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The Soul of Southern Film

The Indie Memphis Film Festival changes venues while trying to keep its momentum.



Entering its fifth year, the Indie Memphis Film Festival may be the most successful of the growing number of local film fests, but it's still a baby on the circuit. By contrast, the Nashville Independent Film Festival celebrated its 33rd anniversary this summer. But Indie Memphis is a comer.

The festival took a big step last year, moving from its cozy Overton Park digs to Beale Street and expanding its selection. The festival was a hit with locals and out-of-towners both, transforming its impact from merely fostering local film to also significantly enhancing the viewing options of local film fans. The festival, dubbed "The Soul Of Southern Film," seeks to keep its momentum this year when it moves to a different downtown location, Muvico's Peabody Place theaters, for the October 3rd through 6th festival.

The transition to Muvico from the makeshift theaters in Beale Street clubs should provide a more professional presentation for the approximately 100 films slated to be screened as well as eliminate the problem of sound bleed that the festival experienced last year. But festival coordinator Will O'Loughlen (a filmmaker whose documentary Small Timers is a previous Indie Memphis winner) admits that the move is a trade-off: What the festival gains in professionalism, it could lose in the kind of street-culture ambience that encouraged pre- and post-screening mingling.

The festival was moved from its traditional summer time slot to fall to accommodate Muvico's programming needs, a move that O'Loughlen says he welcomed, since it gave him more time to program and local filmmakers more time to fine-tune projects.

The festival will screen nearly 100 films over four days on three Muvico screens -- national and local, features and documentaries, full-length films and shorts, all with some connection to the South. The festival has scaled back what was a rewarding but poorly attended symposium last year (a component O'Loughlen says is still a part of the festival's future goals) in favor of an opening panel discussion, "Rednecks, Hillbillies, and Celluloid Clintons: Hollywood's Inventions Of the South," which will kick off the fest at 5 p.m. Thursday and feature University of Memphis professor Allison Graham and The Poor & Hungry director Craig Brewer, among others.

The festival has also ruffled a few feathers locally by not accepting all local entries for competition -- a first. "I've drawn a lot of fire from local filmmakers about this," O'Loughlen says, "but the festival is five years old, and it's going to be harder and harder to get films in. The film community isn't just filmmakers. It's also the people who attend. We've got a responsibility to both to put the best stuff on the screen." O'Loughlen also says that the screening committee -- made up of members of parent arts organization Delta Axis, board members of the Shelby County Film and Television Commission, and other film enthusiasts -- took previous screenings into account in selecting local films for competition.

One result, O'Loughlen admits, of the festival's Southern focus is that it makes programming more of a challenge, necessarily narrowing the group of films the festival can work from.

The result this year seems to be an extremely strong slate of documentaries but a relatively weak slate of features, especially compared to last year, when the critically acclaimed George Washington screened out of competition. The highest-profile national feature is Changing Hearts (7 p.m. Friday and Sunday), a comedy filmed in Nashville starring Faye Dunaway, Lauren Holly, and Tom Skerritt. Changing Hearts was one of the feature attractions at the Nashville Independent Film Festival earlier this year and is screening out of competition at Indie Memphis.

Changing Hearts may well be an exception, but generally speaking, if a film boasts recognizable, usually B-list "stars" and Hollywood-quality production values, there's a reason it doesn't have distribution and is hitting small film festivals: Chances are it's a straight-to-video/straight-to-cable type of film. O'Loughlen insists that this isn't always the case, that some of these films just haven't gotten the right opportunity and that a festival needs to balance star-driven films with less identifiable fare -- and he's right on both counts. But the national features screening at this year's festival still bear out the theory: Briar Patch (7:30 p.m. Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday), a Southern Gothic tale in which Dominique "Lolita" Swain traipses around backwoods avoiding abusive, marijuana-growing husband Henry "E.T." Thomas, and The Killer Next Door (7 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Sunday), in which Lando Calrissian teams up with Winnie from The Wonder Years for a Rear Window retread that clumsily tries to tap into serial-killer chic, might give straight-to-video a bad name. Far better are a couple of films with a less showy pedigree. The flower-shop mockumentary Making Arrangements (7 p.m. Thursday, 1 p.m. Sunday) is a likable little film that investigates a rarely explored subculture, investing its ethnography with some gentle humor. And the Austin-produced feature Cicadas (11:30 a.m. Saturday) is the best national feature that was available for prescreening, a sensitive yet tough tale of a rather put-upon teenage girl and the siblings and friends who orbit her. The film features a winningly natural performance from lead actress Lindsay Broockman that is something of a revelation.

What follows is a more in-depth critical guide to the feature-length documentaries and local films Indie Memphis is offering this year, with a sidebar from Local Beat columnist Andria Lisle on some of the fest's music-oriented offerings.


Mai's America

Originally aired earlier this year as part of public television's P.O.V. series, Mai's America (5 p.m. Friday) is a culture clash that cuts both ways: It allows us to see American and Southern culture as refracted through the lens of its protagonist, pixieish Hanoi high-schooler Mai, who travels to America on an exchange program for her senior year. While Mai's America doesn't turn out to be quite the one she anticipated, her stranger-in-a-strange-land experience also alters her view of her native Vietnam.

Director Marlo Poras first situates Mai in her middle-class Hanoi milieu, tracking her as she breezes down the city's bustling streets via moped past giant posters of American entertainment icons (Stallone, Monroe, Schwarzenegger) and less fortunate kids her age who polish shoes all day for rice money. Mai lives in a hotel owned by her father and envisions an America seen in movies. What she gets is rural Mississippi -- with all the religious, racial, and cultural issues that implies. (For example, Mai befriends a young gay man, with whom she seems to share a kinship as an outsider, but is still too intimidated by social pressures to invite him to the prom.)

Mai, like her classmates, is a child of the Vietnam War generation --her dad drove a tank and fought against American soldiers. We learn that, back in Hanoi, it is called the "American War," and Mai and her classmates are taught to be proud of a country of poor rice farmers who fought against the richest, most powerful nation in the world. In her voice-over narration, Mai muses, eloquently, about how lucky she and her American classmates are to have been born after the war.

The lasting imprint of the American War also figures prominently in Mai's meetings with Vietnamese immigrants in Mississippi, whose clinging to their native culture seems to reflect an antebellum Vietnam far removed from the country and culture Mai knows.

Though the ghosts of conflict linger, Mai's America is perhaps most fascinating for the function Mai serves as a sort of unintentional de Tocqueville, her sincere confusion over American (and Southern) class distinctions and racial stereotypes transformed into deadpan cultural insight.

In the end, Mai tries to stay in America for college (initially getting a partial scholarship to Tulane) rather than return to a country that affords "no minimum wage, no welfare, no 'security' numbers." But the money runs out, leaving Mai performing pedicures for patronizing WASPs alongside other Vietnamese immigrants in Detroit, a fate rhyming with that of the shoeshine boys she seemed so above back in Hanoi and confirming her clear conclusion about her two countries: "In Vietnam, it takes so much time to make one dollar, and in America, it takes no time to spend it."

Horns and Halos

This intimate documentary (9 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Sunday) follows the partnership of two rather unlikely characters in one equally unlikely common cause.

Arkansas ex-con and author of quickie bios on second-tier celebrities such as Patrick Stewart and Ewan McGregor, J.H. Hatfield became a cause célèbre in 1999 when St. Martin's Press published Fortunate Son, his biography of then-presidential candidate George W. Bush, a book that was the first to allege that Bush had been arrested for cocaine possession in 1972.

The book created a minor stir until a Texas reporter discovered that Hatfield had served time on murder-conspiracy charges, prompting St. Martin's to pull the book from the shelves. The film picks up Hatfield's story a few weeks later, in the tenement basement offices of self-styled punk publisher Soft Skull Press and its founder, 29-year-old Sander Hicks, who is attempting to republish the book.

Horns and Halos offers a penetrating look at the seedy, shoestring world of underground publishing and, in a larger sense, the difficulty that marginal culture has in contesting or impacting mainstream culture (an apt subject for a festival devoted to independent film).

The film puts big questions on the table that it never fully explores -- the eventual insistence (at a shaky press conference at the 2001 Book Expo of America) that Hatfield's source for the cocaine allegation was Bush political adviser Karl Rove and the implication that the tip was misinformation designed to discredit the rest of the book. But the film's tracking of Hicks' and Hatfield's attempts to get Fortunate Son back in stores is tempered and grounded by interviews with such figures as Pete Slover, the Dallas journalist who first uncovered Hatfield's past, and media critic Mark Crispin Miller, who defends the book.

In Hatfield, the film has a great, tragic, shadowy character to follow -- but one who commits suicide three weeks after that tumultuous press conference.

American Standoff

Celebrated documentarian Barbara Kopple explored labor organizing in the coal-mining and meat-packing industries, respectively, in Harlan County, U.S.A. and American Dream. In the HBO production American Standoff (1:30 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday), which Kopple produced, the lens is turned on the transportation industry -- specifically, the attempt by employees of trucking firm Overnite Transportation to join the Teamsters and negotiate a union contract -- but aimed at an even bigger issue: the state of organized labor itself.

The film opens with a prologue about the heyday of the Teamsters, under the control of controversial Jimmy Hoffa, and the union's subsequent decline -- from 2.4 million to 1.4 million members and a 1989 government takeover to flush out mob influences.

The film picks up in 1999 at the Teamsters' presidential inauguration of Hoffa's son, James P. Hoffa, who decides that Overnite will be his top priority --a proving ground for the Teamsters and a battlefield over the question "Do American workers still have the right to organize?"

One of Hoffa's right-hand men, organizer John Murphy (a childless divorcé who means it when he says the union is his life) thinks it will be a three-week strike. But Overnite's parent company, Union Pacific, has deep pockets and, seemingly, the willingness to do "whatever it takes" to keep the union out.

Three weeks stretch into three months into two years, until the film ends with 600 workers still out on strike and Union Pacific having spent more than $100 million to stop the union. Along the way, American Standoff introduces us to some unforgettable people: Joe Reeves, a third-generation Overnite driver in Atlanta who leads the fight after seeing other longtime workers mistreated; Hope Hampelman, a single mom five times over and Chicago-based driver; and Mike Ferriolo, a Long Island dockworker who goes on strike after a co-worker is injured on the job and then fired.

Spanning two years and several locations, including Memphis, American Standoff offers a bleak but not hopeless portrait of a labor movement struggling to regain power amid ever more powerful corporations and an ever less responsive government.

The Rest: The Wilco doc I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (midnight Friday), which will get a proper local release later this fall, may be the festival's most high-profile attraction. The sharp, sepia-toned black-and-white film documents the recording and mixing of the band's recent, highly acclaimed album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the subsequent, now infamous record-company flap that it inspired. The film also includes material on the dismissal of band member Jay Bennett, concert footage of the band and leader Jeff Tweedy solo.

One of the most popular selections at the Nashville Independent Film Festival held earlier this year, Injurious George (1:30 p.m. Friday) follows the case of one of Nashville's most notorious criminals, the Foot-stomper, a man with "an overwhelming compulsion to stomp women's feet," who is accused of so accosting more than 100 Nashville women. Director Demetria Kalodimos spends the first half of the film recounting the Stomper's story through interviews with related parties and Thin Blue Line-style reenactments. Then, unexpectedly, she tracks down the Stomper himself, a man named George Mitchell who fled the city after his last arrest in 1985 and who has since overcome his problem.

Other docs include the highly regarded The Rough South Of Larry Brown (5:15 p.m. Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday), a study of the life and work of the Oxford-based author, the Tennessee-produced Fans and Freaks (10 a.m. Friday), a look at the culture of comics and science-fiction conventions, and a couple of culinary-based entries, Southern Stews and Carolina Hash (at a joint screening, 10 a.m. Friday).


Natural Selection

After screening to an overflow crowd at the MeDiA Co-op Digital Film Festival earlier this year, this new work from local film fixture Craig Brewer (The Poor & Hungry) gets a second public showing, out of competition, at Indie Memphis this week (4 p.m. Saturday).

Natural Selection is Brewer's first completed work since The Poor & Hungry exploded on the local film scene a couple of years ago but isn't to be confused with that film's true follow-up, Hustle and Flow, a multimillion-dollar-budgeted Southern rap-themed film Brewer hopes to begin shooting for Universal Pictures offshoot Focus Features in January.

More of a side project, Natural Selection (which also features a fine score from local musician Ron Franklin) was born out of a class on film acting Brewer was teaching at the University of Memphis. After spending the first half of the class working on acting exercises with his class of novice or theater-trained actors, Brewer decided that the best way to learn was by doing and spent the semester break writing a script that incorporated all of his students, using the second half of the semester to shoot the film.

What was intended as a short was expanded to 40 minutes, with the rhythm, pacing, and snappy story construction of a good television pilot. The film, which begins in a biology classroom and spirals outward from there, wittily and sharply contrasts the study of the interaction of parasites and microorganisms in class with the intersecting relationships of its characters. Each and every one of Brewer's students delivers a fine performance, but the film motors along on Brewer's whip-smart but never pretentious dialogue and the ease and economy with which he intertwines the lives of so many characters in such a brief amount of screen time.

For Brewer, who had spent the bulk of his time since The Poor & Hungry polishing his own scripts and doctoring others (along with producing a slate of short films that showed last year at Indie Memphis) while awaiting the start of production on Hustle and Flow, the project was a way of getting his filmmaking juices flowing again.

"I was so proud of them," Brewer says of his students, "and thankful, because I was so down that I hadn't produced anything in such a long time. I was getting worried I'd become a filmmaker in a state of petition -- waiting for the studio to let me make a movie." Now, Brewer says he is determined to create a two-pronged career for himself, making larger-budget films for studios, which naturally entails compromise, and making locally shot digital films, à la The Poor & Hungry, basically for himself. Along these lines, Brewer is mulling over what he considers a "seasonal" series of films he's calling Bluff City Chronicles, the first of which he hopes to shoot between now and the start of production on Hustle and Flow. Inspired by European art cinema, particularly the work of late master Krzysztof Kieslowski (The Decalogue, the "Three Colors" trilogy), Brewer says these new films will be a departure from the tight plotting that marks The Poor & Hungry and Hustle and Flow.

For local viewers who've seen The Poor & Hungry and wonder what the filmmaker's been up to since, Natural Selection is conclusive proof that Brewer's stellar debut was no fluke.

The Rest: A 40-minute documentary on a local drag performer, Star Queen: A Star Is Bored (5:45 p.m. Friday), takes on a potentially fascinating subject but does very little with it. Star Queen herself is a commanding screen presence, but the film relies too much on talking-head interviews and skimps on performance footage that would have given the film more juice. In fact, most of the performance footage is without sound. The film also fails to really explicate the central story -- Star Queen's falling-out with traditional drag venues and her attempt to reinvent her career through appearances at nontraditional venues as well as her seemingly controversial place within the local drag scene and gay community. What could have been an illuminating and entertaining peek at a little-seen subculture falls short because it assumes viewers are more familiar with the drag scene than they might be. It has the feel of a film made for its own coterie rather than a general audience.

Better is Where We're Bound (11:30 a.m. Saturday), a documentary travelogue produced by members of the MeDiA Co-op, in which four Memphians take a video camera on a November 2001 trip from Memphis to New York to interview strangers along the way and check the pulse of the country post-9/11. Any self-indulgence that results is mitigated by the crew's on-screen consideration of the role their own subjectivity will play in coloring the film, and the result is a responsible, compassionate, and highly watchable meditation on the uncertain mood of the country. The filmmakers' sharp use of found music is also a highlight.

The three local features being shown in competition are clearly novice works but are not without interest. The most slickly accomplished of the lot is probably The Path Of Fear (9:30 p.m. Thursday), a promising effort from young East Memphis filmmakers Brad Ellis and Joey Watson. The film, which opens with an Edgar Allen Poe line -- "Is all that we see or seem/But a dream within a dream?" -- is basically a psychological horror film. When a psychology professor says to his class, "No, people, think deeper. This isn't some slasher film," he doubles as filmmaker speaking to audience, and though the line may be presumptuous, it isn't far from the truth. The Path Of Fear features solid performances from its three young lead actresses (Marie-Claire Hardy, Julianne Dowler, and Natalie Jones), all University of Memphis students, and conveys a nice feel for its high-school-to-college milieu. Local musicians Will DeShazo and Jared Rawlison of the band Dora offer a fine, atmospheric score.

The lengthy, ambitious Someday Central (7:30 p.m. Saturday), directed by Brett Cantrell, who has screened short films at previous Indie Memphis festivals, may be a bit too personal for its own good (piling on about five layers of eccentricity when two would suffice), but it does an admirably convincing job of bringing its not-quite-real world to life. The film also inspires considerable sympathy for its protagonist, a mute young man named Scarecrow Sullivan, who was struck by lightning as a baby and has been similarly unlucky ever since and who pines for his sister-in-law.

The final local feature in competition is General Sessions (12:30 p.m. Friday), a process-oriented, day-in-the-life report on the workings of the Shelby County General Sessions Court. The film, which follows two attorneys -- one a veteran returning to the Public Defender's office from private practice, the other fresh out of law school -- has the feel of TV drama, following its protagonists through a day in the system as they juggle cases. But the film is oddly devoid of any dramatic intrigue, resulting in an almost documentary-style look that devotes too much screen time to court procedures in which papers are shuffled and people stand around but nothing interesting happens.

Throughout the festival, other local shorts will be shown, as well as local films of all stripes, as part of an out-of-competition local-film series that will be conducted in the MPL Screening Room.

films with a beat

by andria lISLE

In addition to the Wilco feature I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, there are a handful of good music movies showing at this week's Indie Memphis Film Festival. From blues, soul, and gospel to rap and rock-and-roll, the Memphis scene is well represented with shorts and feature-length documentaries.

Robert Gordon, author of the Muddy Waters biography Can't Be Satisfied, weighs in with a documentary film of the same title (1 p.m. Saturday), which takes a look back at the late blues man's life. The film features interviews with Keith Richards and Jimmy Lee Robinson as well as the debut of archival Super-8 footage from amateur filmmaker and Howlin' Wolf drummer Sam Lay. Don't miss Muddy's scorching version of "Hoochie Coochie Man," an earth-shaking moment in the film.

Filmed entirely in Super 8, David Combs' The Source (part of a shorts pprogram, 9 p.m. Friday) is an 18-minute look at the music and culture of the Mississippi Delta. Loosely put together, The Source plays like any meandering trip to the Delta might, stopping in at juke joints, churches, and graveyards to pay tribute to area blues men. Clarksdale native (and Rooster Blues recording artist) James "Super Chikan" Johnson gets some camera time, playing his unique "Chikantar" -- made from an Army-surplus gas can -- while teenage guitar whiz Vanessia Young lays down some gritty licks for the camera.

Then there are the music videos: Mike McCarthy's video for 201's "Get Loose Wid It" (part of a shorts program, 4 p.m. Friday) features the rap group hamming it up outside Willie Mitchell's Royal Recording Studio on Lauderdale Street in South Memphis and in Mitchell's backyard pool out east. Geoffrey Brent Shrewsbury skews the local rap scene with his parody group Rapitition's "Still In the Midtown Groove" (also 4 p.m. Friday), which stars Midtowner Matt "Pappy" Johnson as an erstwhile rapper, hula-hoop girls, and a cast of dozens. Run, don't walk, to the showing of this three-minute opus and his music videos for Vegas Thunder and the Lost Sounds (part of a shorts program, 10 a.m. Saturday).

The NARAS-produced Sounds Of Memphis (2:30 p.m. Friday), directed by Jeff Scheftel, provides a great overview of the Memphis music scene from Sun to Stax, while Andrew Leggett's Lucero: Bright Stars On Lonesome Nights (11 p.m. Friday) focuses on one of Memphis' best bands. Both films neatly bookend the local music scene.

While it has no local connection, Joel Katz's Strange Fruit (6 p.m. Saturday) is another must-see. "Music has always gone along with great movements," civil rights veteran Dr. C.T. Vivian proclaims early in the feature-length documentary, which covers the background and legacy of the song of the same name made famous by Billie Holiday. The film moves from African-American lynchings to the Red Scare and the civil rights movement, with commentaries from jazz singer Abbey Lincoln, poet Amiri Baraka, folk singer Pete Seeger, and others. Most affecting is the story of songwriter Abel Meeropol (aka Lewis Allan), who penned "Strange Fruit" because, as he said, "I hate lynching, I hate injustice, and I hate the people who perpetuate it." A teacher in the New York school system, Meeropol was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and never received much recognition for his chilling contribution to popular music.

The WLOK Story (4:30 p.m. Saturday), Joann Self's documentary on Memphis' WLOK radio station, is just as poignant. She traces the station's roots and its transformation into an all-African-American operation -- the first black-owned station in the country. Interviews with radio personalities Al Bell ("Six-foot-four, 212 pounds of Miz Bell's baby boy"), Jean "The Golden Girl" Golden, and Melvin Jones anchor the film, which explores the station's relationship with Stax Records (Bell, a pivotal force at the label, debuted many Stax singles on the air at WLOK), its role in the civil rights movement, and its community-outreach programs. "[WLOK owner] Art Gilliam asked me to work with him to set up a nonprofit," Self explains. "Melvin Jones and Joan Golden wanted to set up a museum, but they had no memorabilia -- they just had these amazing stories. So I went back to Art and said, 'We have to do oral histories -- interview these people and get it on tape, and that will be your museum.' Art traded airtime for sponsorship to raise money for the project." The film is a first-time effort for Self, who wrote, directed, and produced The WLOK Story.

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