Now in its fourth year, the Charleston International Film Festival (CIFF) raises the curtain May 18-22 to present more than 80 films —full-length features, docs, shorts and animations, in a broad spectrum of genres and subjects —as well as workshops, industry-led panels, after-parties, and a gala night of awards that closes the event. It’s so meaty that the organizers added movie theaters Cinebarre and the Hippodrome to the fest’s perennial venue, the American Theater. The schedule is chockablock with films in almost every kind of international flavor, but several hit much closer to home. CIFF founders Summer Spooner Peacher and Brian Peacher have both watched and spurred this gradual expansion over the past few years, often from their home in California. This year, though, marks a significant change for them as they move back to Charleston, another result of the festival’s continuing ascension.

Not merely content to bring together people who share a love of cinema with films sure to be well received, the founders also continue to encourage the presentation of challenging social and political issues. Mark Claywell’s American Jihadist (Sun. May 21, 3 p.m. at Cinebarre), winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Slamdance Film Festival in Utah, may be difficult for Americans, who are often “uncomfortable dealing with issues that the film takes on,” to watch, according to the director. A look at the factors that combine to create the mindset of a jihadist, the film examines an American man, Isa Ali, who is considered a freedom fighter by some and a terrorist by others. “I think once most people see the film, they realize that the approach is to let the audience make up their own mind about who Isa Ali is and judge for themselves what he stands for over his lifetime,” Claywell says.

Another standout feature, Michael Givens’ Angel Camouflaged (Sat. May 21, 7 p.m. at the Hippodrome), was filmed locally, using the marshes of Bowens Island as a setting for a story of barroom rock ‘n’ roll redemption starring Dilana Robichaux and James Brolin. A music-heavy film, Angel is packed with original and cover songs by Dilana, as well as by Curtis Blow, Patty Smyth, and the Marshall Tucker Band, all of whom also appear in the movie. Givens, who flags down passersby to hawk the film as deftly as he handles rapid-fire questions, was only too happy to shoot in the Lowcountry, since he’s from Beaufort himself.

“I moved back here from L.A. to raise my family,” he says. “Getting up and going to work in South Carolina is a dream come true.” Originally intending to shoot in Key Largo, Givens had an epiphany about moving the production to the coast he knew so well. It only took a few rewrites and proper organization around local tax incentives for filmmakers, which he describes as very helpful. “We stretched the dollar and got everything we could out of it,” he says, though he’d like to see legislators improve the incentives. Givens believes the industry deserves to grow and that they need to make a strong commitment to it. Ultimately, he says, “It’s up to the people of Charleston whether this movie is a success or not. I don’t get anything extra out of it.” Givens will speak at CIFF after his film premieres.

Some of the films are very topical. Small businesses are invoked constantly in this economy and on the political treadmill, and Sara Kurcz’s Big Time (Thurs. May 19, 4:15 p.m. at Cinebarre), about her handbag company’s journey up the ladder before the recession hit, speaks to issues central to cities like Charleston. “When the recession hit, I was destroyed. I felt powerless. I felt like giving up,” she says. “Then I decided not to, and it became clear the whole reason I went through what I did was for this film, and so I could help others.” She and her husband initially intended to chronicle their company’s rise to success, but they ended representing the dramatic difficulties faced by businesses at this time. “The truth is it takes time and patience,” she says. “We’ve gotten a little lazy. We are always looking for the shortcut. We work hard, but we want it fast.” Kurcz will also be conducting a Q&A at CIFF.

In another documentary, The Price of Sex (Sun. May 22, 3:15 p.m. at Cinebarre), director Mimi Chakarova wants to change perceptions about human sex trafficking. “CIFF is a relatively young film festival willing to showcase films that push boundaries and take risks,” she says. “I am so grateful for their decision [to include the film].” And boundaries will indeed be pushed. Risking exposure and her very safety, Chakarova went undercover to expose a hazardous world where women find themselves forced into lives of exploitation and violence. “I think it’s very important to distinguish between forced sex and prostitution by choice,” the director says. “This is not an occupation [a woman] enlists for.” All proceeds from the film’s ticket sales go to the Polaris Project in Washington, D.C., which has been fighting trafficking and influencing policy in the U.S. since 2002.

And for funkier fare, added to the festival at the eleventh hour is Richard Elfman’s cult favorite Forbidden Zone (Thurs. May 19, 11 p.m. at Cinebarre). Based on Oingo Boingo’s live performances, the movie was never really intended to be a cult film, the director says, but once the midnighters get hold of it, it was best to just stand back and let it explode. The film got plenty of attention when first released in 1982. “The ‘PC’ thought police came down hard on Forbidden Zone when it came out,” Elfman says, referring to its sharp but satirical tone and images, but it’s “a human cartoon and throws the absurdist pie in everyone’s face equally.” Elfman will be at CIFF and intends to attract attention by wearing a clown suit and carrying a big brass drum.

Further notable programs include locally produced surfing flick Waves in Our Pocket, an entire block devoted to animated shorts, and another full block devoted to past S.C. Film Commission Indie Grant winners. Rounding out the festival are the panels, workshops, and after-parties that will tempt any remaining energy reserves. The Spooners say the festival’s success would be unthinkable without the ever-present support system in Charleston: their team, volunteers, local sponsors, the community, and, of course, attendees.

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