtesy of Cucalorus.

Comedy. Dance. Scifi.

There’s comedy at Cucalorus as well, with North Carolina filmmakers well represented. Saad Qureshi, a graduate of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, presents a unique indie film, A Great Lamp, shot in black and white in NC, which won Best Narrative Feature at the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival.

Onur Tukel, a North Carolina native now a major figure in NYC’s indie film community, brings his latest comedy, Black Magic for White Boys. “Tukel is one of our most prolific filmmakers,” Dan Brawley said. “His humor is laser sharp.”

Bob Byington’s new comedy, Frances Ferguson, centers on the unlikely subject of a female teacher incarcerated for having an affair with a student. The film, which created a buzz at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, features a break-out performance by newcomer Kaley Wheless.

The latest from Spanish filmmaker Miguel Llansó, Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway, is described as an absurdist mashup of The Matrix, Filipino exploitation cinema, vintage kung fu pics and ’60s European spy movies with a plot that centers on a Soviet cyber virus.

Other comedies screening at Cucalorus include:

  • Prarthana Mohan’s The MisEducation of Bindu about a bullied Indian teen trying to test out of school.
  • International Falls by Amber McGinnis about a mom who is about to launch her comedy career.

Butt Cut Shorts: Comedy, screening Thursday and Saturday, includes nine short comedies. Stand-outs included Cherry, produced by Cucalorus alums Stacey Davis and Jen West; Miracle Desert, winner of Best Comedy Short at both the 2019 Edmonton International Film Festival and 2019 Dragon Con; and To Serve And Protect, winner of the Best Comedy (Burlesque) award at Oaxaca Film Festival.

Shirley Gnome presents an adults-only cabaret show at Cucalorus.

On stage, Canadian comedian and musician Shirley Gnome returns to Cucalorus with a new cabaret show combining satirical song with side-slapping commentary on the modern condition. She’ll be appearing on Thursday and Saturday in the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot performance space.

Dance is well represented in the Cucalorus schedule. In addition to the return of Dance-a-lorus, an opening night fixture at the festival, the Cucalorus Stage lineup includes performances by NYC choreographer Julia Gladstone in Animal Law and North Carolina mime Sheila Kerrigan in Mime Explains String Theory!

On the film side, the Bangs Shorts program includes 11 short dance films. Among them:

  • Revel In Your Body featuring two dancers in wheelchairs, from the dance company Kinetic Light, which will also present a full-length live program at the Wilson Center at Cape Fear Community College Nov. 15.
  • Pooling, a hybrid breakdance/animation/visual effects film from California choreographer and filmmaker Dawn Westlake.
  • But First…, a dancer’s look at life before and after that first cup of coffee.

Crafting an Echo is a behind the scenes look at the drama that ensues when the Martha Graham Dance Company commissions Greek choreographer Andonis Foniadakis to create a new piece that radically departs from Graham tradition.

Scifi fans have several films to choose from.

Synchronic, the newest feature from Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, who brought their earlier films Spring (2014) and The Endless (2017), to Cucalorus, is hot off its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and centers on a dangerous new designer drug.

In Bacaru, a Cannes Jury Award winner, mysterious events take place in a Brazilian village.

“Synchronic,” a scifi thriller set in a New Orleans under the influence of a time-bending designer drug.

Best of Tech

The Cucalorus Connect program includes examinations of MarTech, blockchain technology, digital medical assistants, design workshops, regenerative medicine and a VR salon. Hot tickets:

  • 10X10 Challenge: 10 entrepreneurs are paired with 10 filmmakers and have five days to make a three-minute film promoting their startups, with often impressive and/or surprising results.
  • You’re in the Matrix, You Just Don’t Know It: Dr. Curry Guinn, Dr. Julian Keith, both professors at UNCW, present an entertaining look at our relationships with our technology.

On a related theme, OK Gurgle, a mixed-media performance by NYC based Hearsay & Hyperbole that is part of Cucalorus Stage, examines what is (too) often the most important relationship in our lives, our cell phone.

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.