For three years I’ve had the great pleasure of being a judge at the Louisiana Film Prize, a short film festival that offers an astounding $50,000 as its grand prize. The first year, LA Film Prize (as its commonly referred) made such an impression on me that I wrote an impassioned plea to aspiring filmmakers to take notice. This year, I saw one such filmmaker take the festival by storm with a short that reminded me why I attend events like this in the first place.
The LA Film Prize is unique not only in its bounty of prizes (that include $500 awarded out the gate to the 20 submissions accepted for the festival), but also in its breadth in displaying the local culture. This year, the film festival extended its Music Prize competition to include celebrity judges, and introduced The Food Prize, which had local chefs compete in a mystery box challenge before a live (and drooling) audience. Essentially, it’s an ever-growing celebration of Shreveport culture, grounded by a Film Prize rule that the submitted shorts must be shot locally.
Despite similar surroundings, the LA Film Prize’s top 20 shorts offered a wide array of settings, styles, and content. Impressive True Detective-style long takes were displayed into two crime films, one a comedy about a chicken lover (“Made Hen”), the other a bank heist thriller (“In Progress.”) An adopted child’s quest for acceptance was spun into a surreal adventure with “Honey and the Hive.” And Salem star Tamzin Merchant directed a subversive and smart coming-of-age comedy called “American Virgin.” There were also tastes of horror, family-drama, and science fiction. But the film that hit me to my core was a 15-minute short called “The Bespoke Tailoring of Mister Bellamy,” which ultimately won the fest’s top prize.
Check out its teaser below:
“The Bespoke Tailoring of Mister Bellamy”—or “Bespoke” as it came to be nicknamed in fest shorthand—centers on the titular character’s quest to pull himself up by his bootstraps. Mister Bellamy is an old black man, scraping a living together by recycling bottles in 1964 Louisiana. But when he sees a posting at a local law firm for a janitor, he strives to make his best impression by using an abandoned sewing machine to stitch together a custom suit for the interview.
It’s a film that speaks to our nation’s complex history, to race relations, and to the truly American belief of hard work meeting with opportunity to offer the American Dream. In its short running time, I was transported. A beautiful and understated performance from actor Stan Brown had me beaming from ear-to-ear one moment, and reduced to sloppy tears the next. (Brown ultimately took home the Best Actor award, which comes with a $1000 prize.)
Simply put, I was astonished by “The Bespoke Tailoring of Mister Bellamy.” It was a short so good I could feel the audience experiencing it with me. We chuckled and gasped together, connected by a common thread of radiant emotion. And once its slate concluded, we grinned communally as we whispered “Bespoke” back and forth.
Left to right: screenwriter Paul Petersen, actor Stan Brown, director Alexander Jeffery.
This is why we go to film festivals.
Sure, it’s fun to see celebrities, and to engage in the glamor and goodies film fest’s dole out. But the core of why we go is to see something new and wondrous. To feel like a pioneer as a film fan, getting hip to incredible talent as it debuts, and knowing your excitement will feed its well-deserved rise. When you see something like “The Bespoke Tailoring of Mister Bellamy,” you feel like you’re part of something splendid, something important and alive, something that will make movies better.
Speaking with “The Bespoke Tailoring of Mister Bellamy” director Alexander Jeffery, I was surprised to learn LA Film Prize itself was the inspiration for his short. “I caught wind of the competition (through social media) and heard great things about it and talked to Paul Petersen (the writer) about putting something together for the Film Prize,” he wrote to me through e-mail. “We really wanted to follow one character performing a ‘simple’ task because we felt so many short films try to fit too much story into a limited amount of time. Paul came up with the idea of a gentleman tailoring his own suit and we both really enjoy period pieces and wanted the film to be set in Louisiana. We came up with 1964 because it was the first year the job market was integrated in the state of Louisiana. Paul and I share a similar sensibility and wanted the film to be larger than life, hopeful.”
Once Jeffery and Petersen had a script, they needed to find the perfect Mr. Bellamy. For this, Jeffery looked at his own past, and contacted his former professor at University of Nebraska in Lincoln. His cast and crew traveled from Arizona, Wyoming, Tennessee, Nebraska, and South Carolina to Louisiana, bringing along the sewing machine Jeffery’s girlfriend, Emily Cole, leant to the production, an antique passed down from her grandmother.
While Brown was a dream to work with, the sewing machine was a diva. “The biggest obstacle we hit was that our hero prop, the sewing machine, didn’t work after sitting idle for many years!” Jeffery admitted. “It was horrifying because for a second I thought after all of this work I wouldn’t have a movie. Note to self: check the sewing machine before we start filming next time…” (It turns out a little WD-40 does wonders, and saved the day.)
From there, Jeffery submitted a impressive rough cut, earning the $500 acceptance prize which went toward film’s postproduction. Several months later, he, his screenwriter and his star would return to Louisiana to attend the LA Film Prize.
As fortune would have it, these three were the first filmmakers I spoke to following the fest’s kick-off toast. I was instantly impressed by Jeffery, who exuded enthusiasm while still being soft-spokenly humble. When he won the top honor two days later, it seemed Jeffery was the only one there who was surprised. The audience at the awards brunch hooted and cheered as he and Petersen took to the stage looking flabbergasted. They teared up as they gave their acceptance speech. I wept with joy.
This! This is what film festivals are for! Encouraging a new wave of filmmakers who can tell stories that matter and move us. Discovering the stories that dare to break from convention. Celebrating the talent that’s required for making them.
In our email exchange, I asked Jeffery what his plans were for the money and what he intends to do next. 1) Because it’s a very reporter thing to do. 2) Because I want to know when I can see more from this director whose work hit me so hard I’m still smiling over one particular moment involving a vest.
The good news for those who didn’t attend LA Film Prize 2015 is you’ll have a chance to see “The Bespoke Tailoring of Mister Bellamy.” Not only will it be hitting several other film festivals, but also it—and the other shorts that made the top five—will be distributed by Shorts HD. So keep on the lookout, or like the short’s FB page for updates.
Beyond “Bespoke,” Jeffery and his team are making a feature film called The Long Haul, and that $50k prize will come in handy in its creation. Jeffery described it as “a Holiday comedy about a Scrooge-like character and his two roommates who take a road trip to revisit old flames.” Considering the sharp characterization and warm humor he and Petersen brought to their short, I’m positively elated over this logline.
But that’s not all. Jeffery also has plans to compete again next Film Prize. Which is hardly a surprise, considering he’s calling his first foray there “the best weekend of my life.”
Jeffery explained, “They treat filmmakers incredibly well, it’s flawlessly run by the amazing staff, the judges and professionals they bring in are the most down-to-earth and kind people on the planet. The interaction with the audiences was one of my absolute favorite parts - they love the film prize in Shreveport! I strongly encourage any filmmaker out their to participate in this competition!”
Seconded. Hopefully, I’ll see you there next year.
Kristy Puchko was proud to be a part of a panel where she taught a whole room how to properly pronounce “Pajiba.”