Independent film ‘Burden’ comes to Free State Festival thanks to local lecturer

The poster for the film "Burden," which was written and directed by Andrew Heckler. The film screens at the Free State Festival 6 p.m. Saturday at Liberty Hall.

A connection made 20 years ago helped bring an award-winning film to the Free State Festival this week.

Andrew Heckler, writer and director of the film “Burden,” met Laura Kirk — who is now a University of Kansas film lecturer and a festival advisory board member — when they both lived in New York City in the 1990s, he said.

Shortly after Heckler’s film won the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award for Drama earlier this year, Kirk reached out to him, asking if he would screen the film in Lawrence, as well.

“I hadn’t spoken to her in years,” Heckler said. “I said, ‘You know what, I will make sure we make it to the Free State Festival.'”

The showing of “Burden,” is scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday at Liberty Hall, 644 Massachusetts St. After the showing, Heckler will participate in a Q&A with fellow director Kevin Willmott, a University of Kansas film professor. Tickets are $8.

Heckler premiered the film at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The event in Lawrence will only be the fourth showing, he said.

The film — starring Garrett Hedlund, Forest Whitaker and Andrea Riseborough — tells the true story of a Klansman Michael Burden falling in love with Judy (now his wife) who helps him leave the KKK while also developing a friendship with an African-American reverend named David Kennedy.

Heckler said he first heard the story when he read a short newspaper article about Burden selling a KKK museum he owned in 1997. Heckler said he went down to South Carolina to meet with the Burdens and Kennedy to discuss the story.

“After driving down there, I had to tell the story,” he said. “I wrote it pretty quickly, and 20 years later, we (finally) made it.”

Although it took some time to finish, Heckler said making the film was an “incredibly emotional” experience. He said he came to know the people involved well and he wanted to honor them properly for their actions of tolerance and acceptance.

“It was a passionate shoot and all of the actors couldn’t be more giving in terms of how much they cared and how much effort they put in,” he said, noting that Whittaker first signed on to do the movie in 2006 but didn’t begin filming until 2016. “I feel incredibly lucky on many levels. It’s also a testament on (Whitaker) that he never gave up on the project. He was the anchor and I’m forever grateful.”

Coincidentally, Heckler’s film is the second to show at the festival about the Ku Klux Klan. Willmott will show “BlacKkKlansman,” a film he co-wrote with Spike Lee, about an African-American police officer who infiltrated the KKK.

Heckler said he didn’t believe his film was political when he first started the idea in 1998, but American politics have moved into an era of “outright division, racism and bigotry.” He said he’s happy to see that Lee and Willmott made “BlacKkKlansman,” although it’s a different type of movie addressing the same issue.

“In terms of ‘Burden,’ people are hungry to see possibility and see hope,” Heckler said. “‘Burden’ is a very hopeful story. It’s about extremism and how do you make extremes come together, and it’s only through love you can make that happen.”

Kirk said the festival is really lucky to have Heckler show his film.

“He’s amazing and I’m very happy for him,” she said.

photo by: Contributed photo

Laura Kirk

Kirk, a filmmaker and director herself, will also present this week. She will discuss the women featured in the book “When Women Wrote Hollywood” at 2 p.m. Friday at the KU Bookstore in KU’s Memorial Union, 1301 Jayhawk Blvd. The event is free.

In an attempt to fill the gaps of history, Kirk helped research and write the book, which explains the history of women in the early era of film. Kirk said women at the time wrote about half of the films in the movie industry. In the last 10 years, women made up between 14 to 18 percent of the writers, she said.

“Part of the reason it was a success back then was because it was a new medium and there were no rules,” Kirk said. “Now, with multiplatform engagement and being able to watch whatever we want, wherever we want, we now have those opportunities again. We’re seeing a lot of change happening. Not as fast as we would like, but it is happening.”

Kirk wrote about writers Bella Spewack and Eve Unsell, who has a connection to Kansas. She said there wasn’t a lot of information on Unsell, but she was able to find some from Unsell’s Kansas hometown of Caldwell.

“There is big gaps in history for the women, which is the reason for the book,” she said. “They don’t exist in books. … There are some issues with who writes history and what ends up (remembered). I just looked through a lot of Kansas newspapers and called the Caldwell Library and worked with them.”

Kirk was happy to help out with the book because of the importance of representation in media.

“If we don’t know that people were working on these significant projects, then that’s an important gap that needs to be filled,” she said. “If you don’t see other people doing it, it’s hard to imagine seeing yourself do it.”

Other films at the festival

“Agave: Spirit of a Nation,” 5 p.m. Monday, Lawrence Arts Center, $8

“Warrior Women,” 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Lawrence Arts Center, $8

“BlacKkKlansman,” 8 p.m. Wednesday, Liberty Hall, Sold out

“Citizen Jane: Battle for the City,” 7 p.m. Thursday, Liberty Hall, Free

“Meow Wolf: Origin Story,” 8 p.m. Thursday, Lawrence Arts Center, $8

“The Price of Everything,” 5 p.m. Friday, Lawrence Arts Center, $8

“Mankiller,” 7:30 p.m. Friday, Haskell Indian Nations University Auditorium, Free

“The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales,” 10 a.m. Saturday, Lawrence Arts Center, $8

“Sadie,” noon Saturday, Lawrence Arts Center, $8

“William Allen White: What’s the Matter with Kansas?” 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Liberty Hall, $8

Short film showcase, 1 p.m. Sunday, Liberty Hall, $5

Outreach short film showcase, 2 p.m. Sunday, Lawrence Arts Center, Free

“Dragtivists and Transformations,” 3 p.m. Sunday, Liberty Hall, $5

Student shorts, 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Lawrence Arts Center, Free


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