N.O. Film Festival hits the big screen

Highlights of the 2013 New Orleans Film Festival, which runs through Oct. 17, include “Nebraska,” the new film from “The Descendants” director Alexander Payne; “August: Osage County,” and an all-star film adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play.

Also showing is “Water Like Stone,” a new documentary by Zack Godshall, filmmaker-in-residence at LSU, and Michael Pasquier, assistant professor of religious studies at LSU. The film depicts fishermen, shrimpers and lifelong residents of Louisiana’s vanishing wetlands.

“12 Years a Slave,” the much-anticipated, Louisiana-filmed drama directed by Steve McQueen, opened the festival Thursday at the Civic Theatre with a red carpet screening and appearances by McQueen and cast members Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nuyong’o and Alfre Woodard. The film’s theatrical run in Baton Rouge and New Orleans is scheduled to begin Nov. 1.

The festival returns to the Civic on Oct. 17 for its closing selection, “Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker,” a documentary directed by New Orleans filmmaker Lily Keber about the local music legend.

“12 Years a Slave” is based on the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup, a free man of color who was abducted in Washington, D.C., and sold into slavery. Produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, the film features Pitt in a small but pivotal role.

The film arrived at the New Orleans Film Festival on the heels of triumphant receptions at the Toronto International Film Festival and Colorado’s Telluride Film Festival. It inspired “stunned raves” at Telluride, Variety reported, and received the Toronto festival’s top audience prize.

John Desplas, the New Orleans Film Festival’s artistic director, watched a screening of “12 Years a Slave” last week for festival officials and local critics.

“I’d been hearing about the movie for weeks,” he said afterward. “Everybody’s just knocking themselves out about it. I asked myself, ‘Can it be that good?’ It turned out to be that good.”

McQueen, the film’s British director, Desplas said, “knocked it out of the ballpark. It is a great movie to have for opening night.”

The festival campaigned for “12 Years a Slave” for months, executive director Jolene Pinder said.

“Finally, we got the call from Fox,” Pinder said. “They not only said we can we have it, but they want to bring the talent. This is definitely the biggest opening night we’ve ever had. We’ve never had a director and so much talent come and we’ve never had 650 seats.”

Desplas, the festival’s artistic director for 15 years, says its lineup gets stronger each year, especially in the competitive submissions division.

“At one time I felt sort like we were getting leftovers, what everybody else rejected,” he said. “That’s not the case anymore. A nice number of the submitted films get picked up for distribution. They’re definitely worth your time.”

The number of films submitted to the festival has tripled from 500 in 2009 to 1,500 this year, Pinder said. Many of the submissions are made by Louisiana filmmakers or produced in the state by non-Louisiana filmmakers.

Along with increased submissions, the festival is screening more films, which, in turn, helps increase attendance.

Following “12 Years a Slave,” a film being released by a major studio and helmed by a British director, Pinder sees this year’s locally produced closing film, “Bayou Maharajah,” as an apt final note.

“Lily Keber poured her heart and soul into this film for years,” Pinder said. “We were so excited when she got into the South By Southwest Film Conference and Festival in March.”

There was high local interest in the Booker documentary even before its SXSW screening. Pinder asked Keber to save the film’s New Orleans premiere for the festival.

“We said, ‘We’ll make a big deal out of it if you’ll just wait,’ ” Pinder said. “So her agreeing to wait showed us her faith in the festival. It’s going to be a really special night.”