For years, Cucalorus director Dan Brawley resisted calls to include panel discussions at his festival. “I just hated those things,” he says with a laugh. As Cucalorus grew, and as film festivals such as South by Southwest and Sundance expanded their tech offerings, he came to see the wisdom in having a place for festivalgoers to sit and think out loud together.
“I’ve become more aware we want to create an opportunity for everyone in the community to participate,” says Brawley, who refers to himself as Cucalorus’ “Chief Instigating Officer.” “Not everyone wants to watch movies all night long, and not everybody wants to see fringe theatre.”
The result of that awakening is Cucalorus Connect—a two-day business, technology and innovation conference that combines panels, films, workshops and TED-style presentations from leading thinkers around the world. Now in its fifth year, Connect explores the intersection between creativity, technology and humanity.
“The way I explain it to people is that Connect is the place at the festival where we stop watching movies, stop performing or watching people perform, and we start talking,” Brawley says.
It’s also a showcase for the Brooklyn Arts Center. Brawley has long wanted to move into the downtown venue, but 2019 is the first year Connect will be hosted there. “We’re bringing people from all over the world to Wilmington, North Carolina, and so we want to show off the cool stuff.”
At the heart of Connect is the 10×10 Challenge, a competition that pairs 10 startups with 10 filmmakers to make a three-minute promo video in five days. The challenge was created in 2014 by pioneering North Carolina filmmaker and musician Norwood Cheek. Cheek initially conceived of it as a way to connect filmmakers with local bands. It was adapted into its current form in 2015.
10×10 kicked off with a matching event last Sunday, wherein names were drawn randomly from a hat to create filmmaker-entrepreneur pairings. The groups then immediately set to work in order to meet the Thursday-night deadline for their final product to screen Friday afternoon. Among the startups participating this year are: mallowdoos—a company that creates handcrafted marshmallows; ScreenOUT, which strives to create stronger family connections by monitoring screen time for digitally addicted family members; and Topsail Steamer, the popular seafood company that builds take-home steamer pots.
To date, 60 startups have made videos as part of the 10×10 challenge. Metal sculptor Dumay Gorham participated in 2017. With the help of student filmmaker Damien Capps and UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, he was able to create an ad for his line of surfboard-shaped door knockers that he says would not have been possible otherwise. The video even landed his product on Kickstarter. Gorham, who has worked on a number of film and TV projects, came away impressed. “Even though they were young, they were every bit as professional as some of the crews that I’ve seen at Screen Gems,” he says.
Among newer developments at Connect is an increased focus on social justice. That includes a discussion on reparations and reconciliation in the US South, led by filmmaker Jacqueline Olive and artist and activist Bree Newsome Bass. Olive’s documentary feature, “Always in Season,” will screen Saturday afternoon as part of the festival’s “Magnolia” section, and explores the lasting impact of more than a century of lynchings on American society (see the review on page 24). The film was awarded the Special Jury Prize for Moral Urgency at the Sundance Film Festival in February.
Also on the schedule is a panel discussion on housing segregation, poverty and justice. Moderated by Emmy-nominated producer, writer and director Angela Tucker, the Friday-morning event will welcome to the discussion filmmaker Randall Dottin; Support the Port founder and executive director Cedric Harrison; and City of Wilmington community development and housing planner Suzanne Rodgers. The trio will discuss how housing segregation policies have confined black and brown people to poverty. They will also explore possible solutions for leveling the playing field. Following the discussion will be a screening of Dottin’s work-in-progress, “The House I Never Knew,” a six-part documentary series chronicling the lives of those struggling against the negative effects of such policies.
Both events are evidence of Cucalorus’ continued commitment to open communication. It’s something the festival has worked hard at developing and continues with the appointment of conference keynote speaker Nick Adkins. Adkins is the co-founder of Pinksocks Life, a nonprofit striving to create human connections around the world through the gifting of its trademark pink socks. He’ll speak Thursday at 4 p.m. on the power of connection. Pinksocks supporters purchase socks via the company’s website, and are then expected to gift them to someone else in a moment of real connection. It may sound hokey, but Brawley says Adkins is an exemplar of what Connect hopes to achieve going forward.
“He’s going to give out a pair of pink socks at the end, and he’s going to probably ask everybody to stand up and stare at each other for 30 seconds, and I think that’s the perfect metaphor for where we are,” Brawley explains. “Connect is the place where we get in touch with our humanity.”
As Connect grows, its founder is excited about what’s coming next.
“Some people in the community are sort of wrestling with us a little bit about what [Connect] might be,” says Brawley. “But that’s just like a 5-year-old kid, right? A 5-year-old could still be an NBA star, [they] could still be an organic farmer. And that’s kind of exciting.”
Brawley and Cucalorus will continue to explore new avenues for discussion. The meatier the better—whether it’s housing policy, global connections or equal access to financial services and healthcare. Brawley sees all of this as part of Cucalorus’ future.
“I think that’s probably what I’m really excited about,” he says. “We’re not just showcasing people who are going to make a lot of money. I could care less about just trying to make money. We’re actually showcasing people who are trying to make the world a better place.”
For full schedule of events, visit cucalorus.org/connect.