Jay O’Berski’s transformative and hot Basilisk

When a film casts its story into uncomfortable waters, you’re faced with a choice about whether or not to go along. If it’s a good film, you recalibrate your sensibilities as the story plays out. Jay O’Berski’s new film Basilisk, which deals with disability and the erotic, is one of these films.

Ann Millett-Gallant, who is a quadruple amputee, stars as a sexually adventurous bookstore worker named Gaza, and John Jimerson plays Wes, the university art professor who falls in obsessive love with her. Their charged, sexual relationship—and its abrupt ending—becomes a transformative experience for Wes. Gaza’s disability plays a role in both Wes’ desire for her and her ambivalence to him, but it’s the differences between what they want out of their relationships that drives the story, more than the differences between their bodies.

Written and directed by O’Berski, artistic director of the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern and an assistant professor in Duke’s theater studies department, the 34-minute film is built upon a story that O’Berski and Millett-Gallant developed together after he approached her about the project. The story of that approach almost merits a film of its own.

“The way that I met her is I saw her drinking in a bar 15 years ago,” O’Berski explains, “and I thought she was sexy and I heard she went there to pick up men, which was not actually the case. But I sort of spiraled a story around that.”

Years after that night at the Chapel Hill bar Hell (which becomes Inferno Bar in the film), O’Berski tracked down Millett-Gallant by asking friends and searching online. She liked his original short story, so they expanded it with the screen in mind. Much of the film’s dialogue was improvised upon that framework.

Basilisk is Millett-Gallant’s first acting experience. She teaches art history and disability studies at UNC-Greensboro. After initially playing an advisory role, she and O’Berski realized that she was the ideal choice to play Gaza in the film. And she’s not out of place, even in sex scenes with multiple partners.

“There was a lot of faith on her part,” O’Berski says. “Initially she didn’t want to do nude scenes. But we just worked through some acting rehearsals. She saw everyone else getting naked.

“She’s one of the bravest people I’ve ever met. And no bullshit at all.”

The unticketed special screening of Basilisk will begin at approximately 5:45 p.m. Saturday.

This weekend’s Strange Beauty Film Festival, now in its fourth year, is a modest idea that’s taken flight, partly because of the unusual work it screens but also because of shifting media tides.

When husband-and-wife founders Jim Haverkamp and Joyce Ventimiglia started the festival, many makers of experimental and non-commercial shorts simply put their work on the Internet instead of sending it to film festivals. Why burn a stack of DVDs, stuff them in envelopes with a submission fee and wait months to receive a response from unfamiliar curators?

“YouTube came around in 2005,” Haverkamp recalls. “Flicker [a monthly screening of small-gauge film in Chapel Hill that Haverkamp ran from 2000–02] died shortly after that and all the attention went online for a while because it was so new and interesting.”

“I think, in general, we’re now coming out of the long period of YouTube killing everything and people are asking ‘What are film festivals really for anymore, since we can get so much online?’”

Many of the 56 films that Strange Beauty will show over three days at Durham’s Manbites Dog Theater can be seen online. Haverkamp was hesitant to put links to filmmaker sites from the festival website for that reason.

“But then I thought that actually it’s fine because the festival experience is communal. And also there’s so much shit out thereI think people still put a value on the curatorial aspect. ‘I don’t have time to spend hours online finding good films.’ We’re the needles in the haystack.”

Founded during the dark time for festivals, Strange Beauty is catching the updraft of the media-age maturation of both artists and audience. The generation that grew up online never had to deal with scarcity like pre-Internet experimentalists did. If you didn’t pick up the right zine or tear a tab from the right flyer in the bar, you might never have found out about something like Flicker at the turn of the millennium.

Festivals with a strong curatorial vision are coming back. The number and variety of submissions that pile up on Haverkamp and Ventimiglia’s kitchen table is ample proof. In the first year, Strange Beauty had fewer than 100 submissions, many of which were personally solicited. Last year they received 160 films. This winter the bleary-eyed family screened more than 300 films. Work from 10 countries, including Estonia, Argentina, Israel and Australia, will be shown.

Thursday night highlights include three gems each less than four minutes in length. Muncie, Ind.-based video artist Kristin Reeves’ “The White Coat Phenomenon” pairs audio of a sexual IQ test with video of a reflexological examination to produce a weirdly sterile porn innuendo film. Melissa Potter’s “Boy Brides and Bachelors,” made on the side during an ethnographic trip, applies a perplexed gender critique to a Serbian solstice ritual called Surovari involving men dressed up as women humping men in the village streets. Hillsborough-based Francesca Talenti’s “3 Waves” achieves a comparative purity, taking film pioneer Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies into UNC-Chapel Hill’s Fluid Dynamics Lab.

Raleigh’s Rich Gurnsey presents another episode from his animated “Creepyville” series about a burgeoning (and somehow humorous) stalker on Friday night. British animator Julia Pott returns to Strange Beauty as well with “Belly,” a gorgeous and surreal measurement of how loss marks one’s coming of age. Applying a structuralist frame to lucha libre, Ohio auteur Charles Fairbanks’ “Flexing Muscles” finds a philosophical aspect in his masked luchadors.

Strange Beauty splits Saturday into two sets. In two very different kinds of reminiscences, Durham’s Marc Maximov, an INDY Week contributor, lovingly documents his grandfather, who hands out hundreds of origami cranes in and around his Boca Raton retirement community (“Grandpa Gives You the Bird”), while Houston animator Kelly Sears teases a horror story out of high school yearbooks (“Once It Started It Could Not End Otherwise”).

Saturday night alternates visually spectacular work from San Francisco-based Michael Langan, whose “Choros” hypnotically superimposes frames of a dancer to a Steve Reich soundtrack, with politically charged experimentation from Chapel Hill’s Bill Brown, who laser-prints a CIA counterterrorism report onto film stock, complete with sinister black-box redactions and writhing repetitions of words like “detainees,” “torture” and “waterboard.”

Strange Beauty offers live-performance treats, too. After the Friday set, Tom Whiteside of the Durham Cinematheque presents a new archival montage program with live accompaniment by Durham band Arrows Out. Audio producer Jennifer Deer weaves art, documentary and experimental audio into another “Strange Beauty Aural Fixation” listening session on Saturday night.

The festival’s format is stuffed to the breaking point with delightful and provocative work this year. At this rate, something has to give next year, which Haverkamp considers a good thing. “I feel like now we’re at the point where maybe it can’t be just me and Joyce watching everything, which is a great place to be in.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “The post-YouTube world.”