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A Momentary Fix for the Film-Fest Deprived PDF Print E-mail
Movies - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Tuesday, 27 September 2005 18:00
For die-hard movie fans in the Quad Cities, film festivals are always around. And therein lies the disappointment. They’re around, they’re just not here. In April, Cedar Rapids presented an independent film festival. Iowa City had its annual documentary film fest two weeks later. August brought with it Tipton, Iowa’s Hardacre Film Festival. Des Moines will host the annual Wild Rose Independent Film Festival from October 20 to 22.

And this weekend, the Galesburg Civic Arts Center, in conjunction with the city’s Orpheum Theatre, sponsors the Black Earth Film Festival, at which 36 independent features and shorts receive their area debuts. Galesburg’s second-annual festival begins at 4 p.m. on Friday, September 30, and concludes with an awards presentation on Sunday, October 2. (A full schedule is available at (http://www.blackearthfilmfestival.org.)

Still, an annual film fest eludes the Quad Cities.

Two years ago, River Cities’ Reader publisher Todd McGreevy spearheaded a full-scale attempt – the MidCoast Film & Arts Festival – and was both pleased with the endeavor’s artistic quality and encouraged by audience turnout, with the films being seen by, he says, “around 1,200 people.”

Yet the time commitment required by the endeavor proved more taxing than anticipated. “Running an annual festival is a full-time job,” McGreevy says, and requires someone “willing to make it their total focus. It takes a core individual to pull it off.”

Although McGreevy says MidCoast’s film-fest experiment “lost $3,000” – “We paid for some of the independent films,” he adds, “and spent about $2,500 on product [movies]” – he believes that “the market would have supported it if we ran it for three to five years.” Without a full-time organizer, though, there are no current plans for resuscitating the MidCoast festival.

Happily, area audiences looking for more than cineplex fare do have a few options.

Rock Island’s Augustana College, for instance, hosts annual French and Hispanic film series, with weekly screenings of foreign films over five weeks in January and February.

The Open Cities Film Society is currently hosting (Sundays at the Figge Art Museum) the New York Film Series, which began on September 18 with Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, followed by a discussion led by Scott Community College’s Dr. Kerry McFarland. (Subsequent presentations in the series, running through December 11, will follow the same screening-and-analysis format.)

And over at Rock Island’s Brew & View Rocket Cinema, proprietor Devin Hansen is showing a series of classic films on Sundays at noon – Harvey and Hud among recent presentations – and, in October, will host a GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered) film series on Wednesdays at 8 p.m.

Both Hansen and Open Cities organizer Mike Reid believe that a film series might be an easier lure to local audiences than a festival spanning several days. (Weekly screenings might lack the energy and sense of discovery that accompany a festival setting, but audiences are often loath to sit through two movies in one weekend, let alone dozens.) Reid opines that ever-growing competition for the entertainment dollar might be keeping audiences from demanding another area film fest. “There are so many other things to do in the area,” Reid says, “so many other things going on. But I really don’t know why people don’t go [to film fests]. I wish I could give you a better answer.”

One answer might involve the perceived lack of community interest in independent and art films; having recently closed the Brew & View Rocket’s original, sister venue, Hansen certainly knows the difficulty in getting audiences to see films with little or no advance publicity. Yet he believes another issue is the time commitment required of film-fest audiences. “With people’s schedules,” Hansen says, “it’s just easier to show movies weekly than trying to squeeze them all in” in two or three sittings.

So, for the foreseeable future, Quad Cities audiences are without a film festival to call their own.

In the meantime, though, we have Black Earth, which differs from other fests of its sort by predominantly showcasing works by student and aspiring filmmakers with no previous festival credits; as Galesburg Civic Art Center Director Heather Norman says, “It’s not a ‘Hollywood’ film fest, it’s more of a ‘guy next door’ film fest.”

Last year’s Black Earth Film Festival began, Norman says, with a group of local film enthusiasts having “a lot of conversations” about the need for alternative viewing, especially in regard to works with “a Midwestern feel.” Advertisements for entries were placed both locally and with film schools, and the Black Earth Film Festival was born. (Norman says committee members wanted a moniker that suggested the Midwest “without sounding too ‘prairie.’”)

This year, Black Earth’s half-dozen committee members – including the head of the Civic Center’s exhibition committee, a local newspaper writer, and Norman herself – viewed more than 80 submitted works totalling, Norman says, “over 50 hours of films.” Thirty-six were finally accepted for inclusion, more than doubling last year’s selection of 16 films out of 23 entries.

“We sent a lot more applications to film schools,” says Norman of this year’s considerable increase in entries, “and we listed it [the event] on several film-festival Web sites,” including Without a Box ((http://withoutabox.com), a quick link to hundreds of film festivals and competitions worldwide.

Five of Black Earth’s presentations are of feature-film length; Hill 16, a coming-of-age drama set in suburban Dublin, makes its area premiere on Friday, and Saturday brings with it El Segundo, a mysterious drama set in southeast Texas, and two documentaries – Video Art, wherein avant-garde artists discuss the 30-year history of the medium, and Casting About, which assembles footage from film auditions with 350 actresses in the United States and Europe.

The festival’s romantic wrap-up comes with Sunday’s presentation of Matchmaker, concerning an Irish matchmaking festival that draws an estimated 50,000 singles annually. (Matchmaker’s two young directors are among those hoping to hook up.)

The 31 remaining entries range in length from 62 minutes (Grain of Sand, about Mexican teachers’ struggle to defend public education) to 60 seconds (Savior, an unorthodox horror movie in which a simple walk to the car turns “into something very scary”).

Galesburg’s festival closes with the presentation of awards for best feature film, best documentary, best animated film, best short, and Best of the Fest. Judging this year’s selections is Hollywood filmmaker John Hancock, whose works include Bang the Drum Slowly, Weeds, and Prancer, and who is no stranger to the world of short films, having earned an Academy Award nomination for 1970’s Sticky My Fingers, Fleet My Feet.

Norman is thrilled to have landed Hancock as festival judge, but admits it wasn’t very tough to do; “He contacted us,” she says. Indiana resident Hancock sent word to the Civic Arts Center “a long time ago” that he’d be interested in attending this fear’s festival, which still surprises the venue’s director. “I thought, ‘Why would this guy be e-mailing us? This can’t be real.’”

Though 2004’s Black Earth Film Festival saw roughly 100 attendees, Norman insists “we [at the Civic Center] were happy with that number,” and adds that, this year, “we’re hoping to double that.” Advertising has been increased, with an eye toward attracting a new crop of attendees – “We’re doing a lot with college campuses in the area,” Norman says – and the Civic Center director says that younger audiences, even kids, will find entertainment in this festival, which offers “something for everyone.”

Until the evening performances, that is, when the films’ subject matter and presentation are geared toward a more adult audience. “The afternoon shows are suitable for kids,” Norman says. After 7 p.m., however, “the kids might want to stay at home.”
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