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Take Ten
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While the Savannah Film Festival itself doesn’t begin until late October, organizers are starting their 10th anniversary celebrations early. This Friday night at the Trustees Theatre, the Savannah College of Art & Design hosts the southeastern premiere of the feature film The Namesake from acclaimed director Mira Nair.
The free screening, which is followed by a benefit reception at the Tantra Lounge, marks the official beginning of the college’s anniversary celebration. We spoke to Film Festival Managing Director Len Cripe last week about this Friday’s screening, the Savannah Film Festival’s past -- and most importantly its future.
How did you decide on hosting the southeastern premiere of Namesake?
Len Cripe: One of the people I work with who identifies films for the Festival first saw it at Telluride last September. It wasn’t completed at that time, and still had some more post-production to do. So we were aware of The Namesake at the last Film Festival, and we knew Mira Nair had the film in post-production, completing it. So it was just a matter of getting it done.
Having Lydia Dean Pilcher as one of the producers of the film, who’s also a Savannahian, sort of gave us an in with it. She asked us if we’d like to have the southeastern premiere when the film became available, and of course we said we’d love to.
It’s just a fabulous film, getting great reviews, and currently doing gangbuster business in New York City.
What’s on tap for the big anniversary?
Len Cripe: We’re really looking forward to celebrating 10 years of the Film Festival. Right now we’re finalizing plans for the rest of the anniversary celebration. We’ll have sort of a fun marketing and advertising campaign for it we’re going to roll out in the next few weeks.
We’ve been able to do what we’ve done with the Festival thanks in large part to the support of community, the support of students and the college. We feel like we’ve been able bring to this community and this area a wide variety of artists, films, lectures and presenters and other events, which have really added to the cultural fabric of the city and the entire area.
The Film Festival has to balance a lot of audiences -- local residents and tourists you want to attract, industry people you want to take notice, and your own student body with the educational component. How do you go about finding that balance?
Len Cripe: Really what it boils down to is we try to do find great events and great people. The key to keeping it great is for people to have that interaction with filmmakers, and to offer something for everybody, whether you’re a novice or whether you’re a filmmaker who’s made their 100th film.
What we’ve found about this Festival is that people are able to talk and communicate, and share ideas and share thoughts. We haven’t got to point where the Festival is so large that everybody insulates themselves from world, where you have a festival but no one is sharing ideas. If that does happen to a festival, you’ve got to fight to get that back once you cross that line.
Without naming names, there are probably several film festivals that have become too big.
Len Cripe: Without naming names, yes. With the Savannah Film Festival we want to have this continuing discussion of not just film as art, but as a statement about community, or about an issue, or just about people personally. With the democratization of filmmaking, it’s become one of the most accessible art forms. Nowadays you can buy a $400 nice camera, get some software and just do your project. You can tell the story of your mother, or your grandmother, or your child or yourself. I can’t necessarily paint, and I won’t be the next Rembrandt. But I can certainly pick up a camera and tell whatever story is important to me.
What’s happening now is the big chain theatres are getting huge young audiences with big-budget films that are critically panned, like the second Pirates of the Caribbean and 300. On the other end of the spectrum is the DVD market, now a haven for more sophisticated, independent fare. There’s no longer a stigma attached to straight-to-DVD.
Len Cripe: Exactly. It’s just a great time to get started in the filmmaking process. People are finding out it’s not such a closed, hard society to get into. Of course usually you have to make a certain portion of your film commercially accessible, but at least you don’t have to constantly be shooting for a big-budget blockbuster thing in all the chain theatres. Your movie can now can be seen in smaller venues.
What’s happening is it’s a lot easier for people to say yes. The walls are really coming down.
Everyone enjoys the celebrities and feature screenings at the Film Festival, but it seemed like most of the buzz downtown last year was about younger filmmakers and the work they’re doing with the internet.
Len Cripe: Absolutely. That market is being developed right now and there are people who are able to exploit this market. There may be somebody who’s figured out they can find a million people they can get to through viral marketing that will like a certain kind of film now.
You can go on Youtube and have reviews of shorts or feature films. Distributors can better understand the market as it’s constantly changing. They can figure out, we need a whole bunch of films talking about issue X, here they are, boom, boom, boom. There’s a whole transformation about what films are decided on. It’s all becoming more democratic. Look at this whole thing with docs -- or quasi-docs -- doing really well in the last ten years. Who saw that coming?
Not necessarily just Michael Moore or Al Gore-level stuff either.
Len Cripe: Exactly. I mean, March of the Penguins! (laughs) Who would have guessed? 
SCAD premieres “The Namesake” March 30, 7 p.m., at Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St. The screening is free and open to the public, followed by a benefit reception at Tantra Lounge, 8 E. Broughton St. Producer Lydia Dean Pilcher will conduct a Q&A session between the screening and reception. Tickets for the reception are $25 and proceeds benefit the Savannah Film Festival. Get tix for both events at the SCAD box office, 216 E. Broughton St., or at 525-5050.
Thirty years ago, Benjy Wertheimer’s life took an unexpected turn.
“I’ve been interested in music all my life,” he says. “I was at a concert in Boulder, Colo., that literally changed my life.”
The concert featured the music of India. “I realized it was something I really wanted to learn about,” Benjy says.
After many years of study, Benjy specializes in the music of northern India. He and his wife, Heather, perform together as Shantala, and will appear in a world music concert on Monday, April 2 at 7 p.m. at the Epworth Methodist Church.
The evening will feature Indian music and participatory devotional singing, know as kirtan. Kirtan has its roots in ancient Indian sacred music. As yoga has grown in popularity in the West, sacred chanting also has become more popular.
Open to people of all religious backgrounds, sacred chanting is a form of call and response. Anyone can do it -- even people who are convinced they can’t sing.
“We do encourage people who may have gotten the message that they can’t sing,” Benjy says. “Chanting brings a lot of supportive, encouraging people together with the goal of opening the heart.”
“It’s an approach to celebrating life and incorporates love, joy and happiness in a nutshell,” Heather says.
Along with the chanting comes instrumental music, especially percussion. Devotees consider kirtan a celebration of life, love and the beauty of the human spirit.
Learning about Indian music in America is difficult, but not impossible. Benjy found a school, the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Francisco, where he could study.
Today, he plays several instruments, including the congas, guitar, keyboards and esraj. “The esraj is an instrument that is associated with northeastern India,” Benjy says. “It’s played with a bow and has 19 strings. It’s quite a difficult instrument.”
Fifteen of the 19 strings on the esraj are not played directly. “They are sympathetic strings that resonate when the other strings are played,” Benjy says.
“I also play the tabla,” he says. “It’s the classical percussion instrument of India. It usually is used to accompany classical music and sacred chanting.”
Benjy has played with many other musicians, including Carlos Santana, Paul Winter and Narada Michael Walden. He also sings.
Heather sings and plays the guitar, and she also is an award-winning songwriter. At concerts, she leads the chanting in the Sanskrit language.
“Heather sings the chant and everyone sings it back,” Benjy says. “It is call and response that is a very sacred practice.”
Sanskrit is a very ancient language, and the chanting utilizes ancient mantras. Benjy considers kirtan a type of yoga that is designed not to strengthen the body, but to open the heart.
Based in Portland, Ore., Benjy and Heather met nine years ago at a songwriting workshop. As Shantala, the couple has released several critically acclaimed CDs, including an album of devotional chanting called The Love Window.
Shantala travels throughout the United States and other countries to do concerts and teach others about sacred chanting. It’s a lifetime commitment, and the learning never stops.
Benjy modestly insists that he is still learning about Indian music. “I’ll let you know when I master it,” he says. 
An evening of sacred chanting with Shantala, which comprises Benjy and Heather Wertheimer, will perform Monday, April 2 at 7 p.m. at the Epworth Methodist Church, 2201 Bull St. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. For tickets, call Sophie at 898-0361 or Kelley at 441-6653, or send
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