At a time when the rest of the country is mired in that span between the big summer blockbusters and the Oscar-aspiring holiday releases, a fresh batch of interesting flicks will be connecting with Midwest audiences.
Two vastly different approaches to film festivals kick off today: Lawrence's Harvest of Arts and FilmFest Kansas City. Both offer area moviegoers opportunities beyond what the strip-mall multiplexes typically provide.
"This is a chance to see views of the world you might not normally see," says Mark von Schlemmer, producer and founder of the Harvest of Arts Film Festival.
Now in his 11th season with the event, von Schlemmer has noticed a few distinctions between the present crop of entries and those from the previous 10 years.
"There are a lot of actual 'films' being shot, as opposed to video," he says, noting that half of the pieces featured are celluloid compositions. "That's interesting just because it's such a digital world. The (Kansas University) film classes are getting more technologically efficient, so students are actually shooting 16mm films ... and it's looking good.
"There are also more narrative films happening this year. There's a lot of storytelling. That's something that doesn't always work as well with student or younger filmmakers, yet this year there seems to be a lot of them that hold together."
A 1990 KU master's graduate with a degree in theatre and film production, von Schlemmer received roughly 50 entries for the festival. About half of these didn't make it into the final program. The rest encompass a wide assortment, including documentary, experimental and music video.
"This is all local filmmakers, running the range from students in local colleges to professionals in the business who made their films here," von Schlemmer emphasizes. "Over the last few years we've gotten things from guys who've maybe had a few beers and go out and shoot with their camcorder. Then we've got professionals like Mitch Brian (co-writer of the miniseries 'The '70s') who contributed 'James Ellroy's Stay Clean.' It's a wide range, but in general the range is a step higher than it has been in the past."
The producer cites a few of the experimental endeavors as among his favorites to appear tonight at the 2002 Harvest of Arts. These include KU instructor Matt Jacobson's "Chromium Smile."
"It's basically him shooting some old car Â I should know the name, but it's a fancy 1950s car," he says. "It has beautifully shot images of the chrome and curves of the vehicle, basically a montage of those images."
Another is Jessica Krug's "J'Accuse: The Sins of Our Fathers."
"It's a piece from a KU student who is an animal activist, and she got permission to shoot in a butcher shop," he explains. "You can kind of imagine the sort of things you might see there. It's not 'incredibly shocking' Â I've seen stuff that's more explicit Â but it's effective. She's probably 19 years old, and she's trying to get a message out there."
Among the narrative highlights is a movie from Haskell student Thomas M. Yeahpau, "Hate Equals Hate a.k.a. Columbus Day."
"It's probably the most violent film in the festival," von Schlemmer adds. "But in its own violent way it has a very positive message. It's showing how some Native Americans act toward the celebration of Columbus Day each year, and how they have their own version."
While some of these contributions have previously been screened at the Filmmaker's Jubilee and/or Kan Film Fest, most will be making their debut at the Harvest of Arts. von Schlemmer believes a good deal of the festival's appeal is that it isn't structured like those other events.
"Part of why I designed it this way is that the charm of the Harvest of Arts is non-competitive," he says. "It's a chance to watch films and enjoy them without having to compare and award prizes for the ones that judges like the best.
"You're not going to like all the films. Some you'll love; some you'll hate. But someone else will probably love those ones that you hate."
A mere 40 miles down the road from Lawrence, the organizers for the weeklong FilmFest Kansas City are preparing for their ninth annual project. Their tactics are similar to the Harvest of Arts since the films are not in competition with each other. However, FilmFest KC is focused on bringing national and international movies Â and those who made them Â to the Midwest.
"We try to show a little bit of everything Â not just independent and foreign films, but some of the major Hollywood films as well that might have missed Kansas City," says Geoffrey Westra, co-chair of the festival. "A good example of that is 'The Salton Sea' with Val Kilmer. That's definitely one that a lot of us were looking forward to coming out, but for whatever reason it just never made it here."
Westra says the festival, which starts today, has a bigger selection of titles this year with more recognizable marquee names, pointing to Michelle Pfeiffer's "White Oleander" and Kevin Kline's "The Emperor's Club" as examples.
All 40 films will be screened at Cinemark Palace on the Plaza with the lone exception of "Bloody Sunday," which will run at The Tivoli. About 2,000 people are expected to funnel through the theaters during the week.
Westra is particularly proud of the cultural diversity represented by the lineup.
"One of the things I liked the most about last year's festival when sitting in on some of the foreign films was taking a look at the crowds that were coming in," he remembers. "There were lots of friends and family who very rarely get to see a film from their native country in their language. It's really neat for heads to pop up in a theater where no one is speaking English, and they get a chance to see their movie in a big theater."
Talent from around the world also will attend the festival, including German director Robert Schwentke ("Tattoo"), Iranian director Ramin Serry ("Maryam"), as well as many American filmmakers such as Jordan Brady ("Waking Up in Reno"), Dylan Kidd ("Roger Dodger") and Lee Hirsch ("Amandla! A Revolution In Four Part Harmony").
The showstopper will likely hail from the subjects of the documentary "Standing in the Shadows of Motown." The legendary funk brothers, a group of Detroit studio musicians who played on dozens of Motown's most memorable songs, will undoubtedly regale the crowd with a performance.
But not all the films are Hollywood products or international hits, some are just little oddball gems. Westra mentions the "Don & Bill Show: Slightly Bent" and "Bill Plympton's Mutant Aliens" as the festival's most unusual offerings. The program guide describes the cartoon tales as "way out there in animation-land" and "full of extreme sex and violence." It also advises, "Don't bring the kids."
"Those look like some of the wildest ones," Westra says. "I know I'll be there for both of them.