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A Look Back at the 2018 Indie Memphis Film Festival

The lineup for the 21st Indie Memphis Film Festival was such an embarrassment of riches it would have been impossible to catch all of the screenings over the five days of the fest's schedule (events continued into the following week). Senior programmer Miriam Bale, along with shorts programmer Brighid Wheeler, and executive director Ryan Watt put together an ambitious and diverse lineup. Boots Riley, whose excellent "Sorry to Bother You" screened, was in attendance, giving a keynote speech as well as hosting a screening of Terry Gilliam's dystopian "Brazil," one of the major influences on "Sorry to Bother You." New releases were on the schedule, some of which will probably be players in this year's awards season, as well as some older films, like Barbara Loden's recently restored "Wanda," Brian De Palma's 1973 film "Sisters," Berry Gordy's 1975 film "Mahogany," starring Diana Ross, and the 1994 cult classic "Cabin Boy," with Chris Elliott in attendance. It was also a mini retrospective for South Korean director Hong Sang-soo, with four of his films screening ("On the Beach at Night Alone," "The Day After," "Grass," and "Claire's Camera.")

Contemporary 2018 releases included Alexis Bloom's "Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes," Andrew Bujalski's "Support the Girls," Bing Liu's "Minding the Gap," RaMell Ross's documentary "Hale County This Morning, This Evening," Rungano Nyoni's "I Am Not a Witch," Josephine Decker's "Madeline's Madeline" and Barry Jenkins' long-anticipated "If Beale Street Could Talk," making its regional premiere. Jenkins was unable to attend Indie Memphis, and sent a video greeting, played before the screening of the film. He expressed his regrets he couldn't be there with all of us, in the home of Beale Street itself.

Along with the film schedule, there was the Black Creators Forum, a two-day symposium featuring guest speakers, panels, and a pitch rally—open to industry and public—for 12 African-American filmmakers looking to fund upcoming projects to be filmed in Memphis (the winner would receive $10,000). 

The festival got off to a strong start with Melissa Haizlip's documentary "Mr. Soul!", about her uncle, Ellis Haizlip, whose groundbreaking PBS show "Soul!" ran from 1968-1973. Initially conceived as "the black 'Tonight Show,'" "Soul!" developed into so much more, with host Ellis Haizlip presiding over a show filled with music, poetry, dance, politics, literature, with guests as varied as James Baldwin, Stevie Wonder, Patti LaBelle, Nikki Giovanni. Borne out of the strife of 1968, with its riots and assassinations, the show was an attempt to counteract the negative image of African-Americans dominating the news. What other television series ever would devote an entire episode to women reading their poetry? "Soul!" did. "Mr. Soul!" is a portrait of Haizlip himself, as well as a history of the television program. So many artists made their debuts on "Soul!", many of whom were interviewed for the documentary. "Soul!" is long overdue for release on box set, or at least to be hosted by a streaming service. People need to have access to this important part of American cultural history.

I was on the jury in the Hometowners category, along with Cinereach's Leah Giblin and film editor Michael Taylor. Our category included 4 features ("Memphis Majic," "Negro Terror," "Waiting: The Van Duren Story," and "Rukus"), 8 shorts, and 20 music videos, all films either about Memphis or by Memphis filmmakers. 

Although we loved everything we saw, our choice for best Hometowners Feature was unanimous. "Rukus," directed by Memphis native Brett Hanover, is a queer coming-of-age story, I suppose, but beyond that, the film defies easy classification. Filmed over a 10-year period, "Rukus" blends documentary with fiction, and Hanover plays himself throughout (or versions of himself). Hanover details his fascination with the Furries subculture, and how that subculture introduced him to a mysterious kid from Florida who went by the online name "Rukus." Structured somewhat like "Citizen Kane" at first, Hanover goes on a quest to find out more about Rukus, all as he himself deals with issues surrounding sexuality and identity. There isn't a cliched frame in "Rukus"; it's a singular vision. 

For best short, we chose "Windows," directed by Jason Allen Lee, praising its innovative visual approach to the lack of privacy in our world. For music video, we chose the video for Faith Evans Ruch's "I'm Yours," directed by Melissa Anderson Sweazy, a Memphis-based photographer, writer, and director. 

As an added bonus, I gave a talk on Elvis' Hollywood career, introduced by award-winning Memphis writer and filmmaker Robert Gordon (his It Came From Memphis is essential reading, as well as his beautiful Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters). I gave the talk in the Circuit Theatre, once The Memphian, a movie theatre Elvis used to frequent. He'd rent it out for an entire night and show up with his entourage. Standing on that stage, in that building, where Elvis himself had so many happy times, was pretty profound. I showed clips from Elvis' movies, "Love Me Tender," "King Creole," "Viva Las Vegas" and more. It was fun to celebrate those sometimes silly movies with such an enthusiastic interested crowd. 

One other film which I saw and loved was Graham Carter's "Shoot the Moon Right Between the Eyes," starring Sonny Carl Davis ("Melvin & Howard," "Where the Buffalo Roam," "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "Bernie") and David Kendrick, as Carl and Jerry, two con artists traveling through Texas, romancing lonely rich ladies out of their money. Jerry is in charge of the romancing, while Carl holds down the fort in motels and dive bars. Jerry's romance with Maureen (a wonderful Morgana Shaw) unexpectedly turns into something real, throwing his relationship with Carl into disarray. Meanwhile, a scruffy private investigator named Les (Frank Mosley, in a very funny performance) trails Carl and Jerry, determined to catch the con artist who stole his fiancee right out from under him. "Shoot the Moon" is also a musical, with characters bursting into John Prine songs throughout. The film works on the most simple and elemental level, a level difficult to reach for most film-makers: There's a sweetness in operation, but the sweetness does not feel manipulative or pushed. It's natural, gentle, and human. The film surges with swoony romanticism, presented without a wink of irony. "Shoot the Moon Right Between the Eyes" was one of the real discoveries of the festival for me.

Every festival has its own energy and personality—Indie Memphis is warm and friendly, yet also exciting and intense. Kind of like Memphis itself. You can check out the full list of Indie Memphis awards heres.

Sheila O'Malley

Sheila O'Malley received a BFA in Theatre from the University of Rhode Island and a Master's in Acting from the Actors Studio MFA Program. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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