Tallgrass Film Festival (2013) Roundup
Just about a week ago, the Eleventh Annual Tallgrass Film Festival (www.tallgrassfilmfest.com) wrapped in Wichita, KS. Eleven years in, the festival and the city of Wichita are thrumming with excitement – right at the edge of taking off and becoming a true national destination event for filmmakers and film lovers alike. I had the pleasure of covering the festival this year and was once again surprised by the quality of the films, the camaraderie of the festival goers, the events and parties, and the Tallgrass staff and volunteers who keep everything running smoothly for attendees.
I recently spoke with Executive Director Lela Meadow-Conner about the festival and how she feels after 11 years with the festival in Kansas. What follows is an excerpt from that interview:
Flix 66 – Please tell us how Tallgrass came to be?
Lela Meadow-Conner (Meadow-Conner) – Tallgrass was founded by Wichita native Tim Gruver in 2003. He knew that Wichita audiences were ready for an independent film festival with world-class programming.
Flix 66 – How did you come to be involved with the Tallgrass Film Festival?
Meadow-Conner – Tim and I met in LA in 1999. We became fast friends. When he moved back here in 2003 to found Tallgrass, he called and asked me if I wanted to come to Wichita to produce the first festival. I had never been to Kansas, and I did what you can do in your 20’s – I quit my job and came out to Wichita to do Tallgrass! In some capacity or another I’ve been involved [with the festival] ever since.
Flix 66 – The festival’s slogan is “Stubbornly Independent.” What does that mean to you?
Meadow-Conner – Stubbornly Independent means taking risks, not conforming to the status quo and really embodies an entrepreneurial spirit. All of these characteristics are inherent in independent filmmaking. Some of the cinematic stories are told when people have the freedom to tell them freely, without having to worry about corporate influences and the like.
Flix 66 – What does the Tallgrass Film Association [the non-profit that runs the festival] do the rest of the year when the festival isn’t actually happening?
Meadow-Conner – Well, we do year-round events including special screenings, filmmaker labs, and out Tallgrass Road Show around the state of Kansas. While all that is happening, we’re working on the following year’s festival. The call for submissions for the 2014 fest goes out in December, so as of then we’ll start receiving films for review. It’s a long process.
Flix 66 – How can people get more information about the festival, programs, etc?
Meadow-Conner – tallgrassfilmfest.com and follow us on facebook (facebook.com/tallgrassfilm) and twitter (twitter.com/tallgrass).
TALLGRASS FILM FESTIVAL 2013 ROUNDUP
I spent the majority of the festival in two theaters – the historic Orpheum Theater located in downtown Wichita and the Scottish Rite Theater, located on the same block. Both theaters are beautiful and have wonderful historic value but they are a little bit light on the technical aspects we have become used to in the recent multiplex, high definition, THX or Dolby surround experience. There were very few technical snafus and nothing that interrupted a single film I saw. Even when there were issues, though, Tallgrass attendees and the filmmakers respond with a sort of blue-collar, chip on their shoulder “we are [stubbornly] independent” feeling, taking everything in stride. Movies run all day the entire run of the festival with just short breaks in between which means you can catch five or six films every day… but with that many films, how many are you going to see that are quality? The festival gave plenty this year, more than I could have asked.
BEST OF THE FEST
HOW TO MAKE MOVIES AT HOME – This movie, from writer/director Morgan Nichols, was a total surprise for me. A kickstarter project, it is both a narrative film and a wonderfully educational piece with some great acting, writing, and visual effects. Nichols has crafted a movie that speaks to the filmmaker and storyteller inside of you. Great acting goes hand in hand with a nice script and the whole thing is executed beautifully. My personal favorite of the festival. Filmmaker Nichols came to the festival for the weekend and did a Q&A following the screening. 9/10
WORM – Shot entirely on a Go-Pro HD2, this 90+ minute film is, incredibly, one long shot. Writer/Director/Producer/Everyman Andrew Bowser put together this tale of stuttering young ex-con Worm, who believes everything he has done is justified because he does them for what he sees as the right reasons. A treat for its technical prowess, the star of the film is Bowser who spends the entire film directly in front of the camera as Worm tries to save his family from a plot that keeps getting more and more complicated. Bowser was also present the entire weekend and did a Q&A following Worm that was nearly as interesting as the movie. 8/10
FOREV – This first time feature from directors Molly Green and James Leffler, FOREV takes a fresh look at a tired genre, the romantic comedy. A friend described FOREV simply and he was right, it is absolutely adorable. It’s the story of Sophie and Pete, neighbors who find themselves suddenly headed towards a greater relationship than either of them has considered thanks to a simple joke. Uncomfortable at times (but in a funny way), you really care for these kids and want to see them pull through. Great acting all around, this is my hidden gem from the festival. 7/10
PULP FICTION – Yes, 20 years after its initial release, PULP FICTION played as the Centerpiece Gala, the prime Friday night 7:00 pm slot. First off, if you haven’t seen it an you love movies, go and get it now. You can actually purchase it for under $10 on Blu-ray. GO! Okay, now that you’re back, a couple of things made this showing more than just a call back to a great film from the past… after the screening there was a Q&A hosted by Jason Bailey, local filmmaker turned film critic who works for Flavorwire (http://flavorwire.com/author/jason605/) and who just published a book on the story behind the story of PULP FICTION, Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece. In addition, Bailey did the Q&A following the film with Karyn Rachtman (Music Supervisor, who also worked on MOULIN ROUGE with Baz Luhrmann) and veteran casting director Ronnie Yeskel. They shared stories of working on PULP FICTION and other films and their time with Tarantino. Overall an inspiring and incredible night. 10/10
FAVOR – won the Jake Euker Stubbornly Independent award. Don’t know what I think about this one… the acting is great (with veteran Blaine Weaver) and the filmmaking is certainly competent, even very good, but this one just didn’t come together for me the way a few others did. An interesting movie but I think I just couldn’t get behind rooting for the characters. Very similar feeling to VERY BAD THINGS. 6/10
BLACKFISH – Documentary about Sea World and Tilikum, the killer whale responsible for the deaths of at least three people. This is a beautiful film with a lot of footage and interviews I’ve never seen before. Very nicely edited, it’s a documentary for people who don’t like documentaries… a very narrative feel to the entire piece. You can click the title to link to the entire review. 8/10
Tallgrass 11 offered loads of entertainment and engaging options from filmmakers around to globe, including:
181 Official Selected Feature Films
129 Short Films
52 Feature Films
29 Filmmakers visiting from around the world
5 Gala Events
32 Kansas connections
32 Films from different countries/territories
Even more impressive are the things you don’t hear about until you arrive at the festival, or find out chatting up the amazing staff, volunteers, filmmakers, VIPs and other moviegoers. A great example of this you may not know about – there was a specific focus on using technology to live-tweet during screenings. This meant that filmmakers could answer questions or provide trivia throughout their screening and it encouraged interaction beyond just the standard QA session. This was especially popular during the Gala events, when filmmakers who weren’t even at the festival were able to interact with moviegoers. (Check out @filminthecloud, @tallgrass, or #Tallgrass11 on Twitter for more info.)
If you decide to purchase a “Tallpass” (or VIP pass, which gets you into any film, panel, or event you decide to attend) you had singular access to filmmakers, food, libations, and company of your fellow film lovers for the 5 days of the festival. The Tallgrass Film Festival offers the standard festival atmosphere with incredible access to filmmakers, many who stay around for filmmaker panels or participate in QAs after their films. The difference, though, is that everyone is treated like a VIP at the Tallgrass Film Festival. Filmmakers and volunteers and VIPs and Sponsors, Staff and Tallgrass Film Association Board members all intermingle and talk about how films have influenced their lives.
Tallgrass also features an incredible VIP lounge where festival goers can find food and drink, a massage, or just converse with filmmakers and other VIPs and staff at all times throughout the day. The evening parties after the Gala events, the only thing that I skipped movies to attend, were also top notch featuring live music (this year there was a White Stripes cover band one evening and a Jazz band the next), incredible food and drinks, and another opportunity to sit down and talk to people at the festival. Each event is themed and features nice little touches (Saturday nights PanAm party featured ‘sexy stews’ handing out little pre-packaged inflight meals and welcoming guests aboard).
In closing, the Tallgrass Film Festival is a bit of an enigma – a growing festival with increasing popularity each year that somehow manages to maintain its small-town feel. I can’t tell you how many filmmakers I overheard saying that this was their favorite festival of the season. It’s a bit of a surprise to everyone, I think, just how good this festival is… if you love filmmaking, you should definitely be here next year. Save the date – Tallgrass 12 is October 15-19, 2014. I will definitely be there.