By Cyndi Briggs
This week I sat down with friend and fellow writer Caresse Hightower to geek out about why we love the RiverRun International Festival so much. She is a dedicated RiverRun volunteer and festival supporter.
Cyndi Briggs: Tell me about how you first heard about RiverRun. What drew you to it?
Caresse Hightower: I don’t know what rock I was under, but I only discovered RiverRun maybe six years ago. I was like “Winston has a film festival?” and then I probably rolled my eyes and thought it was a handful of movies in some obscure place. To my happy surprise, it was a real festival! Right here in my city!
Cyndi: I know what you mean! When I first heard about it, I assumed it would be a bunch of black and white obscure foreign films about things like the existential vacuum of life. I didn’t know I’d get into it. Then I went to my first film (opening film “Win-Win” in 2011) and just loved everything about it. When did you decide to become a volunteer?
Caresse: The first year, I was just checking out the scene, but I jumped on the volunteer bandwagon soon after. I’m an expert usher (three years strong). Good morning! Here’s your ballot. The bathrooms are there and there. Excuse me, sir, please take the conversation outside, there’s a film showing here. See? Expert.
Cyndi: You are an impressive person, on many levels (laughs). What kept you engaged in RiverRun, year after year?
Caresse: I think I was just enamored with the types of films. They expanded my mind, made me think. I discovered that documentaries aren’t all depressing or boring and that subtitled films are awesome. That kind of epiphany makes me happy. I was running around talking about the festival like I’d just gotten a new puppy. I was in a frenzy like, “Why isn’t everyone attending this?!” Then I discovered that RiverRun consists mainly of volunteers. I was delighted to know that I could be one of those smiling ticket-takers. They all looked so dang happy. I wanted a sip of the RiverRun Kool-aid.
Cyndi: I totally get what you mean. The buzzy energy is infectious. It’s like summer camp for adults. In between films, I’ll hang out at the atrium near the RiverRun headquarters and chat with total strangers about films they’ve loved. Then we inevitably talk about where we’re from, what we do for a living… it’s like insta-friendships. I think that’s amazing. What do you love most about the festival? How would you describe it to someone who’s never been?
Caresse: What I love most is the atmosphere of the city. RiverRun ushers in spring with a red carpet. The wind is blowing, the sun is shining, and the flowers are blooming. Winston comes out of winter hibernation and hits the ground running with this kind of indescribable feeling. I’ve never been proud of my city. I’m not ashamed either. Never given it much thought. I just live here. But the festival makes me think about Winston-Salem in a different way. We’ve come a long way, baby, and I’m rooting for my home to keep up the good work. People want to see these films. They want to be present. It’s a great recipe for a group who is yearning for visual art, to learn something. Age and race don’t really matter because the biggest thing we have in common for that week is that we’re all RiverRunning together. They bring us the films, but we make the festival. It’s not really a festival if the movie is playing to an empty theater.
Cyndi: I love that description. And I feel the same way. I meet so many people from so many walks of life at the Festival. And it makes me appreciate the range of creative expression in this city. What movie are you most looking forward to seeing this year?
Caresse: Sex(Ed) and no, I’m not ignorant about biology, or a pervert. It’s my understanding that we’ll see real sex ed videos and I know I’m going to laugh and probably be a little appalled. As of late, I’ve been obsessed with ads from the 1950s, especially pertaining to women. They sold products that made sure you amused your dismissive husband’s every whim… with a smile! It makes me wonder what we’re currently teaching children (and what our social standards are now) and how ignorant we’ll look in about 30 years. For me, watching film from our past puts up a mirror to our present and should make us assess if we’ve progressed.
Cyndi: I’m seeing that one, too! It connects with another documentary I loved, “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry”, about the women’s movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It made me so grateful to be born after all that upheaval. I’ve really benefited from the sacrifices those women made. Last question, anything else would you like to say about the festival? Final thoughts?
Caresse: I am appreciative of order, and I have to give credit to how orderly the festival runs. Is everything perfect? Of course not. We’re people after all, but in the world of week-long events, RiverRun is two thumbs up.
Cyndi: I am consistently amazed by how well it’s run and by how friendly everyone is, particularly the staff who have to be exhausted by the end of the festival. But they’re unfailingly upbeat. Remarkable. Thanks for talking with me today! And see you at the movies.
RiverRun’s popular Ticket Samplers, which include 10 film vouchers for the price of nine, are now on sale at the Stevens Center Box Office. For more information about the many benefits of becoming a RiverRun member, visit HERE. Get tickets at the Stevens Center Box Office, HERE or by phone at 336/721-1945.
R. Caresse Hightower is a dedicated RiverRun volunteer and festival supporter. She attended UNC-Chapel Hill and currently lives in Winston-Salem. She is the author of “Mark of the Wiseman”. You can read more about her HERE.
Cyndi Briggs is a blogger, essayist, and professor of counseling who lives in Winston-Salem. You can learn more about her at her website HERE.