A Grand Rapids filmmaker and graduate of Alpena High School is winning international acclaim for his first feature film, "Ape," which received awards at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland last month and is set to make its North American premiere at the Vancouver Film Festival in October.
A self-described cinephile, 35-year-old Joel Potrykus said he graduated from Alpena High School in 1995 and studied journalism at Alpena Community College for two years with an aim to pursue filmmaking or film criticism, his mind made up when he discovered he could actually go to college and study his passion instead of math or science.
"I knew I wasn't going to be Steven Spielberg or anything, but I thought if I could do this and make money at it, that's what I want to do," he said.
He completed a bachelor's degree in film at Grand Valley State University, where he made short films and found collaborators for his first feature, including associate producer Sarah Keen, formerly Sarah Fairbanks of Rogers City, and lead actor Joshua Burge. Upon seeing his work, Keen said she was immediately impressed with Potrykus' professionalism.
"I thought, 'I'm hitching myself to his wagon,'" she said. "I thought he could possibly go places ... and he did."
Potrykus wrote the screenplay for "Ape" in early 2011, filmed it over the summer, completed post-production in June 2012 and premiered it at Switzerland's Locarno Film Festival on Aug. 8, where it screened in competition with 18 other films and won Best New Director and Special Mention for Best First Feature.
As a filmmaker, Potrykus said he takes inspiration from the likes of Alan Clarke and Jean-Luc Godard more than Steven Spielberg or James Cameron, describing "Ape" as a "rage fantasy" about a frustrated stand-up comic who lashes out at his antagonizers.
"(We were) taking it back to basics. There's no CGI or crane shots or any of this crap, it's all stripped down. Punk rock came around, and it's like, 'Let's forget all these conventions and all the big hoopla, let's just strip it down to absolute basics, and let's make punk rock. Let's make our movie,'" he said. "It's just bare bones, completely intentional, just the way those old French New Wave guys did it, taking all the silliness out of it and just tell your story, and keep it real."
Though he was not at liberty to quote specific budget figures, he said he made the film in Grand Rapids with money from local investors encouraged by his earlier short film, "Coyote," which is available online.
Potrykus is now gearing up for the film's North American premiere at the Vancouver Film Festival on Oct. 6, shopping for a U.S. festival and distributor, and preparing his next feature to shoot in Grand Rapids next summer. He also writes for VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever, an annual movie review anthology.
He said he returns to his hometown every couple months to visit his parents, and his mother, Claire Potrykus of Ossineke, said she hopes his example might encourage local dreamers to embrace their ambition.
"I would really hope that kids growing up in Alpena would see themselves as really in a unique situation to be able to experience the best of being raised in such a wonderful, pure environment that we still have up in Alpena but still be able to enter the world of anything they want to do, with as much enthusiasm as anybody coming from a big city," she said. "There are no boundaries anymore."
Andrew Westrope can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5693.