The 27th Annual Cucalorus Film Festival opened with a delightful screening of a small independent documentary at the quaint, backstreet theater Jengo’s Playhouse. Film festival crowds tend to be a hodge-podge of filmmakers, industry professionals, and movie fans, and the opening night of Cucalorus was no different. Before the film, festival-goers gathered a few blocks away at local brewery Hi-Wire Brewing for the Kick-Off Party and a night filled with music, food, drink, and great company.

The diverse gathering at Hi-Wire made the evening especially bubbly as people were eager to reconnect with each other. Last year, Cucalorus was forced into the digital sphere, like the rest of the world. This year’s festival marks a wonderful reemergence of Wilmington’s blossoming film community. As friends were made through drinks and pizza, local band Lotus Sun filled the room full of soulful rhythms, perfectly underscoring the easy-going, yet energetic vibes.

As the party rolled on, some of the crowd began to migrate two blocks away to Jengo’s Playhouse. Though not all of us knew exactly how to get there, the wonderful little marquee lighted the way. A small crowd waited in line to enter the small theater, while event staff checked each ticket holder for proof of vaccination — a wise and relatively painless precaution for an event that brings people together from around the country, sticking them together in small, dark spaces for hours on end.

As they began to let eager moviegoers in, people immediately lined up in the lobby to purchase popcorn, drinks (soda and alcoholic), and tastefully designed Cucalorus t-shirts. Jengo’s Playhouse is not your ordinary movie theater: the first several rows of seating are couches and sofas, the sconce lights on the wall are made out of antique 8mm film projectors, and a door at the front of the theater opens up to a cozy bar behind the screen. If anything could convey the uniquely energetic, laid-back, and generally “weird” atmosphere of Cucalorus, Jengo’s Playhouse would certainly come close.

Before the film, the festival’s chief instigating officer, Dan Brawley welcomed everyone to the inaugural screening. As with all Cucalorus events, he began with a land acknowledgement, giving thanks to the Cape Fear Indigenous tribes who have occupied the region for so much of its history.

Brawley then introduced Matt Malloy, one of the original founders of Cucalorus 27 years ago. These days, Malloy acts as emcee for screenings. He came out with his guitar and sang a strange, though hilarious, song about peanut butter sandwiches. With the crowd all warmed up, Malloy briefly introduced the film before letting the movie speak for itself. The lights dimmed…

Seldom have I been in a livelier screening than A Sexplanation, the festival’s opening film. The documentary disarmingly approaches problems with America’s sex education. The film follows its director Alex Liu, as he investigates the issues, both at large and within himself. He talks with senators, scientists, and his own parents about a topic that we often consider quite uncomfortable. And yet, this is where the film thrives — it knows that these conversations can be uncomfortable. Rather than making the you blush, the film makes you comfortable, relaxed, and open.

As an openly gay man, Liu acknowledges his biases on the subject of sex education, but the biggest takeaway is not political, it’s personal. The film drives at introspection and being honest with yourself. So, while the theater was filled with laughter throughout, something deeper was also happening; several audience members expressed their gratitude to the filmmaker after the screening for making a work of art that hit so close to home.

One of the great things about Cucalorus is that it brings artists and audiences together to foster this kind of back-and-forth. Following our screening of A Sexplanation, Liu fielded questions from the crowd and from emcee Malloy.

Liu, formerly a health and science reporter for CNN, charmed the crowd with quick, intelligent answers during the Q&A following the film. When asked if his curiosity had been satiated by making this film, Liu responded by calling it a “beginning” for his own personal sex-planation. He said that the seven-year process it took to make the film helped him grow into himself and become more comfortable in his own skin. When he started making the film, he was led by “blind anger” – anger at his parents, at the school system, and at the nation for instilling deep shame in him and other children. But as he kept making his movie, Liu learned to let go of that anger, finding that the real way to combat shame and silence is to simply speak up. 

While A Sexplanation takes on the politically divisive topic of sex education in America, Liu’s approach makes the taboo feel less scary. His goal for the film was to help audiences with “the conversations you want to have, but don’t know how to have,” whether that conversation is with your child, your parent, your partner, or even yourself!

And this was just the beginning. Cucalorus runs through Sunday, November 14, with a wide variety of screenings, musical guests, and live events. Self-described as “The Circus of the Weird,” Cucalorus is a one-of-a-kind event in North Carolina, not to be missed! For more details and list of events, search “Cucalorus” in CVNC’s events calendar.