Tallgrass Film Festival (2014) Roundup
12th ANNUAL TALLGRASS FILM FESTIVAL (2014)
Return of the Reels
October 15-19, 2014 marked the return of the Tallgrass Film Festival, held annually in Wichita, KS. The festival’s tagline is Stubbornly Independent since 2003 and the primary focus of the festival is around independent narrative films, documentaries, and shorts. Celebrating its independent roots, the core of the festival is the Stubbornly Independent Award, presented to the top film submitted for competition. To qualify submitted films must have been made for under $750,000 and cannot have a distribution deal at the time. 6 finalists were selected by the programming committee and then those were screened by an indepedent jury who selected the winner. Of note this year – over 1,400 films were submitted to the Tallgrass Film Festival this year and approximately 200 made the festivals final program to be shown over 4 (and an extra evening) days.
The Tallgrass Film Festival is quickly growing with attendance up each year over year. It has also earned a reputation within the indie film community as one of the only festivals where filmmakers are truly able to mingle with each other, festival VIPs, and even the filmgoers safely. Filmmakers are encouraged to interact with each other and there are a host of events throughout the festival, some of which are free to the public, where you can participate in a workshop or roundtable discussion with topics ranging from Acting for Film to the state of independent film in Hollywood today.
I spoke to a few filmmakers about the festival and what they thought about it. Kasi Brown, director of Stubbornly Independent contender GONE DOGGY GONE, said that she was at first skeptical but spoke to several friends who had shown films at Tallgrass and “they had nothing but positive things to say about the festival and the experience.” Filmmaker Jack Bryan, who’s film THE LIVING won this year’s Jake Euker Stubbornly Independent Award and earned the prime Saturday night slot said that the Tallgrass film festival encourages the filmmakers to spend time together and creates a community of filmmakers with this shared experience in a way that he has never seen from a film festival.
This year the film festival featured 206 films from over 30 countries around the world. Many filmmakers made the trip this year to attend their screenings and participate in Filmmaker Q&As following their screenings, including Oscar®-nominated documentarian James Spione (INCIDENT IN NEW BAGHDAD, 2011) in addition to about 30 others who were present not just for their screenings but spent time mingling in the VIP lounge, doing interviews, and just talking to festival-goers about both their films and their favorite festival screenings. There were some really great discussions held in the VIP lounge, a wide-open space featuring food and drink as well as entertainment for festival VIPs.
To keep things within walking distance, almost all the films and events were held within a square mile of the festival hub theater, the historic Orpheum Theater located in downtown Wichita. Right down the block, at the Scottish Rite, were the other large screenings and a few other smaller venues were available in the neighborhood as well, including the VIP lounge located just a block from the Orpheum. A few screenings and events were held further away but the festival provided limited transportation for those on time to the required location. My only issue with this year’s festival was with the scheduling – there were just too many movies I wanted to see to have time to get to them all… a good problem for any film festival to have.
BEST OF THE FEST – TALLGRASS XII EDITION
THE OVERNIGHTERS – Documentaries aren’t for everyone and yet this film, about what happens when the American dream hits in the middle of the recession, tells an incredibly complex and riveting story. Filmmaker Jesse Moss heard about the influx of thousands of men heading to the North Dakota oil fields in search of a steady paycheck and spent months documenting them before stumbling onto an intersecting story about a local pastor who was taking in these men and allowing him to stay in his church while they sought employment and permanent housing. The resulting film is very good but a revelation late in THE OVERNIGHTERS leaves you wondering just what you observed, what was real and what was hidden. This is my top film of the year so far and a definite contender for the Academy Award for Best Documentary. 5/5
THE LIVING – This film won the Jake Euker Stubbornly Independent Award and was featured on Saturday evening along with a Filmmaker Q&A with writer/director Jack Bryan and Producer John Snyder. Fran Krans (CABIN IN THE WOODS) and Jocelin Donahue (THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL) play married couple Teddy and Molly in this minimalist, polished feature that looks and feels like a movie from a different time (with a much higher budget to boot). When Teddy wakes up after an alcohol-fueled blackout and discovers he has beaten his wife within an inch of her life. Teddy’s road to redemption is played against Gordon (Molly’s brother) who, in anger and impotence at the situation, gets in over his head when he tries to hire a hitman to kill Teddy. Long silence punctuated by truly jarring violence, this slow-burn has grown on me every day since the screening. I wouldn’t be surprised if you get to see it in theaters sometime soon (yes, it’s that good). 4.5/5
LIFE ITSELF – This 2014 documentary about film critic and celebrity in his own right Roger Ebert opened the festival on Wednesday evening and set the mood for the entire event. Featuring a filmmaker Q&A following the screening with Producer Zac Piper, LIFE ITSELF was based on Ebert’s autobiography but takes a decidedly different slant when Ebert’s health begins its final decline shortly after the filming began. Ebert is the reason many people love to talk about films and his story is as interesting as the best Hollywood script. This one will easily be up for an Academy Award this year and was directed by documentary superstar Steve James (HOOP DREAMS, STEVIE). This one is already available for rental on iTunes, though I recommend waiting to purchase it as soon as it becomes available. 4.5/5
MAN FROM RENO – Another phenomenal film that deserves a shot in theaters, this is an example of what can happen when you use the constraints of independent filmmaking to your advantage. MAN FROM RENO is presented in English and Japanese and features a thrilling mystery reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ early work. To top it off it features killer performances from Pepe Serna, an actor whose career spans 4 decades and includes films like SCARFACE and SILVERADO, and Japanese film stars Ayako Fujitani (TOKYO!, 2008) and Kazuki Kitamura (KILL BILL, THE RAID 2). MAN FROM RENO is a thrilling crime adventure that begins with a small town Sheriff hitting a Japanese man with his car in the midst of a terrible fog. I could talk all day about this movie but would be afraid to spoil it. MAN FROM RENO featured a Filmmaker Q&A with associate producer Mye Hoang You should absolutely preemptively add this to your Netflix queue and watch for it on iTunes if you missed out on the killer Kickstarter campaign. 4/5
GONE DOGGY GONE – Stubbornly Independent Contender GONE DOGGY GONE features actor turned writer/director Kasi Brown and longtime collaborator/co-director Brandon Walter, who met while performing together with Upright Citizen’s Brigade in Los Angeles. GONE DOGGY GONE is a funny commentary on a world where we increasing treat our animals like children. When their dog (child) is kidnapped by its caregiver, Abby (Brown) and Eliott (Walter) are forced to face their own fears and failing relationship in this sweet comedy. Writer/Director/Star Kasi Brown was on-hand to answer questions after the screening and spent two evenings talking to everyone about the movies she had been able to see. 3.5/5
YOJIMBO – For the Friday night gala, YOJIMBO (Kurasawa’s 1961 classic) was screened in gorgeous 35mm in the Orpheum theater and was followed with a Q&A with Kurasawa scholar Stephen Prince (who provided commentary on the Criterion collection release of the film), moderated by Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey (a native Wichitan and filmmaker who now provides film criticism and who moderated last year’s PULP FICTION panel). YOJIMBO was a neat reminder of the history of film and the selection was paired with Hollywood’s remake A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. 3.5/5
KUMIKO THE TREASURE HUNTER – Based on an urban legend about a woman who discovered a video cassette of FARGO and thought it was a real account and went in search of the briefcase buried in the snow, KUMIKO is beautiful but ultimately paced just too slow for my taste. But, pacing aside, it features some elegant filmmaking and a breakthrough performance for Rinko Kikuchi (also featured in PACIFIC RIM). An intriguing premise for this indie darling thankfully wasn’t the only thing that kept me going. 3/5
The Tallgrass Film Festival was another great event and still seems poised to grow into something larger than it’s chip-on-its-shoulder, blue collar atmosphere would have you believe. Everyone who attends the festival, from filmmakers to volunteers, are excited about being part of this incredible event. Whether you decide to go all-in and purchase a VIP “Tallpass” the Tallgrass film festival continues to encourage everyone to watch, love, and share their views on films with each other and the very people who made the movies they are there to see.
The 12th Annual Tallgrass Film Festival was a great experience and one I would highly recommend to anyone who loves film and the experience of seeing something new and different. The VIP pass is well worth the money unless you want to sit in screenings from start to finish – the real value comes with participating in the roundtables, the workshops, and spending time in the VIP lounge. It shouldn’t have surprised me after last year, but this film festival is just damn good. You should definitely check it out.