Lawrence Free State Festival to ‘reinvigorate the love of cinema’ with pairings of film, music, other events

photo by: Lawrence Arts Center contributed

Clockwise from left: Boots Riley, Janet Marguía, Chris Estrada, Kevin Willmott, BLKBOK, DJ Spooky.

The Lawrence Free State Festival is preparing to raise the curtain on its annual showcase of independent film, live music, comedy and art, including events that seek to unite the cinematic and musical components of the festival in new ways.

The 2023 lineup offers a variety of spotlight-catching names — including headliner Boots Riley — and runs June 26 through July 2. But before the festival itself, which is put on by the Lawrence Arts Center, there will be a launch party this Thursday that will include a film screening, concert, food and information about the festival lineup.

Festival Director Marlo Angell said that she thinks this year offers the strongest integration yet of the festival’s cinematic and musical components. She said the new format combines film screenings and musical performances into single events.

“Those really organic, natural connections to film in the music lineup, to me, is just really one of the true highlights,” Angell said. “… Instead of having separate concerts, these music influences throughout the program are highly integrated.”

For instance, Angell said The Embarrassment, a post-punk band out of Wichita that frequently performed in Lawrence, will hold a reunion concert following the screening of the new documentary about the band, “We Were Famous, You Don’t Remember: The Embarrassment.” A tribute concert featuring several local musicians will follow the screening of “Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill.” Angell said the integration is even paralleled by Riley, the festival’s headliner, who is both a musician and a filmmaker.

Angell said Riley, a rapper from the group The Coup and director of “Sorry to Bother You,” will speak about music, film, art, politics and the current television writers’ strike.

“I’m really excited for that conversation to be really the centerpiece highlight of the festival,” Angell said.

In total, the festival will include 26 film screenings as well as music, comedy, panel discussions, art and other events. Angell said the festival offers a combination of national and local films, and she hopes the integration of film, music, panel discussions and other components — even food and beer pairings — will reinvigorate audiences.

“Especially post pandemic, when theater attendance has gone down, we are trying to reinvigorate the love of cinema by providing experiences that are unique to the community,” she said.

A list of some festival highlights, provided by Angell, is below.

• An Evening with Boots Riley: A moderated conversation with Riley on music, film, art, politics and the current television writer’s strike. Riley is the founding member and lead vocalist of The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club. A community-based activist, Riley was involved with the Occupy Oakland movement and was one of the leaders of the activist group The Young Comrades. His directorial debut “Sorry to Bother You” premiered to strong critical acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival.

• “On These Grounds” screening: The film is a documentary about controversies over police presence in the classroom after a video showing a white officer throwing a Black teenager to the ground goes viral. There will be a Q&A with director Garrett Zevgetis and activist Vivian Anderson, moderated by Free State High School security guard Demetrius Kemp.

• Standup comedy performance by Chris Estrada: Estrada is the co-creator, star, writer and executive producer of the hit Hulu series “This Fool” based on his upbringing in South Los Angeles.

• “No Place Like Home: The Struggle Against Hate in Kansas” screening and Q&A: Directed by Oscar winner Kevin Willmott and inspired by the C.J. Janovy book “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism in LGBT Kansas,” this film features narration by Melissa Etheridge and interviews with Kansas politicians and activists.

• Performance by neo-classical pianist BLKBOK, whose works are inspired by pivotal moments in American history. He will be performing tracks from his new album, “Black Book.”

• Screening of Academy Award-winning director Barbara Kopple’s “The Gumbo Coalition” and conversation with Janet Murguía, president of UnidosUS: Murguía is a former vice chancellor of the University of Kansas, and there is mention of her experiences with racism as a KU student in the film. This screening is presented in partnership with the Dole Institute of Politics.

• “We Were Famous, You Don’t Remember: The Embarrassment” documentary screening, Q&A and performance. The band performed in Lawrence many times and will be reuniting for a performance after the film.

• “Garden City, Kansas” documentary screening and Q&A: The film is about a bomb plot led by militant white supremacists that threatened a thriving town that’s home to immigrants from around the world. This film was directed by KU Film and Media Studies professor Robert Hurst.

• Oscar Micheaux’s “Body and Soul” with live score by DJ Spooky: Regarded as a rare work in African American cinematic history, this silent classic has been hailed for its social commentary on issues of race and gender. DJ Spooky has created an original live electronic score for this screening, and there will be live audio description by Audio-Reader Network for accessibility.

• “Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill” screening and tribute concert. Sill was a singer-songwriter who has been compared to Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen and died in 1979 at age 35. The tribute concert is helmed by Heidi Gluck and will feature local musicians such as Kawehi, Danny Pound, Dustin Kinsey, Jackson Graham, Bradley McKellip.

• “Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting” screening and Q&A featuring Haskell Indian Nation University’s Rhonda LeValdo and live music by Bad Alaskan.

• CONVERGE: A dance performance by Regina Klenjoski Dance Company and Tristian Griffin Dance Company, whose work explores identity, race, gender and social justice.

• Film Flights: A short film and beer pairing event in collaboration with Free State Brewing Co.

• “Dadiwonisi / We Will Speak” film screening, filmmaker Q&A: The film is about a small group of Cherokee activists racing to save their language, which has fewer than 2,000 fluent speakers left, from extinction. There will also be live music by Cherokee singer Agalisiga “Chuj” Mackey and refreshments by Jason The Native Chef.

• “The Unseen” film screening and Q&A: A witch from the 1850s is magically transported into the head of her descendant, a barista in modern-day Kansas City. As they race to get her body back, they discover that an old evil has followed her from the past.

• 1970s Lawrence Short Film Showcase, curated by the Watkins Museum of History at the Lawrence Public Library.

Ticket information is available on the festival’s website, Tickets for Thursday’s launch party, “Trailers, Tacos, Tunes,” which will take place at 6 p.m. at the Cider Gallery, are also available on the site. Events vary in price, ranging from free to $25. An all-access pass to the festival is available for $100.


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