The 14th Annual Tallgrass Film Festival Roundup
Stubbornly Independent Since 2003
The TALLGRASS FILM FESTIVAL opened on October 12, 2016 in Wichita, KS in the historic Orpheum Theater in downtown Wichita with an incredible outpouring of support from the local community. The theater was filled with both local and returning filmmakers from around the globe, VIPs who paid for Tallpasses (the festival passes that grant access to all of the festival amenities, more on this later) from all over the United States, and the air was filled with anticipation of the event that was to come over the next 4 very full days. Now in its 14th year, the Tallgrass Film Festival continues to celebrate its roots as the film festival for stubbornly independent filmmakers who embrace and revel in the experiences independent filmmaking allow them that larger studio productions do not, or cannot.
The festival opened this year with a lighthearted film, FOLK HERO & FUNNY GUY, by former stand-up comedian and first-time feature director Jeff Grace. After the film Director Grace was on hand for a Q&A, along with producer Ryland Aldrich and actress Heather Morris (who you might recognize from her starring role in GLEE, among other roles). While the film was light fun and set a nice tone for the festival it wasn’t necessarily a highlight (note my top 5 and honorable mentions below). Rather, it showcased the programming team’s expertise in establishing a program that is worthy of national attention. *Worthy of note – The Tallgrass Film Festival has been on MovieMaker Magazine’s Festivals Worth the Entry Fee for several years. There is a reason for this acknowledgement within the filmmaking community.
Attendance at the 14th Annual Tallgrass Film Festival continued the trend of growing year-over-year and the festival feels like it is on the brink of explosion. This year saw over 16,400 attendees (still solid growth, a full thousand more than last year), at the festival. What’s more the Stubbornly Independent nominees (domestically produced films, made for less than $750,000 without distribution at the time of submission to the independent jury who review them) were truly worthy of note with many films that will likely be gracing your iTunes or Blu-ray libraries in the near future. The quality of the films at the festival and the filmmakers who have come to the festival, 114 this year alone, is a tribute to the staff and volunteers who put the festival together.
The number of filmmakers who attend the Tallgrass Film Festival may seem astounding but the public access to them is equally or more so. Festival VIPs regularly interact with filmmakers in the VIP lounge or before and after screenings. In discussing the atmosphere of this particular festival versus other festivals nationally, several filmmakers stated Tallgrass Film Festival was the most community-engaged festival they had ever attended. One specific visiting filmmaker stated to this reviewer the reason he keeps coming back (he has been multiple times) is that the Tallgrass Film Festival, more than Sundance (he stated specifically), more than any other festival he has attended, cultivates both the community and the filmmakers and brings everyone together to have an immersive filmmaking experience unlike any other. He said it is ‘his favorite time of the year.’
The film festival received over 2,000 submissions this year, each of which was reviewed by the programming committee to produce the program of over 190 independent features and short films from 33 countries presented over 5 days to festival-goers in Wichita, KS. When festival-goers aren’t sitting in films, there are tons of activities including filmmaker panels, on-site radio-shows, a press-junket that occurred within the VIP-lounge which increased access to the filmmakers who were on site throughout the festival, parties throughout the day and after the Gala events each evening, filmmaker labs on casting & financing, scoring, cinematography, using VR in filmmaking, and screenwriting, as well as a number of filmmaker roundtables that ran the gamut and provided something for everyone.
As in years past, the festival continues to attempt to schedule everything within walking distance in downtown Wichita and almost all events were held at or within walking distance of the festival hub theater, the historic Orpheum Theater in downtown Wichita. The Orpheum featured significantly upgraded facilities this year in terms of sound and projection and many festival-goers noted the improvements in both the presentation of the films and the overall experience. From my point of view things seem to be run incredibly smoothly this year, with filmmaker Q&As transitioning seamlessly from festival screenings that were much more smooth than in years past. Transportation, when events were held outside of the small radius, was provided by the festival. There were once again too many films to see with the limited time and programming difficulties are always a good problem for a festival to have. I hope to be invited back.
BEST OF THE FEST – TALLGRASS XIV EDITION
SANTOALLA – Quite possibly one of the finest documentaries I have ever seen, this feature explores the mindset of a woman who stays in the small township where she and her husband moved and where they lived in some dischord with a single other family until her husband’s disappearance. She has remained in her home just yards from the other family and continued to work the land as she believes her husband would have wanted. Filmmakers Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer were on hand for the film and for a Q&A following the screening and provided some insight into their process and into documentary filmmaking as a whole. A truly powerful feature. 5/5
DELINQUENT – The film that won the Jake Euker Stubbornly Independent Award was featured on Saturday night and has stuck with me since the Saturday evening screening. Initially the subtle acting was the standout for this film, which also features some breathtaking cinematography and editing. This is the type of film that rides on incredible charisma of its star and despite having a few flaws, including a relatively weak third act and some plot issues, they are almost entirely forgivable and in fact forgettable thanks to the incredible performances of the film’s stars. DELINQUENT was, by far, the strongest narrative feature I saw at the film festival and it deserves greater attention. 5/5
ENLIGHTEN US: THE RISE AND FALL OF JAMES ARTHUR RAY – Director Jenny Carchman was on hand during the screening and after for a short time for the Q&A following this feature which was just picked up by CNN films. Another incredibly interesting subject, a motivational speaker who will indelibly remind you of Tom Cruise’s character from MAGNOLIA (in both good and bad ways), James Arthur Ray was at the top of his game when he was asked to be part of the cultural phenomenon The Secret, and then he had three persons die in a sweat-lodge accident while on a retreat with him. This film documents his calculated rise, his meteoric fall, and his attempt to return to a world where he can once again help people realize their potential. 4.5/5
MAD TIGER – This documentary chronicles the Japanese/NY-based performance-art punk-band Peelander-Z, and was shown as the Thursday evening Gala feature. Following the film Peelander-Z performed at a local rock-and-roll bar called Barleycorns and confirmed, to the massive and crushing audience inside the bar, their performances in the film were only the tip of the iceberg. I am positive I cannot help but be influenced by the performance. The film was beautifully done and, in fact, showed a lot of turmoil inside the Peelander-Z camp. Yet it also showcased the beauty of humanity, and our hope for redemption, in a way that very few films have been able to capture. This was a highlight event of the festival and a breakthrough film as well. 5/5
CUT TO THE CHASE – This film is a bit of an enigma on the festival circuit, an action thriller that was definitely a different taste during the festival. This is the story of Max Chase, a down-on-his-luck gambler who is always one step behind but who has always had his sister to bail him out. Written, directed, and starring Blayne Weaver, who has attended the Tallgrass Film Festival as an actor on previous occasions and has been a long-time Hollywood bit-player who has recently taken a larger role behind the camera. Weaver is a joy to watch on screen, he has a natural charisma that obviously extends to his work behind the camera as well. CUT TO THE CHASE featured a great Q&A and Weaver is a person with whom I genuinely enjoy spending time and having a discussion. This film is an extension of his prowess and, notably, just (right before this goes to press) received distribution so it will be hitting select theaters. 4.5/5
DRIFTWOOD – One of the most original narrative features I’ve seen, thanks in part to the film featuring no dialogue at all in its approximately 80 minutes. Yet nearly everyone I spoke to who saw this film absolutely loved it. DRIFTWOOD features stellar performances from only three cast members and focuses on familial relationships and gender roles. At times the metaphors can be pretty heavy-handed but surprisingly the acting was some of the more subtle in the entire festival. Producer Alex Megaro was on-site as well. A great entry with an independent heart, this one will undoubtedly be available to you in some shape or form and you should definitely check it out. 5/5
EMPTY SPACE – this film was made with a micro-budget by filmmaker James Choi, a Tallgrass Alum who teaches at DePaul University in Chicago. Choi makes the type of films that inspire young filmmakers to get out and make movies. They always do more than seems possible with his limited budgets and yet he always seems to do more the next time. EMPTY SPACE is about an overweight young man who goes to live in self-imposed exile in his deceased grandmother’s home in a small rural town to escape the bullying and anger he has been exposed to his entire life. Maybe I identified too much with some parts of the character but I found the performances inspiring and beautiful. Choi remains one of my favorite independent filmmakers. 4.5/5
GIRL FLU – The film festival closed with this gem of a Gala feature, featuring Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) of a young girl who is going through her first period at the worst possible time in her life. I heard, from every single woman I talked to about this feature, that it perfectly encapsulated the feelings of that first week of womanhood – the potential wonder but also the fear and anxiety, the stress and overwhelming feeling of nothing ever being the same again. Heather Matarazzo (WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE) co-starred and was on-hand along with the writer/director for a Q&A following the film. It was definitely a festival highlight. 5/5
The Tallgrass Film Festival was difficult to describe – this year was one of the strongest programs I have ever seen. It continues to impress with stronger and stronger programs and was another great event from start to finish. I believe I could have reviewed just about every film I viewed and there were none that would have scored below a 3 on our 5 point scale… which is remarkable.
The 14th Annual Tallgrass Film Festival continued the Stubbornly Independent tradition of the festival and carried it with class. I highly recommend this festival to any and everyone who claims to love film. The VIP “Tallpass” is definitely the way to go if you can get out of work for a few days but don’t just sit in films, plan to attend some roundtable discussions, have a loose schedule and enjoy the filmmakers and the other folks attending the festival. The real joy of Tallgrass is just that – the community the festival staff have cultivated over the last 14 years is truly astonishing and well worth the price of admission.