Irvine International Film Festival Is Full of Hidden Gems

Jack Kaprielian and Kevin Derek love movies, but they gravitate less toward Hollywood blockbusters and more toward short, foreign or independent fare featured at film festivals. So, they started the Irvine International Film Festival (IIFF), which kicks off Thursday, Jan. 12, and continues for five days at Edwards Westpark 8.

With 4,000 film festivals already running around the world, why do we need another one?

“An estimated 25,000 films are made each year, but more than three-quarters of those films will be left unseen,” Kaprielian explains. “What we were hearing from the public was they are tired of mainstream, formula films. So we are bringing what they asked for: diverse and independent points of view.”

Fair enough. But why Irvine?

“Irvine is the largest city in Orange County and the most diverse,” Kaprielian notes. “What better place to have an international film festival?”

Four years in the making, IIFF seeks to expose local audiences to personal films, made locally or far away, by people you've never heard of and others you have. But a documentary that did not have to travel far to reach Irvine, let alone the film festival's executive office, is Derek's own feature-length Empty Hand: The Real Karate Kids, which follows martial-arts students in Mission Viejo dealing with the demands of a rigorous sport and growing up as teenagers in America.

In God We Teach is Vic Losick's documentary on Matthew LaClair, who secretly recorded his high-school history teacher in New Jersey proselytizing for Jesus. Losick includes a segment on Capistrano Valley High School teacher James Corbett, whom a student secretly recorded God-baiting. Corbett plans to attend the Irvine screening.

As with other fests, IIFF hooked up with university film schools to draw submissions. But Kaprielian, Derek and their close-knit staff of college buddies also dipped into local elementary schools to find the next J.J. Abramses. The youngest of the primary-school filmmakers debuting her work is Izabella Olivia, a second grader at Canyon View Elementary in Irvine who made the five-minute Unlucky Champion.

“I think it's priceless, the reaction of a 10-year-old boy or a girl when they see for the first time on the big screen the project they worked so hard on,” Kaprielian says.

Not all projects breaking out in Irvine are from unknowns. Actress Eva Mendes' directorial debut, the short film California Romanza, features Daniel Stern of Diners, City Slickers and narration of TV's The Wonder Years fame. Other well-known actors who appear in shorts at IIFF include Ed Asner in Brian Conners' Good Men; Paul Dooley in Jonathan Browning's Walter; Gerard Depardieu in Slony Sow's Grenouille d'Hiver (Winter Frog); Robert Vaughn in Donald Marcus' Patrimony; Keira Knightley and reigning Academy Award Best Actor Colin Firth in Rupert Friend's Steve; and John Hurt in John Davies' Love at First Sight, which is up for Oscar consideration.

Tina Gharavi's I Am Nasrine, a British feature smuggled out of Iran during the green revolution, makes its U.S. premiere at the festival. Along the same lines is the local premiere of Mohamed Al-Daradji's Iraq War, Love God & Madness, which chronicles Iraqi filmmakers making a movie under the gun—literally. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Jan. 16), the festival presents former ABC Iraq correspondent Kevin McKiernan's Bringing King to China, which follows the cultural struggles his daughter Cáitrín faced while trying to produce a play in China about the U.S. civil-rights martyr.

The festival presents a tribute to Carla Laemmle, the niece of Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle, as well as a documentary about her life, Among the Rugged Peaks: The Carla Laemmle Story. One of the few surviving silent films actors, Ms. Laemmle plans to attend. “My sister, Vera Kaprielian, is a costume designer and worked closely with Carla Laemmle on her latest project,” Kaprielian explains. “Once we heard about her new documentary and the fact that she's one of the few living actors from the silent era, and that she's 102 years young and still active in the business, I was blown away.”

The screening that most excites the IIFF founders is Ernst Lubitsch's 1922 epic, The Loves of Pharaoh, whose restoration they began tracking last year. “We met up with the producer of the restoration project in Los Angeles and suggested to them the idea of premiering it at our festival because they had planned to have a DVD/Blu-ray release,” Kaprielian says. “We wanted to show it on the big screen the way it should have been seen 80 years ago. We are honored they have given us the opportunity to be the first festival in the U.S. to screen this epic masterpiece.”

In his next breath, Kaprielian sounds less enthused about the prestige than he does about sharing the restored epic with his friends and neighbors. “How often do you get a chance to be the first person in Orange County to see an 80-year-old movie that no one has seen?”


This article appeared in print as “Hidden Gems: Inaugural Irvine International Film Festival brings the unseen to OC.”

OC Weekly Editor-in-Chief Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the alternative newsweekly’s first calendar editor.

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