Big changes are on tap as the Indie Memphis Film Festival enters its 13th installment. As Indie Memphis prepares to screen more than 100 feature films, documentaries, and short films — including several arriving after celebrated premieres at high-profile festivals such as Sundance, Slamdance, SXSW, and Toronto — the festival has simultaneously expanded and contracted.
The festival is reducing its time frame from a week to a more tightly focused four-day schedule, a move that mirrors the set-up of Indie Memphis executive director Erik Jambor's previous festivals, Sidewalk in Birmingham and the BendFilm Fest in Oregon.
"It allows us to take the festival's energy and focus it on those four days," Jambor says. "So that whenever you come down, you're right in the middle of it."
At the same time, the festival is expanding its geographic footprint, adding the new Playhouse on the Square to primary venue Studio on the Square and auxiliary site the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. Playhouse will host such high-profile screenings as the 10th anniversary showing of a new version of Craig Brewer's The Poor & Hungry and the public debut of The Grace Card.
Over the next few pages, we highlight many of the festival's best or most promising selections. For a full schedule, see the pullout section in this issue or go to indiememphis.com. For more fest coverage, including daily critical guides, see the Sing All Kinds blog at memphisflyer.com/blogs/SingAllKinds.
The Poor & Hungry Revisited: The movie that launched the local filmmaking scene returns, refurbished.
There was local filmmaking before Craig Brewer's career-making The Poor & Hungry (Saturday, 7 p.m., Playhouse on the Square). But more than anything else, it was Brewer's homemade, micro-budget "digiflick" — a black-and-white love triangle set in and around Midtown's P&H Café, where Brewer wrote the script — that not only launched Brewer's career but spurred the growth of a homegrown moviemaking scene and the film festival that this week hosts a 10th anniversary screening of the film.
The Poor & Hungry hasn't been widely seen in years. Rental copies Brewer stocked at Black Lodge Video have all gone missing, and the last public screening was at the Orpheum several years ago.
"It surprised me that so many people hadn't seen it," says Brewer, who commissioned a rehab job on the film early this year, tabbing longtime assistant Erin Hagee and local filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox to tackle the project while he was busy trying to get his Hollywood remake of Footloose off the ground.
"Erin, over the last couple of years, has become more of a producer," says Brewer, citing Hagee's work on $5 Cover: Memphis and Savage County. "Her skills have far exceeded, respectfully, [being an assistant]. She was also a producer on the original. While I was away, she was in complete control. And Morgan really knows his stuff in terms of editing. He's an artist and a filmmaker that I really respect, so I knew I could trust him with it."
For Hagee and Fox, rehabbing The Poor & Hungry proved to be a more daunting task than expected.
"We had to recreate a working edit, because there was none," Fox says. "At the time, Craig had no capability to store a working master. So we had to recreate his edit, shot by shot, from like 50 hours of footage."
The process began with Fox sorting through a box of original footage, which he and a small team took months to digitize and organize. At that point, Fox and Hagee had to recreate the working edit on top of a "finished" version, including matching audio from one shot to visuals from another. Eric Tate, who played the male lead, was brought in to re-record his original narration, and actress Lindsey Roberts, whose performance as street hustler Harper is still perhaps the most memorable example of local film acting, was brought in to record some new dialogue.
The final version is 10 minutes shorter, with some old footage added, some new footage shot (using the original camera), and some scenes re-edited. There are new songs (Brewer faves Al Kapone and Amy LaVere), new incidental music, and new or juiced-up sound effects done with sound engineer Kevin Houston.
Among the newly added old footage is a sequence in Handy Park that Brewer didn't know still existed.
"This place isn't even there anymore," Brewer says of the documentary aspect of the old Handy Park footage. "It's now a park covered in brick walls. It was just me and [brother-in-law/collaborator] Seth [Hagee] and Lindsey Roberts out there with homeless people, making a movie."
Brewer, who is in the final weeks of shooting on Footloose, will fly into Memphis Saturday for the screening, returning to Atlanta Sunday. He'll speak after the screening, with most of the film's original cast and crew expected to be on hand.
"What's cool is that there are a lot of people who've wanted to see it but haven't been able to," Hagee says. "And now they'll get a chance."
Festival Favorites: Several Films Arrive with notable Festival resumés.
Of the few dozen Indie Memphis selections I've been able to pre-screen, the best is Night Catches Us (Thursday, 9:30 p.m., Studio on the Square), a period drama from filmmaker Tanya Hamilton which got strong notices upon its premiere early this year at the Sundance Film Festival.
Night Catches Us is a prickly, intimate depiction of an African-American community in Philadelphia and deals with the dissolution of the black power movement, particularly the decimation of the city's Black Panther Party. Set in 1976, the film stars Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker) as a former Panther returning home to a cold welcome, with Kerry Washington as a woman with whom he has a complicated past. (The Wire fans note: Wendell "Bunk" Pierce and Jamie "Marlo" Hector show up in supporting roles.)
Hamilton delivers an honest reckoning with the contradictions and complications of the Black Power movement, resulting in a portrait that is sad but not romanticized. The film also boasts a score from hip-hop stalwarts the Roots that rivals The Social Network as the year's most effective movie music.
Nearly as highly recommended is Cold Weather (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Studio on the Square), which debuted this spring at Austin's SXSW Festival. The film is something of an unintentional allegory on the evolution of the so-called mumblecore scene. Director Aaron Katz, whose last film, the relaxed Quiet City, screened locally at the Brooks as part of a mumblecore series in 2008, starts here with a familiar scenario: Twentysomething Doug has dropped out of college, where he was studying forensic science, and moved back home, where he takes an ostensibly mundane job and rooms with his sister. But, about half an hour in, when an ex-girlfriend turns up missing, this listless protagonist finds himself pulled into a mystery. The result is a novel blend of indie realism and classic Hollywood genre machinations, clever but not smug. Set in Katz' native Portland and shot with the RED digital camera, Cold Weather is also the most visually impressive film to yet emerge from the extended mumblecore family.
Among documentaries, the most high-profile selection on the schedule is probably And Everything Is Going Fine (Saturday, 4 p.m., Playhouse on the Square), Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh's portrait of the late writer and performing artist Spalding Gray, which premiered earlier this year in a single showing at the Sundance-alternative Slamdance Film Festival. The film, like Gray's films Swimming to Cambodia and Gray's Anatomy, takes the form of autobiographical monologue, only this time crafted by Soderbergh as a collage drawn from performances, television appearances, and home movies.
Two other standout arts docs are the Sundance grad Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (Thursday, 7 p.m. and Friday, 2 p.m., Brooks Museum), about the famed painter who defined the downtown Manhattan art scene of the early 1980s, and Thunder Soul (Friday, 7 p.m., Studio on the Square), which has won audience awards at SXSW and the Los Angeles Film Festival. Thunder Soul documents a reunion concert by the Kashmere Stage Band, which, under the influence of Otis Redding and the tutelage of progressive high school band teacher Conrad O. Johnson, became widely recognized as the best high school band in America in the 1970s.
Other notable docs: Cool It (Friday, 6:30 p.m., Playhouse on the Square), from filmmaker Ondi Timoner (the only person to win two Grand Jury prizes at Sundance), recently premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. It's a portrait of Danish scientist Bjorn Lomborg, controversial author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, and is supposed to be something of an alternative take on the global warming debate. Jeff Reichert's Gerrymandering (Saturday, 11:30 a.m., Studio on the Square), which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, is a well-reviewed exposé on the titular political practice — redistricting electoral boundaries to affect voting outcomes in favor of a particular candidate or political party. And American Jihadist (Saturday, 10:15 p.m., Studio on the Square), which won the Grand Jury prize for best doc at Slamdance, examines militant Islam through the story of an African-American muslim from D.C.
Last year, Indie Memphis had a great idea: movies outside on a big screen at the Levitt Shell. The combination of Elvis Presley’s 1968 “comeback” special and the Coen brothers’ much-beloved The Big Lebowski was a sure thing. Sadly, the weather was not, and cold temperatures and on-and-off rain kept attendance down. Hopefully, this year, the weather gods will treat us better as Indie Memphis will host a free screening of Mystery Train and The Blues Brothers (Friday, 7 p.m./9 p.m., Levitt Shell).
The former, sponsored by Elvis Presley Enterprises, was filmed in Memphis by indie icon Jim Jarmusch in the summer of 1988 and follows the interconnected stories of visitors navigating the gritty side of downtown Memphis. Mystery Train both helped launch the modern era of Memphis moviemaking and set the tone for much of what has defined Memphis “cool” ever since. The film was released in a restored/remastered form this summer, and that’s the version that will be screened at the Shell.
The second half of this music-themed double feature, presented by critic and radio/television host Elvis Mitchell, needs little explanation. The Blues Brothers is set in Chicago but features Stax legends Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn as part of the titular duo’s backing band.
Indie Memphis screens two new local features on opening night. The Grace Card (Thursday, 6:30 p.m., Playhouse on the Square) is a Christian-themed and -targeted film directed and produced by local optometrist Dr. David G. Evans that will look to tap into what has become an increasingly successful niche market when it gets a national release from Sony Pictures' Affirm Films in February.
The film, which concerns an uneasy partnership between two beat cops, one black (Michael Higgenbottom) and one white (Michael Joiner), hits some nice notes about the city, touching on such crucial civic topics as race, law enforcement, and religion. It may be the only local feature to take note of the city's shifting racial and ethnic demographics, but the film undercuts its early authenticity with a trio of preposterous second-half plot twists. And the film's rather self-congratulatory theme of racial reconciliation is not without its problems: Here, that means putting the onus on black forgiveness while glossing over exactly why that forgiveness might be warranted.
Making its local debut is Open Five (Thursday, 9 p.m., Playhouse on the Square), the most accessible film yet from local director Kentucker Audley (Team Picture), working here in an acting/screenwriting partnership with musician Jake Rabinbach. Audley and Rabinbach entertain two visiting women from New York in a film that captures the places and rhythms of a certain strain of twentysomething Memphis without feeling like a travelogue or neglecting its character-driven emotional arc.
Best Shorts: C. Scott McCoy will give a sneak peek of his work-in-progress documentary feature on Memphis' seminal punk venue, the Antenna Club, with Antenna: Origins (Thursday, 6:45 p.m., Studio on the Square, screening with the feature documentary Beijing Punk). At last year's festival, director Edward Valibus Phillips and his Corduroy Wednesday crew won the award for best "hometowner" feature for their serial The Conversion. Phillips and company return this year with Genesis on Demand (Sunday, 2:45 p.m., Studio on the Square), a sparklingly clever and terrifically realized short film that stars local filmmaker Ben Siler as Jerry, the intelligent but beleaguered designer of planet Earth. Corduroy Wednesday also screens their visually striking short Bohater Pies (Sunday, noon, Brooks Museum). Siler has three short films in this year's festival, the best of which is The People You Love Are Mostly Liquid (Sunday, 2:30 p.m., Brooks Museum), a dialogue-free half-hour experimental film that opens in familiar sad-sack mode but evolves into an anxious, sad, but beautiful meditation that makes tremendous use of music. Jeff Hassen and John Pickle team up for Cannibal Records: The Musical! (Saturday, 10 p.m., Studio on the Square), an energetic burst of comedy/musical/horror in the vein of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Little Shop of Horrors, featuring an excellent set-piece song number written by Hassen and performed by Pickle. Project Octi (Saturday, 10 p.m., Studio on the Square) is an impressively creepy, squishy, and tactile bit of stop-motion animation from Memphis College of Art student Hannah New. And Sarah Fleming's Training Wheels (screening with the feature Bicycle Lane, Saturday, 2:15 p.m., Studio on the Square) is a charming documentary short about 21-year-old photographer Tommy Kha learning how to ride a bike.
A feature-length documentary about one of the most daring passages of the civil rights movement, acclaimed nonfiction filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s Freedom Riders (Sunday, 5:30 p.m., Playhouse on the Square) might serve as an essential companion piece to the classic civil rights doc series Eyes on the Prize. Via interviews with the riders, then Alabama governor John Patterson, Kennedy administration representative John Siegenthaler, and ordinary citizens who bore witness, as well as through archival footage and photography, Nelson tells the story of the first wave of Freedom Riders, black and white Americans who endured harassment, beatings, and imprisonment for simply traveling on buses together in the South in defiance of Jim Crow laws. There are few examples of heroism as humbling as those of Diana Nash, Jim Zwerg, and others like them — young students who boarded the buses in full knowledge that they were risking their lives. This festival screening is in advance of a scheduled May 2011 television debut as part of the PBS American Experience series.
Tim Burton’s 1994 black-and-white fantasy biopic of spectacularly failed filmmaker Ed Wood (creator of grade-Z ’50s “classics” Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 From Outer Space), with Johnny Depp in the lead role and a tour de force turn from Martin Landau as big-screen Dracula Bela Lugosi, will screen on a 35-millimeter print Saturday at 10:30 p.m. at Studio on the Square. The screening is being hosted by one of the film’s screenwriters, Larry Karaszewski, in town for a couple of festival panels. Karaszewski has a history with the city, having co-written the Memphis-shot The People vs. Larry Flynt.
Panels & Talks
This year’s festival features several panels and discussion events sponsored by the Memphis & Shelby County Film Commission. A couple of particular interest: Pitch Session: Fly on the Wall (Saturday, noon, Brooks Museum) will allow prospective local filmmakers to pitch ideas to film insiders who have experienced Hollywood pitch meetings (including Ed Wood screenwriter Larry Karaszewski and Kevin Smith associate Scott Mosier). You have to sign up to pitch, but anyone is welcome to come watch.
For Documentaries in Action (Saturday, 1:30 p.m., Playhouse on the Square), local filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox will pair up with celebrated documentary filmmaker Peter Gilbert (Hoop Dreams). Gilbert will host the exchange with Fox, who will discuss and screen clips from his documentary on the controversial Memphis-based “ex-gay” program Love in Action, a project that is finally, after five years, nearing completion.