by Kalynn Huffman Brower
When I asked award-winning independent filmmakers at Heartland about the development of their ideas, whether seasoned pro or high school novice, this is what they said:
“It’s a film I had to make.”
“Every day when I woke up and again when I went back to sleep, this story is all I could think about.”
“We made a film our grandkids would want to see.”
“It was such a great story a story I wanted to see on the screen.”
“I realized if the film was going to get made, I was going to have to do it.”
Every filmmaker said some variation of the above, yet each film at the 2005 Heartland Film Festival is unique. The obvious differences are format and length, ranging from animated and live-action shorts to feature-length motion pictures to an array of documentary films, including historical, nature, and biographical portraits.
Within the broader categories each of the films has its own personal stamp, too, a special flavor, a rich texture. One of the greatest pleasures of festival going is the opportunity to sample the enormous variety of cinematic storytelling. Here’s a few of the 24 truly moving pictures I’ve seen:
A SILENT NIGHT (student short by Andy Nguyen) takes place in Viet Nam in 1972 during the darkest hour of the war. The treachery of a mine field, the fear lurking in the night shadows, all is overcome one Christmas eve when a Vietnamese boy meets an American Soldier and a Buddhist monk plays a beloved Christmas carol.
Beautifully photographed and scored, PEARL DIVER (dramatic feature written and directed by Sidney King) tells the story of two sisters. As young girls they are inseparable, until they witness two men kill their mother. The tragic loss pulls them apart and shuts off their ability to communicate. As adults, when a life-threatening accident strikes their family, their love brings them together again.
SOMETHING TO CHEER ABOUT (written, produced and directed by Betsy Blankenbaker) is an historical documentary that chronicles the inspiring story of the 1955 Crispus Attucks High School basketball team. They were poor boys from the poorest neighborhood of Indianapolis, and as an all-black team they regularly encountered racial prejudice from the white referees.
Despite the crushing obstacles, Coach Ray Crowe led them to the Indiana state championship. Not only did they rise above hate and fear, they invigorated the game, bringing street moves onto the court, making basketball a more exciting sport. Moves like the fast break and the pick, standard in today’s game, were invented by Crowe and his team.
KATHRYN celebrates the life of an extraordinary woman, Kathryn Tucker Windham. Writer-producer-director Norton Dill filmed her daily activities for two years and discovered her story. Odd as it may sound, the feature documentary with occasional bad focus and audio interference was for me the most truly moving picture that I’ve seen so far. True, I have particular affection for storytellers, and Kathryn is a consummate storyteller, ghost stories among her favorites. Dill faithfully records the life and thoughts of a truly authentic person. Kathryn Tucker Windham has led an extraordinary life for eight decades. A Southern woman, a pioneering journalist, a community builder, a life force who inspires everyone she encounters. The ingredients are there and this film captures far more than the sum of its parts.
It’s a little early in the year for a Christmas movie, but the Sunday matinee, 12 DOGS OF CHRISTMAS, was a delightful movie made in the spirit of the old TV show /Spanky and Our Gang/ “Let’s put on a show!” That’s what the young characters in the story did when they were faced with a mean-spirited dog catcher. What else could the kids do to save the town’s dogs? And to hear the producer and director tell their own story, that’s what they did, too.
Rather than wade through the arduous process of studio approval (often taking years, usually ending in a no-go red light), Ken Kragen (producer) and Kieth Merrill (director) seized their own opportunity. Putting second mortgages on their own homes, working outside the Hollywood studio system, asking daughters to write and perform, sons to produce, all their young friends to join in. That’s how they created a wonderful, high-quality family picture, a picture they wanted to see, a film they knew their grandkids would want to see.
Each of the independent filmmakers at Heartland had a similar story. Andy Nguyen’s parents paid for his airfare to VietNam. Once there the cast and crew helped him make his film, all of them working for free.
Another student wrote family and friends asking that rather than send a wedding gift they may have planned, instead she wanted financial assistance for her thesis film. Betsy Blankenbaker poured profits she made on her previous documentary into SOMETHING TO CHEER ABOUT and she’s using this documentary to finance a feature film of the same story.
As long as filmmakers are passionate about their stories, they’ll make their movies.
If audience response is the surest way to gauge success, who needs a studio to produce a truly moving picture?