artbeat (2006-42)

A fascinating cast of characters fills the films at the Secret City Festival

Dr. Beers, I Presume

by Kevin Crowe

"What I did saved a lot of American lives,” says Jack Beers, a former Manhattan Project scientist and the subject of a new English documentary entitled Holes in My Shoes .

Beers will be in Oak Ridge this Thursday, sharing his epic life story at the Third Annual Oak Ridge Secret City Film Festival. The festival, which has almost doubled its content since last year, has brought in talent from Europe, Asia and Australia, as well as some hotshot moviemakers from New York and L.A.

Fifty-nine films will be screened at the Oak Ridge Playhouse, this Thursday through Sunday.

“It is everything,” says Keith McDaniel, who has been instrumental in organizing the festival for the past three years. Let’s watch: Two horned dinosaurs engage in absurd conflict in Linear Progression . A coffee accident in Australia kicks off The Urge , which leads to one of the most promising chase scenes that we’ve seen in years. The self-proclaimed “garden activist” sports a cape and uses the soil to spread his peculiar, yet heartwarmingly endearing, philosophy. “It’s better than any Nintendo game I’ve come across,” the soil-prophet says. Dreams of a laid-back summer vacation turn into a slasher-fueled nightmare in Point of Fear , akin to an old-school Wes Craven flick. Thick , a war feature, adds a renewed resonance to the shellshocking thriller. We’re the Government—and You’re Not is an inspired mockumentary submitted by an Alabama crew, in which Orwellian oppression meets Vaudevillian irreverence.

And Keith McDaniel’s The Clinton 12 explores the violence surrounding the desegregation of Clinton High School, as media hype fueled a bizarre and complicated series of bombings after a lackluster protest. One of his other documentaries, Secret City: The Oak Ridge Story , part one of a two-part documentary, earned “Best Documentary” at the Southern Fried Flicks festival in Georgia last year.

The second half of Secret City will be screened on Saturday from

“We have features, documentaries and shorts and music videos, student films, animation, experimental… Secret City is a really general film festival. We start out on Thursday with a film called Harnessing Speed . It’s a documentary about the making of the movie Stealth . It’s a Hollywood production.

“We’ve got a feature film from Houston called I Flunked Sunday School ,” he continues. “It’s kind of a family film—it’s not preachy, but it’s a comedy, very family-friendly. We got a documentary from England called Holes in My Shoes . It’s about Jack Beers. He was 94-years-old when it was shot; he’s 97 now. He’s a character. Jack is actually coming down for the festival.”

Beers is known for helping to erect the spire of the Empire State Building in addition to his work on the Manhattan Project. He’s been a dog trainer and has acted in over 200 films. At the age of 94, he ripped a Greenwich, Conn., phonebook into four pieces.

The documentary, which will be screened on Thursday, ends with a shot of Beers singing “When You’re Smiling” from atop the Empire State Building.

Das Spandau Ballett , written and directed by local phenom Jeff Delaney, will be aired on Saturday. It’s a different movie from what most people might expect to come out of Knoxville. It’s in German with English subtitles, and its protagonist is a Jewish woman condemned to die at a concentration camp gas chamber.

“When the Nazis would put the Jews in the gas chambers, they would watch through peepholes,” Delaney says. “The bodies would contort as they died. They called it the Spandau Ballett .”

In the film, the girl in the gas chamber sees an actual ballet piece in her mind. It’s a hauntingly beautiful account of one of the most brutal deaths imaginable.

“The stuff that comes out of Knoxville is every bit as good as the stuff coming out of Europe, or New York, or L.A. Some of it’s better,” McDaniel says. “It just comes down to talent. Technologically, everyone’s on the same playing field…. You get a high-powered Mac, a serial-digital in and out card, and it’s all a matter of talent.”

Out of pure coincidence, the Secret City Film Festival began the same year that the Valley Film Festival ceased to exist. There’s always unrecognized talent, looking for a voice. The festival began with local filmmakers in mind, and McDaniel says that East Tennessee is still the main focus of the festival.

“I‘ve got a basic core of people in Oak Ridge who love to come to see movies,” McDaniel says. “There’s an elderly couple in their 80s who come out to every movie. I really want it to be a regional festival. I sometimes get frustrated with the idea some people have, that if it’s not done in Knoxville, it’s not going to be any good.

“Oak Ridge, creatively and artistically, has been ahead of any other community in East Tennessee…. Oak Ridge had symphony orchestra before Knoxville did. We’re a town of 27,000 people that has its own ballet company and its own community theater, the oldest continually operating community theater in the South.”

What: Secret City Film Festival