It is said that independent film is the future of the movies. It makes sense; while mainstream, big-budget film certainly is capable of producing some astounding works , just as often we see tons of needless remakes , reboots , and recycled formulas . Independent film gives greater opportunity for originality and new talent to shine through. Of course, not everything  is going to be great, but a whole world is open to those with the drive and determination to follow their dreams.
This past weekend was a celebration of such passion. The fourth annual Derby City Film Festival  at the Clifton Center showcased 56 independent films from 16 countries, including features, shorts, and documentaries. I had the privilege of being present for the whole weekend. As several films screened simultaneously, I was unable to see everything, but I present to you a basic rundown of the festival experience (in chronological order), with suggestions on what films to look out for in the future.
Wid Winner and the Slipstream : The kickoff film is the story of Wid, who feels stuck in his life until he encounters Kenneth, who is travelling around the country stealing used auto parts to build a time machine. Wid joins up, desperate for something to believe in. It is a very interesting film, as the themes it deals with are universal: regret, the desire for second chances, and above all, the desperate struggle to find relevance in one’s own life.
Johnny’s Gone : Sarah has a two-year-old boy named Johnny, and they are on the road, running away from something. It isn’t immediately clear who they are hiding from, but little by little the pieces of the puzzle fall together, and the truth presents a serious moral gray area that begs for post-film discussion, especially if you are a parent yourself. It includes one of the most tear-jerking renditions of “Wayfaring Stranger” I’ve heard since David Eugene Edwards’ .
Frames : A high school student decides to film a documentary about his town, and in the process discovers what appears to be a heinous secret – or it may be nothing. It brings to mind Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” and Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” with a large dose of Hanake’s “Caché,” but it fails to live up to any of those predecessors. I spent most of the film baffled about why all the characters were emotionless drones and trying to figure out whether or not that was deliberate. (There is a line that indicates it was on purpose, but I have no idea what they hoped to accomplish with that.)
Mother’s Red Dress : A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity  to discuss this film with producer John Paul Rice and director Edgar Michael Bravo. The film was made to bring awareness to the issue of child abuse and the effect it has on the lives of the victims. It is the story of Paul, who returns home when his mother informs him she has cancer, and he slowly begins to discover the truth of what happened to him all those years ago. Another great one for post-viewing discussion.
No-Budget Filmmaking 101 Workshop: Here’s the thing: when I see “no-budget” I think it means spending as close to zero dollars as possible. Makes sense, right? Imagine my dismay when filmmaker Tom Whitus presented “no-budget” as “with a budget of $10,000-$15,000.” With all respect to Mr. Whitus, it’s probably true that to somebody who admittedly makes films for hundreds of thousands of dollars, fifteen thousand isn’t that much. It was honestly a little discouraging. But here is what I know: “Primer” was made for $7000, as was “El Mariachi” (and that included the cost of film stock and development, which aren’t even necessary with today’s digital technology!), and I’ve even seen a fair effort  made for $1000. My recommendation: read Robert Rodriguez’s book “Rebel Without a Crew” for a great lesson in filmmaking a bit closer to “no-budget.”
Filmmaker Symposium & Awards Ceremony: The festival took a break Saturday evening for this event at Clifton’s Pizza. The room was packed and noisy as the festival winners were announced (listed at the end of the article), after which a panel of six filmmakers fielded questions. The panel included John Paul Rice (producer for “Mother’s Red Dress”), Tom Whitus (director of “Sam Steele and the Crystal Chalice”), Signe Olynyk (writer of “Below Zero”), Isaac Staumbaugh (writer, director, and producer of “Smells Like Community Spirit”), Brian Cunningham (cinematographer for “Overtime”), and Lance Henrickson (actor of “It’s In the Blood”). The panel consisted of the full spectrum of filmmaking positions, so the audience was able to get an idea of the whole process. However, due to the aforementioned noisiness (and being stuck near the back of the room), I unfortunately missed out on much of the discussion.
It’s in the Blood : The theater was packed – Lance Henrickson was in attendance! After a day of signing autographs and participating on panels and meeting with fans, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award before getting to relax and watch his newest film. Created by Louisvillians Sean Elliott and Scooter Downey, this terrifying film is about a father and son who take a hiking trip to try to reconnect years after a horrifying incident destroyed both their worlds. The woods are evil, though, and their demons soon come to haunt them – both metaphorically and literally. It didn’t win “Best Film” of the festival for nothing; this is one to watch out for.
Overtime : Easily the most fun I had at the festival. I actually had the opportunity  to sit down with Brian Cunningham a couple of weeks ago, so I was especially looking forward to this one, and I was not disappointed. In the film, Ralph and Max are hitmen sent on an unexpected job, and they find themselves locked in a factory full of zombie aliens – and Ralph has to get home in time for his son’s birthday party! The true joy of the film came from watching the wacky interactions between lead actors Al Snow and John Wells. (How Wells didn’t get a Best Actor nomination, I’ll never know.)
Short Group D & E: The short films in the festival were screened in groups totaling about eighty minutes in length. There were some serious gems in these collections: “Employee of the Month,” a French film about a career-finding agency for zombies, vampires, ghosts, etc.; “Air,” a British film wherein the air suddenly turns to poison without any explanation, and our characters struggle to survive – and a clown is involved; “Wonderland,” a Kuwaiti retelling of Lewis Carroll’s story in which Alice is trying to “rectify the situation of the Ace” – it should equal 1 and not 11, she says; and my personal favorite, “A Finger, Two Dots, Then Me ,” a performance of a spoken word poem intercut with related images, which was so beautiful that I am not ashamed to admit that I cried a little.
Below Zero : The festival closer, and my third favorite feature film from the weekend. The story of the film’s creation is quite interesting: the movie’s writer, Signe Olynyk, was suffering from writer’s block, so she arranged to have herself locked in an abandoned meat freezer to achieve isolation in order to write. While in there, she wrote the script about a screenwriter with writer’s block who arranges to have himself locked in an abandoned meat freezer to write his script – and once there, the lines between fiction and reality start to blur. It is an engaging and creepy film until the end when it gets needlessly convoluted – but still a fun movie, and definitely one to watch for.
Information for all the films that screened can be found at the Derby City Film Festival’s website . If you see anything that sounds interesting, find them on Facebook or IMDB – most of these filmmakers are currently seeking distribution, whether theatrically or by DVD, and large numbers indicating interest go a long way towards making this a reality. Support independent film!
Best Actor – Sean Elliot (It’s In the Blood)
Best Actress – Kristin Booth (Below Zero)
Best U.S. Short – Bizarnival: Tuxedos in the Attic
Best International Short – Donkey
Best Student Short – Thin Air
Best Documentary – Bailout
Best U.S. Feature – It’s in the Blood
Audience Choice Award – It’s in the Blood
Videoblocks/Footagefirm Award for Technical Achievement – Grounded
Photo courtesy of the festival's website.