Sunday, November 1, 2009

Tallgrass, A Beautiful Fall In The Heartland

On the Plains of Kansas, every October during the Fall Harvest, there is an event that brings attention to the fair city of Wichita. It is known as Tallgrass, but despite what some may think, Tallgrass isn’t some form of vegetation, it isn’t the bastard brother of Shortgrass, it is none of those things. It is something that is garnishing more and more attention from the Independent film world and this year, I was honored to cover this up and coming Film Festival for Hollywood Jesus and The Virtual Pew. The film festival places an emphasis on Independent Film and this year, the seventh for the festival, was as good as ever, and it continues to grow despite what some past supporters may believe. Tallgrass is at a point where it has the chance to take off to become one of the premiere film festivals in the country.

This year was a rather interesting year as a number of events placed some challenges on the festival, among those was a large theater chain in the community who pulled out most of their support. Their reasoning according to one insider is because they essentially believe, “Tallgrass has gone as far as it will go and there is nothing else for us to gain.” If this is true, some need to understand, sometimes one participates not so much because there is something to gain, but because of the support of the fans which have largely contributed to the success of a business that involves going to the movies.

It is a shame this occurred as the people of Wichita are largely dependent upon this one theater chain as they operate a number of theaters in the community, including a complex in the downtown area that had received a multi-million dollar grant in the last year. In fact, this theater chain virtually has a monopoly on the movie going industry in this city. Many in the community believe this theater chain should be obligated to support the arts in the community, including of course, film. The chain, Warren Theaters has been a large supporter over the years, but this year, their withdrawal of hosting films for the festival put the organizers in turmoil to find appropriate hosts for the events. This festival that has a chance to take off and become more, was in fact hurt and the reputation of the festival lessened due to the actions in part of the Warren Theaters. The reality is that depending on who you talk to, Warren has plans on being back in the future. Only the actions of future support will indicate who to believe regarding this concern. The fact that the events that occurred did in fact occur, is a shame, but leave it to the ferocious independent spirit of Wichitans, and those involved in The Tallgrass Film Festival to work to make more with less. As a result, while many a movie going audience has a sour taste in their mouth towards a theater chain they have supported over the years, they have a refreshed and exciting attitude towards the efforts of the Tallgrass organizers to move forward with this event. Many noticed the festival this year didn’t worry about featuring a theater complex but instead highlighted and featured the city of Wichita.

With over 400 submissions this year prior to selections, Tallgrass organizers had their hands full, but thankfully they found 5 venues in the downtown area plus Wichita State University to host the various events and screenings. There were other locations which provided services, and attendees this year was able to attend most everything within a 3 block radius. It would have still been nice to see this event take place in one of the cities premiere locations, the downtown square in the Old Towne District that is the home of the Old Town Warren. Especially since recent renovations to that location would have provided a wonderful atmosphere in a unique location. My personal hope for the future is to see the possibility of combining the efforts of this year, while at the same time using the downtown Old Town Warren Complex. Unfortunately, while The Warren Theaters did make available the use of some projection units, (at a reduced fee), there has been obvious discord between many individuals related to both sides as has been seen on bulletin boards and in private conversations with some of the individuals involved.

This is a sad statement to the potential future success for The Tallgrass Film Festival. I have been one that has been a supporter of Warren Theaters, will again in the future, but as a local owner, who has started chains in other locations outside of Wichita, and Kansas, I had hoped for more ongoing community support of especially Independent Film. If having other options in Wichita, many a fan of movies would now choose to attend those theaters. This has a potentially negative consequence for the festival, but if this year’s actions and efforts are any indication of the committees desires to see this festival continue and expand, there is also clear indication that hope exists. This isn’t a slam against either the festival or Warren Theater’s whose withdrawal also cost a reported minimum of $20,000 in cash and more in support (a number provided by inside sources), then not only the festival looses, but the fans of movies, which support the theaters in this community also suffer.

While there were many good things about Tallgrass, while talking to various individuals associated with the festival, as well as the Warren Theaters, along with fans the above background needed to be mentioned as it seemed to at the very least be a dominant point of discussion in various locations around Wichita during this years events. That is a shame because unfortunately, those things could easily have outshined the reality of what this festival represents.

In order to understand the significance of a festival like this, one has to look at those submitting film, as well as those in attendance and the awards it has handed out in the past. The premiere award handed out each year at Tallgrass is known as The Ad Astra Award. This award is named after the Kansas state motto, “Ad Astra Per Aspera” (To The Stars Through Difficulties.) The award is presented to an individual chosen by The Wichita Association for the Motion Picture Arts (WAMPA) who has made significant contributions to the art and process of filmmaking or the film industry. Past recipients of the award include, in 2004, Cloris Leachman, in 2005, late Film Festival Founder Timothy Gruver, 2006, Laura Lee Bahr, 2007, Don LaFontaine, 2008, Dan Glickman, and this years recipient, Seymour Cassel. Each of these individuals has significantly contributed to the world of Independent Film and each has had unique and wonderful contributions to the world of film in general.

This year the festival, as mentioned earlier had over 400 submissions. Those included eventual award winners, Sweet Crude, an Independent Documentary which looks at the 25 year non violent resistance to the oil companies’ damage to the people of Niger which has an average oil spill of more than one per day in their Delta region over the course of a year. It is a documentary which looks at the plight of the people to stand up for their future, and their children. Sweet Crude won the Audience Award for Choice Feature Film. Winning the award for Audience Award Winning Short Film was Lost Paradise from France and Israel. This film is billed as a modern day Adam and Eve story.

Tallgrass also included various other great films, among my favorites were the feature films Saving Luna, and Kabul24. Also featured were such films as Fish out of Water, Gogol Bordello Non Stop, The Only Good Indian which also had in attendance for the duration of the festival, star Wes Studi, Reach for Me with Seymour Cassel, also in attendance, Underbelly with star Pleasant Gehman in attendance, Mommy Is At The Hairdressers, Tony Mannero, The Worlds Greatest Dad with numerous other features, documentaries, and shorts. Over 3 days my schedule had me seeing 10 features, and 26 shorts. I will be featuring reviews on my favorites but this festival is so ambitious, and so successful in what it is attempting to do, that I was in film making heaven for 3 days as were many others. There is simply no way to see everything, and any attendee will be greatly pleased. In fact, I would hope in the future that even more people would come out. My two favorite films were actually sparse in attendance, and both deserving of much higher numbers of people in the seats. I can’t help but believe the locations of these films had some reasoning as to the low numbers in the seats. A general location, like a movie theater with multiple screens, would be ideal, of course I have already written as to why that didn’t take place.

The above is not to say that there can’t be, or shouldn’t be improvements to Tallgrass. I believe an expansion of views on the selection committees may also be appropriate. While the selection committee has done a wonderful job I was amazed at speaking to several members which had not seen some of the films submitted. I also believe it would be appropriate to look outside of traditional genres. I would personally love to see the inclusion of horror, and of course, while there is a ton of junk related to faith based movies, (not just Christian, but all forms of faith based movies), there is also quality avant-garde films that are exceptionally well done within the independent spectrum that include feature, horror, documentary, and short. I am not speaking of lessening the quality of film, but including more of the independent work within these genres of all faith spectrums. While there are some that would claim Tallgrass has done this, I would assure you, at least over the course of the last several years, with the exception of Kabul24 this year, I haven’t personally seen it. A larger view on the selection committee would help with this; of course this may mean that some like me would have to be willing to help out. That is a fair expectation. I love all film, including quality horror, and quality faith based film, despite the religious worldview being presented. One of the beautiful things about film, is its ability to educate, in a world filled with spiritual individuals, various spiritual views should be welcomed, including the views of people we may not agree with.

In a time when finance and personal difficulties seem to be so prevalent in society, it is nice to have a venue to find escape. For many individuals that escape, which provides so many things that are needed in society, such as hope, inspiration and more, are found in film. While I am grateful for an industry that provides that on a large scale, I have found that Independent Film maintains a spirit that is largely lost to so many people. It maintains a spirit of adventure, hope, and inspiration though for a very simple reason. I think that reason is largely centered on the reality that those people, those organizations making those independent films are individuals that are making them out of an almost pure love, if not a pure love of the forum they are involved in. They are making film about subjects they love, subjects they have experienced and in fact live. These are films that often if ever, have the budgets to advertise and promote. They are largely dependent on word of mouth and film festival success in order to get the word out about the quality of their product. I can’t speak for all films at Tallgrass, but I can speak for what I saw. I saw some of the best films I have seen all year, and in the case of Saving Luna, quite possibly the most moving inspirational movie of the year. To the people who organize and put on The Tallgrass Film Festival, I say thank you, I say thank you for bringing one a premiere event to the plains of our country, to the center of our country, Mid America where we can indeed find out, the people of the Heartland can love good, quality, exceptional film, with an Independent Spirit and attitude that should be envied across the country. Hopefully that spirit continues, it continues with or without the support of the powers that be, especially the powers that have made their fortunes from the movie going audience that loves film, are a part of the future or not. For some reason I believe it will continue, and will continue to grow in quality. Why? Quite simple, that same spirit that drives independent film, I believes drives Tallgrass, for that, this one regular guy who is blessed to write about movies, her stars, and her attributes, also believes in the spirit of those movies, and of course, the spirit of Tallgrass.

The following are a few film clips that I can recommend which are related to the festival. Just click on the video, if the video don't appear, click on the direct link

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