Film, art, politics and ‘Cabin Boy’ converged to create a potent mix at annual festival
Perhaps numbers contain occult significance, after all, because the 21st Indie Memphis Film Festival was an event reframed to meet the needs and embrace the challenges of the 21st century. Memphis, Memphis, many times Memphis. dystopic.
“When you get enough diversity, you don’t have to concentrate on diversity,” said Indie Memphis artistic director Miriam Bale, at the start of a Nov. 3 awards ceremony at Circuit Playhouse that recognized films and filmmakers from such locations as Jamaica, Australia, the East African nation of Eritrea and, of course, For a few days, the Indie Memphis festival — which officially concluded Monday night — represented a “utopic” (Bale’s word) colony of artistic expression and personal freedom within a greater political environment that seems hostile, aggressive and
If that sounds hyperbolic, well just wait until Memphis filmmaker Brett Hanover and his collaborators — Ben Siler, Katherine Dohan and Alanna Stewart — create what Hanover hypes as a “reproductive-rights science-fiction Western” titled “Space Submarine Commander” with the $13,000 in “IndieGrants” money the group was awarded at the festival.
“Oh yeah, it’s a musical, too,” added Hanover, whose fiction-documentary hybrid, “Rukus,” won the festival Hometowner Award for Best Feature. (The Hometowner awards recognize films largely shot in Memphis and Shelby County.)
With Bale, shorts programmer Brighid Wheeler and executive director Ryan Watt at the helm and veteran staff coordinators and managers Joseph Carr, May Todd, Macon Wilson and Matt Ziebarth in support, the festival appeared to run incredibly smoothly.
Watt said the festival’s “total audience” — a count of butts in the seats at all festival events at eight key venues — likely will number about 12,000, which means it would more or less match 2017’s record attendance.
More significant, the festival’s roster of films and guest artists was legitimately and purposefully diverse, with half the films in the Narrative Competition category directed by what a press release calls “female-identifying filmmakers” and half by people of color. For the Documentary Competition, 43 percent of the films were by women and 71 percent by people of color.
Memphians may remember some past competing festivals that strained for diversity at the expense of quality. That has not been at all the case with Bale, a longtime New York critic who recently relocated to the “industry” town of Los Angeles, where she will continue to be well situated to make connections to benefit Indie Memphis. In fact, shortly before the festival, Bale essentially was promoted from festival “senior programmer” to year-round “artistic director,” meaning she will take over the programming of weekly screenings and other events so Watt can better concentrate on fundraising and organizational duties.
Although Barry Jenkins — whose previous release was the Best Picture Oscar-winner “Moonlight” — was unable to come to Indie Memphis for the local premiere of his new movie, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the director recorded a very warm and humorous video greeting for the festival that played before three sold-out Studio on the Square screenings of the film. Jenkins’ longtime cinematographer, Oscar nominee James Laxton, did come to Memphis, however, to receive the festival’s inaugural Cinematography Award and to host an ambitious cinematography workshop at Circuit Playhouse alongside another master of what might be called “new cinematography.”
That master was Ashley Connor, whose bold in-camera effects and focalplane experiments enable her “to bend images and melt images,” she said, without the use of CGI. These signature “Ashcam” effects made her latest film, Josephine Decker’s “Madeline’s Madeline,” another Indie Memphis highlight; in this context, it was perhaps no surprise that Bale announced that Indie Memphis plans to maintain a special, um, focus on cinematography. She said this makes sense because the innovative color work and unconventional compositions of Memphis photographer William Eggleston are frequently referenced as a key influence by young cinematographers.
Laxton and Connor are not the sort of movie people to attract autograph seekers, but they typified the top talent Indie Memphis brought to the festival this year. Other examples included actress/ filmmaker Amy Seimetz; emerging directors Melissa Haizlip (whose openingnight feature documentary “Mr. SOUL!” was arguably the hit of the festival) and Diego Llorente (the made-in-Spain “Entrialgo“); production designer Judy Becker (”Carol”); Chilean-born Sebastián Silva (”Tyrel“); Spike Lee intern turned feature director Tchaiko Omawale (”Solace”); director Andrew Bujalski and performer Shayna McHayle, representing one of the year’s absolute best films, “Support the Girls”; and Memphis power pop veteran Van Duren, celebrated in a new documentary, “Waiting: The Van Duren Story.”
“We’re trying to do something political and artistic,” said Bale, who organized panels that examined notions of “women’s art” and “representation” in film making, as well as events that were more Memphis-centric and less heavy, such as RogerEbert.com film critic Sheila O’Malley’s illustrated talk on “Elvis in Hollywood.”
Another Indie Memphis innovation was a two-day Black Creators Forum that culminated in a “pitch rally” at Playhouse on the Square; at that event, would-be filmmakers pitched ideas to a jury in hopes of claiming a $10,000 prize from Epicenter Memphis to enable them to shoot an independent film here next year. The winner was Memphis’ Dave Godbout, whose proposed feature — a video journalist attempts to document the production of an all-white remake of “New Jack City” — would continue a trend in which black filmmakers are mixing fantasy, satire and comedy to tackle issues of racism and social injustice that in the past typically were treated with solemnity. (Some examples: “Get Out,” “Chi-Raq,” “Sorry to Bother You.”)
Another filmmaker who contributed a meaningful video message for the festival was Memphis-born Ira Sachs, who filmed himself in Sintra, Portugal, on the set of his latest feature film, which stars Isabelle Hupert, Brendan Gleeson, Marisa Tomei and Greg Kinnear (and which Nov. 3). The video was Sachs’ tribute to his cousin and collaborator, Memphis producer Adam Hohenberg, winner of this year’s Indie Memphis Vision Award, given to those who have made a “permanent impact” on the festival and Memphis film.
Videos aside, the festival’s biggest “celebrity” gets were probably Boots Riley and Chris Elliott (or, rather, the entire Elliott family, more or less).
Riley, 47, is the Oakland-reared political organizer, hip-hop artist and film director whose debut feature, the aforementioned “Sorry to Bother You,” is a science-fiction-tinged surreal satire that owes a debt to Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” (1985), which Riley acknowledge by reviving that film for an Indie Memphis screening.
Riley’s well-attended public talk Nov. 3 at Playhouse (this Boots was made for talkin’?) was arguably the most memorable event of the festival, as the filmmaker unpacked the baggage of art, race, capitalism and other forces in ways that were revealing and amusing.
Riley — whose “Sorry to Bother You” critiques racial bias and workplace imbalance — emphasized that all movies are “political,” however escapist or commercial they may be.
“They all have a viewpoint,” he said. “The dangerous ones are the ones that we think are not political. We accept them, and their ideas become our ideas, slowly but surely.”
Comic actor and writer Chris Elliott, meanwhile, hosted a Nov. 4 Playhouse screening of “Cabin Boy,” the bizarre comedy directed by Elliott’s pal, Adam Resnick, that since its disastrous theatrical release in 1994 has become, through some sort of slow-motion symbiosis, a cult classic.
“You just saw the movie that ruined my career,” said Elliott, 58, joined onstage by his wife, Paula Niedert Elliott, and his actress daughters, Bridey Elliott and former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Abby Elliott.
It was the day’s second reunion for the family: The foursome earlier appeared at a Studio on the Square screening of “Clara’s Ghost,” a horror comedy starring the Elliott clan and written and directed by Bridey that was named Best Narrative Feature at the Indie Memphis awards ceremony.
In contrast to the insufferably selfcentered comic persona that turned off uncomprehending and unsympathetic critics when “Cabin Boy” originally was released, Chris Elliott in person was charming and generous with his time, posing with little kids and drunks alike, and evincing evidently sincere appreciation for the fans who rescued “Cabin Boy” from Davy Jones’ locker.
“It was vilified,” Elliott said, adding a quip-as-plug for the film’s new Blu-ray edition: “It had a target on it, and now you can buy it at Target.”
Watt — who himself posed with Elliott — beamed.
“In terms of both the films and the feedback we had from audiences,” he said, “I truly feel this is the most successful festival we’ve had to date.”
Here are the winners of the top awards at the 2018 Indie Memphis Film Festival.
❚ Narrative Feature: Bridey Elliott’s “Clara’s Ghost.”
❚ Documentary Feature: Leilah Weinraub’s “Shakedown.” (Honorable mention to RaMell Ross’ “Hale County: This Morning, This Evening.”)
❚ Hometowner Feature: “Rukus,” by Brett Hanover, in collaboration with Katherine Dohan and Alanna Stewart.
❚ Departures Feature: Khalik Allah’s “Black Mother.” (Honorable mention goes to Christopher Makoto Yogi’s “August at Akiko’s.”)
❚ Sounds Feature: Melissa Haizlip’s “Mr. SOUL!”
❚ Narrative Short: Amanda Lovejoy Street’s “Magic Bullet.” (Honorable mention went to Chris Ortega’s “The Ballad of Junior.”)
❚ Documentary Short: Darius Clark Monroe’s “Black 14.”
❚ After Dark Short: Jonathan Cuartas’ “The Horse and the Stag.”
❚ Departures Short: Jenna Caravello’s “Frontier Wisdom.” (Honorable mentions went to “Hands” by Leah Shore and “I Taste Blood” by Lauren Sotolongo, Samantha Sobash and Russell Sheaffer.)
❚ Music Video: “Gomenaki” (artist: Someone Who Isn’t Me; director: Alkis Papastathopoulos).
❚ Hometowner Narrative Short: Will Robbins’ “Minority.”
❚ Hometowner Documentary Short: Kevin Brooks’ “Bonfire.” (Honorable mention went to “Singing for King” by Yalonda M. James, former photographer with The Commercial Appeal.)
❚ Hometowner Departures Short: Jason Allen Lee’s “Windows.”
❚ Hometowner Music Video: “I’m Yours” (artist: Faith Evans Ruch; director: Melissa Anderson Sweazy).
❚ Ron Tibbett Excellence in Filmmaking Award: Suzannah Herbert, “Wrestling.”
❚ Craig Brewer Emerging Filmmaker Award: Sephora Woldu, “Life Is Fare.”
❚ Soul of Southern Film Award: John Rash’s “Negro Terror.”
❚ Duncan Williams Scriptwriting Award: Nijla Mu’min, “Jinn.” (Honorable mention to Graham L. Carter’s “Shoot the Moon Right Between the Eyes.”)
❚ The Indie Award (presented to a local crew member): Breezy Lucia.
❚ The Vision Award: Adam Hohenberg.
❚ Cinematography Award: James Laxton, “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
❚ Actor of the Year Award: Shayna McHayle, “Support the Girls.” ❚ Poster Design: “New Money.” ❚ Poster Design, Audience Award: “Waiting: The Van Duren Story.”
❚ Audience Awards: Jason B. Kohl’s “New Money” (Narrative Feature); “Wrestle” (Documentary Feature); “Mr. SOUL!”(Sounds Feature); Lynne Sachs’ “The Washing Society” (Departures Feature); Greg Carey and Wade Jackson’s “Waiting: The Van Duren Story” (Hometowner Feature); Mark Goshorn Jones’ “Best Wedding Gift” (Hometowner Short); “New Whip, Who Dis” (Hometowner Music Video. Artist: Daz Rinko. Directors: Daz Rinko, 35Miles, McKenzil Webster).
Boots Riley was much in demand for selfies at the Indie Memphis Film Festival. JOHN BEIFUSS/THE
Here comes the Bridey: Writer-director Bridey Elliott won the Indie Memphis Best Narrative Feature Award for "Clara's Ghost." BEIFUSS/THE COMMECRIAL APPEAL
Live music performances before every