The highest-profile screening at this year's 14th Indie Memphis Film Festival was the last one booked. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have been chronicling the plight of the so-called West Memphis 3 — Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. — for nearly 20 years, first at their controversial murder trial with 1996's Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and then with the 2000 follow-up, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. The duo completes the trilogy with the new Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (Sunday, 5 p.m., Playhouse on the Square).
The filmmakers were preparing Paradise Lost 3, which focuses on new developments in the case, including new DNA evidence, for a premiere at September's Toronto International Film Festival when they got an unexpected call about the plea agreement that would set Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley free.
"It was a shock," Sinofsky remembers. "We were in the studio mixing the film Wednesday of that week when we got a phone call saying we should be prepared to head for Jonesboro, that some events were in action." Two days later, after 18 years in prison, the "3" were freed.
Paradise Lost 3 still made its initial premiere in Toronto but with a card at the end acknowledging the dramatic turn in the case. After that, Berlinger and Sinofsky were back at work, adding a happy capper to a saga that has been much of their life's work — and Indie Memphis was in pursuit of an obvious festival headliner.
"I wasn't aware there was a third one until the Toronto lineup came out," Indie Memphis executive director Erik Jambor says. "I started looking into it then. I think we just did a cold ask to Joe Berlinger's company. Then we got a call back from Bruce, saying Joe couldn't make it but that he would come down."
The final version of Paradise Lost 3, featuring an additional 12-minute coda, including interview material with Baldwin that was shot in Memphis on the day after the trio's release, will have its third festival screening at Indie Memphis, following a debut at the New York Film Festival last month in which Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley appeared alongside Berlinger and Sinofsky, and a subsequent screening at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. Sinofsky will conduct a question-and-answer session afterward that's likely to be the most newsworthy event in fest history. It will also be the first time the entire trilogy screens together, with showings of Paradise Lost (Friday, 2 p.m., Brooks Museum of Art) and Paradise Lost 2 (Saturday, 11 a.m., Brooks Museum of Art) leading up to Sunday's showing of Paradise Lost 3.
"We screened in Hot Springs and we didn't participate, but Joe and I felt that it would be good to have one of us in Memphis since that's where it all took place and we feel like it's kind of a home for us," Sinofsky says.
There have been mixed messages about whether Berlinger and Sinofsky will pick the story back up at some point.
"I'm not sure that they want to be in the floodlights again," Sinofsky says. "My feeling is that if we ever go back to them — I mean, we're friends with them — it would be to see what their lives turn out to be three, four, five years from now. But sometimes it's the right time to put the cameras down and let these guys live their lives."
Other Memphis connections
In the past, there's been a clear line between the local and nonlocal films, but this year's Indie Memphis lineup contains an unusual number of selections that blur that distinction, only starting with the Paradise Lost series. Elsewhere in this story, we put the spotlight on a couple of other examples: Undefeated, a documentary about the Manassas High School football team that was a big hit at the SXSW Film Festival earlier this year, where it was purchased by the Weinstein Company for a slated February release, and Woman's Picture, the second feature from local filmmaker Brian Pera, which showcases performances from a couple of notable nonlocal actresses: Ann Magnuson and Calpernia Addams.
But there's also the local debut of Losers Take All (Saturday, 7 p.m., Playhouse on the Square), an '80s period comedy about a fictional Memphis pop-punk band filmed in town last fall that seeks to simulate the Antenna Club-era Memphis music scene and features original songs partly conceived and performed by local musicians such as Scott Bomar, John Paul Keith, and Jack Yarber
The film premiered at the Woodstock Film Festival in September.
Another music-oriented film of local interest is Better Than Something: Jay Reatard (Saturday, 10 p.m., Playhouse on the Square), a documentary portrait of the late Memphis musician that was primarily filmed as a short in April 2009 but then expanded into a feature following Reatard's January 2010 death. The film initially screened as a work-in-progress at the On Location: Memphis festival this spring, but the final version makes its Memphis debut here in the midst of a large festival run.
It will be bittersweet for a lot of locals who knew Reatard, aka Jay Lindsey. The film opens, smartly, with a tart, revealing French TV appearance from 2008.
"I take myself very seriously, hence my name," a sardonic Reatard tells his interviewer, who responds, "You feel angry when you're onstage. Are you still angry?" This prompts a deflated, utterly honest answer: "No, I feel happy when I'm onstage. I feel angry when I do shit like this."
That was Lindsey, "bad boy" surface and principled, often disappointed, suffer-no-fools core. Better Than Something humanizes Lindsey, as he gives a tour of the houses he lived in as a Memphis youth and tells some rough stories of things that happened in them (including the origin of his great Lost Sounds song "1620 Echles St."), then hangs out, happily, with old friends at Midtown bar the Lamplighter. Interview subjects include some Memphians who knew him best, such as Lost Sounds bandmate and former girlfriend Alicja Trout and producer Scott Bomar.
Better Than Something doesn't get into the details of Lindsey's death, but it doesn't shy away from his problems, either. One friend talks about smoking crack with Lindsey, a story Lindsey essentially confirms with regret and rueful amusement, while a Matador Records associate complains of fans trying to get close to Lindsey with offers of drugs.
The film concludes movingly, with Lindsey explaining that his unusually prolific catalog of recordings was born of a desire to document his life. "I try to make as much as I can with the time that I have," he says. "I just make music because I'm afraid of everything else, I guess."
A couple of recent festival stalwarts, local filmmakers Morgan Jon Fox and Kentucker Audley, reappear this year in very different fashions. Fox, featured a couple of weeks ago in a Flyer cover story, will present the local debut of his years-in-the-making documentary This Is What Love in Action Looks Like (Friday, 7 p.m., Playhouse on the Square), which follows the forced admission of a Memphis teen into a church-based gay-deprogramming organization.
Fox has winnowed his years of material into a tight, engaging, moving story, one that deploys social-network iconography to honor the method by which its teen subject communicated his experience to friends. The film retains a necessary and judicious amount of humor. (Says one teenager: "Oh my God, our friend Zach, he's going to a straight camp, like on But I'm a Cheerleader.")
Fox waited out a conclusion and got a good one: the change-of-heart and penance of the organization's director, John Smid.
Fox's film premiered this summer at the Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco, the country's oldest LGBT film festival and more recently picked up jury and audience awards for best doc at Birmingham's SHOUT Festival.
As for Audley, he takes the lead role in Bad Fever (Saturday, 5 p.m., Studio on the Square), a feature (which Audley didn't write or direct) that debuted at SXSW this spring. Audley plays an awkward loner and wanna-be stand-up comedian in the throes of personal crisis.
The "hometowner" highlight of this year's festival might be the emergence of Brian Pera into the (sub-Craig Brewer) top ranks of local filmmakers with his ambitious second feature, Woman's Picture (Saturday, 1:15 p.m., Playhouse on the Square).
Pera's film, named after the golden-age Hollywood genre associated with actresses like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, is composed of three mostly self-contained portraits of female protagonists: Transgender actress/activist Calpernia Addams is Ingrid, a woman making a difficult homecoming journey to Memphis alongside fiancé Mackie (Pera). Memphis musician/actress Amy LaVere is Loretta, a near-mute hotel maid dealing with a mysterious personal tragedy. And actress/performance artist Ann Magnuson (Desperately Seeking Susan) is Miriam, a home-shopping club host confronting struggles and disappointments on the job and at home.
All three portraits — but especially the first two — unfold with a sense of revelation.
"There's a moment in all of the stories where you retrospectively go back and reevaluate all your assumptions," Pera says. "Woman's Picture was inspired by women in my childhood experience, who were often misunderstood. It's really kind of a valentine to the women in my family."
Though Pera's film name-checks old Hollywood, it updates the style rather than commenting on or paying homage to classic films directly.
"I wanted to remove that filter of camp, which I think is a retrospective thing," Pera says. "If I mimicked those films too closely, it would let viewers off the hook and detach them from the material. I definitely wanted it to be contemporary."
The film's stylistic blend of classic Hollywood and Euro/indie art film stands out in a film scene where the most frequent modes are more likely to be pulpy or doc-like verité.
If there's a Memphis antecedent, it's the work of locally bred, New York-based filmmaker Ira Sachs (Thirty Shades of Blue, Married Life), whom Pera has known since Sachs' first feature (1996's The Delta). Sachs serves as an executive producer on Woman's Picture.
"When you're self-taught, you can make a lot of mistakes, and you have to rely on your judgment and intuition," Pera says. "And so in post-production, it can really help to have someone give you a good, informed second opinion. Ira does a certain kind of quiet, introspective thing that obviously relates to what I do."
For Pera, Woman's Picture marks the beginning of what he says could be a 10-year series of related short films — some packaged, like Woman's Picture, into the feature format.
"I realized that Woman's Picture as a series basically covered all the thematic ground that I'm interested in, and I could keep doing that for a long time," Pera says.
One of the first examples of how the project can continue is the very sharp short film Silent Movie, a continuation of the "Ingrid" storyline that will screen along with Woman's Picture.
The most high-profile documentary ever made in Memphis, Undefeated (Thursday, 6:30 p.m., Playhouse on the Square) opens the festival.
Shot in 2009-10, the film chronicles a season of Manassas High School football, focusing on coaches Bill Courtney and Mike Ray and three students: O.C., Chavis, and Montrail "Money."
The team was a loser for decades and never won a playoff game in its 110-year history, but Courtney began turning it around and had the team playing competitively.
That's the football hook. What caught the eye of producer Rich Middlemas was the plight of left tackle O.C.
Middlemas, a University of Tennessee alum, was reading The Commercial Appeal in 2009 for football recruiting news. He came across the story "Raising O.C.," by writer Jason Smith, which told how the young man from North Memphis with college athletic prospects was being assisted by an extended network of people, including suburban tutors, to get his grades up.
The story was compelling, Middlemas says in a phone interview, although "I certainly wasn't looking for a documentary project." But Middlemas saw in it a film that could capture O.C.'s senior year "as he traverses between these two seemingly disparate worlds: the suburban and the inner-city."
Middlemas approached filmmakers Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin about making the movie.
"There was something inherently intriguing about the situation that O.C. was in," Lindsay says.
"But it wasn't until we went to Memphis to look into it that it clicked that there was a potential for a film, because there was a natural beginning, middle, and end. We had a season to profile."
Martin says, "The film we set out to do was an intimate portrayal of O.C. getting courted by colleges and trying to capture a moment in time and his coming of age. But the story of Manassas as a team opened it up to something much greater than that."
There are obvious comparisons to be made between O.C. and Michael Oher, the local football lineman whose story is told in the book and film The Blind Side.
Oher was a talented inner-city black athlete who was essentially homeless before being taken in by a white East Memphis family. Though O.C., too, was helped by white East Memphians, he had a supportive family of his own.
The comparison between O.C.'s story and The Blind Side was very much on the filmmakers' minds.
"We were very concerned about not telling a white-knight story," Martin says.
The filmmakers, who moved to Memphis in July 2009, wanted to find another player to follow, one who was the opposite of O.C. — excelling in the classroom but not on the field — and that led them to Montrail. It also became apparent to the filmmakers that Chavis' story was going to be crucial too. — Greg Akers
This year's festival offers an early look at three high-profile releases sure to return during their full theatrical runs:
With Melancholia (Sunday, noon, Studio on the Square), provocative Danish director Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dogville) blends apocalyptic sci-fi and intimate family drama in a story about a strained wedding celebration happening as a mysterious planet hurdles toward a collision with Earth. Kirsten Dunst won the Best Actress prize at this summer's Cannes Film Festival for her lead performance as the bride, while Charlotte Gainsbourg, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Skarsgard, and Kiefer Sutherland highlight an international cast. Scheduled for full Memphis release November 23rd.
Sean Durkin won Best Director at this year's Sundance Film Festival for Martha Marcy Mae Marlene (Saturday, 9:45 p.m., Studio on the Square), which stars Elizabeth Olsen (the younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashley) in a breakout performance as a young woman struggling to assimilate back into her family after fleeing an abusive cult. Scheduled for a full Memphis release November 11th.
Hitting town much further ahead of its official release — currently scheduled for next March — is Jeff, Who Lives at Home (Saturday, 4:45 p.m., Studio on the Square), a comedy from the Duplass brothers, who follow up their mainstream debut, Cyrus, by casting Jason Segal in the title role as a slacker who helps his brother (Ed Helms) spy on his potentially cheating wife (Judy Greer). Susan Sarandon co-stars as their mother. The film recently debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Even without having seen everything playing at this year's festival, I'm confident that the best film on the schedule is Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (Thursday, 9:15 p.m.; Friday, 3 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m., Studio on the Square), which is screening on a restored 35mm print. Scorsese's 1976 masterpiece of urban anomie boasts Robert De Niro's epochal performance as increasingly deranged cabbie Travis Bickle, with a teenaged Jodie Foster and in-her-prime Memphian Cybill Shepherd as objects of obsession. Taxi Driver is among the more than 500 films preserved on the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.
Also getting multiple screenings is These Amazing Shadows (Thursday, 7 p.m.; Sunday, 11:30 a.m., Brooks Museum of Art), a deeply enjoyable documentary about the history and make-up of the National Film Registry that will have you mentally updating your Netflix queue.