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Buffalo Niagara Film Festival features celebrity appearances, films through Sunday

A performance filmed in Mohawk Place and a drama that plays out on the Tonawanda Reservation are part of the 2013 Buffalo Niagara Film Festival, which opened last night and continues through Sunday. This year’s festival program is an eclectic mix of feature films, creative short works, documentaries and a touch of celebrity – director Larry Bishop and actor Michael Madsen (who played “Bump” Bailey in “The Natural”) plan to be in town for a Sunday afternoon screening of Bishop’s film “Hell Ride,” followed by their inclusion in the BNFF Walk of Fame.

But there are three more film-filled days before then.

Tonight’s local entry is “Hidden in the Hills,” a musical documentary by Dunkirk filmmaker Mark Kiyak. Kiyak spent a summer weekend at the annual Great Blue Heron Music Festival on Green Heron Farm in Sherman, recording the action on stage and behind the scenes at the combination bluegrass extravaganza and communal camp out. The screening is set for 10:45 tonight in the Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre (639 Main St.).

At 9 p.m. Friday, many members of the cast and crew will turn out at the Market Arcade for “Granted,” a full-length feature film made entirely in Buffalo including concert footage inside Mohawk Place and scenes outside of Duke’s Bohemian Grove Bar in Allentown. It tells the story of an up-and-coming rock musician, Avery, whose life takes a swift and tragic turn. Even two years later, he is unable to cope with his loss, which leads him to seek help in an unlikely place.

Anthony Vescio, 34, of Tonawanda, directed the movie. It was based on a story by Evan Pease, who is also cinematographer and editor, and written by Craig Gusmann. Vescio said the decision was made to go big after he, Jacob Albarella and other members of the filmmaking team Ma’s Meatloaf participated in the Buffalo 48-Hour Film Project in 2008. They picked up some awards, including audience favorite, “so we finally decided to do a feature film.”

The response has been good so far.

“Everybody that we’re showing it to has commented first and foremost on the performances, and then on the technical proficiency,” Vescio said. He praised his cast for their professionalism and willingness to be part of the movie, made on a shoestring and funded entirely by online crowd sourcing. He singled out for special mention his star, Brian Bernys, who plays Avery.

“Brian is easily the most talented actor in Buffalo, 100 percent born and bred for the screen,” Vescio said.

The filmmakers recruited actors they had worked with before, and crowd scenes were filled out with friends and family. In the long tradition of independent homegrown movies, no one was paid. Instead, Vescio said, “We showered them with kindness.”

Gary Sundown, director of “Bury My Heart With Tonawanda,” used a similar technique to populate his feature, which is set among the Native American community in Western New York in the late 1800s. The movie, about a young man with Down syndrome who flees institutionalization to live with the Senecas, was written by Adrian Esposito, 24, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when he was a child.

“I’d say there are about 100 people in the cast,” said Sundown, a Seneca and actor (although he said he is probably best known locally as Akron’s varsity lacrosse coach). “I called in friends, my family, people I worked with in other films. And for the elders in the film, I asked our elders – the chiefs and clan mothers – and they were ready to go!”

“Bury My Heart With Tonawanda” screens at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Market Arcade, but it got off the ground at an earlier festival.

Sundown, 43, has been performing in movies for many years but had not directed a film before. He said he met Esposito at the Buffalo film festival about three years ago.

“He asked if I would take part in his film as an actor, so I said to send me the script,” Sundown said. “Once I got it, I saw the title and – wow – I live on the Tonawanda Reservation, and this was about us!”

In the movie, the lead character is being sent to an asylum but is able to escape before he gets there. This resonates with native culture, Sundown said, because for decades children were removed from tribes and sent to Indian boarding schools.

Kristina Nomeika of Rochester, Esposito’s mother, is the film’s producer and shares Sundown’s enthusiasm for the personal connections found in the story.

“My son has a passion for Native American culture,” she said, noting that he is a member of the Friends of Ganondagan historic site. She said he once asked a guide there how the Senecas would have treated a person like himself, with a disability. “The guide said the Senecas would have treated him as a special person,” and the idea for the movie was born.

Several other local filmmakers are on the festival’s Saturday schedule: at 11 a.m., “Hollyhood Cinema,” by Arthur Taylor of Lockport, is described as the story of a mentor and his efforts to help a boy who wants to live vicariously through a home movie image of his jailed estranged father.

At 2 p.m. Saturday, it’s “Pyro Smugglers,” by Rian Lehman of Orchard Park, about people who buy and use illegal fireworks, with the tag line “Sometimes being patriotic means breaking some laws.”

And two local films are in the Saturday shorts block, which starts at 8 p.m.: “Sex and Spaghetti,” by Nicole Favale of East Amherst, and “Billy Hearts Cassidy,” by Daniel James and Jay Berent of Lockport.

Dozens of other movies from around the country, plus a few from Canada, fill out the schedule.

Sunday’s events with Madsen and Bishop at the Adam’s Mark Hotel start with a motorcycle procession at 1:30 p.m., a screening of “Hell Ride” at 1:45 p.m. followed by a Q&A session. The walk of fame ceremony is at 3:30 p.m. with photo and autograph opportunities for fans. At 5:30 p.m., the BNFF will host an awards ceremony and party.