State of the Festival: Making Room at Indie Memphis 2021

The impressive Tennessee festival showcases how a regional event can foster local artistry and community in ways few larger festivals dare.
A.E. Hunt

Ferny & Lucas

Each year, films from the “Big 5” film festivals—Cannes, Venice, Berlinale, Sundance, and Toronto—pour into regional festivals across the United States, where programmers reorient them according to their respective audiences or, in more unsavory cases, nothing more than their personal taste. Many regional festivals prioritize the same sure-fire hits, leaving fewer slots for original premieres or local films. That approach might make sense for states with scarce or no arthouse exhibition, but feels redundant in New York and Los Angeles, where festivals compensate for that short window of exclusivity by bringing more filmmakers, cast, and crew to their audiences than most of their midwest or southern counterparts can afford.  NYFF, Telluride, SXSW, and their less-financed imitators neglect opportunities to cultivate regional talent and showcase smaller, idiosyncratic films that may better represent their communities. Miriam Bale, the artistic director of Indie Memphis Film Festival, put it plainly, “Other festivals look at local filmmakers as a duty. So they end up all the same, replicating what all the other regional festivals are doing.” Fortunately, festivals like Indie Memphis buck the cycle. 

As in past iterations, this year’s Indie Memphis was the culmination of its team’s generous, year-round investment in local filmmakers. Despite the lockdown, they continue to expand on their annual  “Indie Grant” and year round initiatives like the Black Creators Forum, Youth programs,” and “Shoot & Splice” educational workshops. Films born from these resources often screen in subsequent Indie Memphis editions, and “Hometowner” shorts—ones directed by Memphis filmmakers—permeate most sections in the short programs, including Narrative and Documentary Competitions. Few if any US festivals match such efforts, although festivals like the New Orleans Film Festival and Camden International Film Festival also graciously invest in their filmmakers. In contrast, other festivals sacrificed their communities in the lockdown, laid off staff, and reduced seasonal workers salaries. The board of Film at Lincoln Center used the pandemic as a smokescreen to kill, among other things, their short-lived Education Department and the for-profit SXSW became badge only, making it impossible for filmmakers to promote the sale of individual tickets to friends and family.

Lost in Orion

In addition to local films, Indie Memphis screened festival favorites like Red Rocket, Spencer, Drive My Car, Memoria, and Vortex, world premiered Ferny & Lucas, a loose romance between comfortably uncomfortable twenty-somethings in Brooklyn, and hosted the North American premiere of Juju Stories, a three-part anthology from the new Nigerian film collective Surreal 16. “We’ve always said it’s about bringing the world to Memphis and Memphis to the world,” says Kayla Myers, who was recently promoted to full-time Programmer and Black Creators Forum Coordinator, and played an integral part in programming this year’s Hometowner films alongside programmer Brighid Wheeler. “Because Memphis has never had an arthouse cinema, I didn’t know what one was until I went to college,” Myers says. To date, the organization's "Indie Memphis Nights" weekly screenings and, now, a virtual cinema, is the closest thing to a year-round arthouse cinema in Memphis. Myers considers the “bringing the world to Memphis” half of their bilateral goal: “What larger festival films will and will not draw the Memphis community to us and how can we challenge our audiences to try something new? Let’s not underestimate the intelligence of audiences in Memphis, especially Black audiences.” During the festival, the Commercial Appeal film critic John Beifuss tweeted, “Impressive turnout for a 10:30 am Sunday @indiememphis screening of the new Apichatpong Weerasethakul film [Memoria]. Why aren’t people in church? (Oh wait, they are…)”—a long line awaited the sedative film at sunrise. The staff asked themselves the same question before deciding which non-Memphis filmmakers to invite: “Who makes sense to bring to Memphis? Who would our Memphis filmmakers and community really enjoy meeting and connecting with?”  In 2019, Barry Jenkins selected the Tennessee native Raven Jackson (of the lovely Nettles) as the recipient of Indie Memphis’s first Black Screenwriters Residency. Allotted $7,500 and housing over a two month period, she wrote All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, which Jenkins’  Pastel banner and A24 later signed on to produce. In 2020, Boots Riley chose Memphis artist Zaire Love for the Black Screenwriters Fellowship, and St. Louis-based filmmaker Damon Washington and culture critic Seren Sensei of Washington for the national residency. As this year’s application opened when vaccines had only begun to roll out, the festival decided it was better not to encourage travel and cancelled the residency. Nevertheless, Numa Perrier chose Memphis artist/musician Amanzi Arnette and their work-in-progress script I’ll Fly Away for the remaining fellowship.

As well as myriad grants and community engagements, the Black Creators Forum hosts a symposium just before or during the festival. Myers explained, “It’s two days for Black creators and filmmakers to have a space where they don’t need to put on. They can fully be themselves because they’re around other Black people the entire weekend, and it’s really about practical workshops and resource sharing.” Bale added, “This is a space where conversations don’t get derailed by the well-meaning white question that’s actually a comment, a space where you don’t have to worry about uplifting every Black artist. I think art advances through real and compassionate criticism. With so much surveillance these days, everything is recorded for posterity. Here everything is private because we want people to be candid and open.”

The Devil Will Run

Despite COVID-19 complicating certain Indie Memphis grant-backed productions and scaling back in-person events, this year’s program featured films like Daniel R. Ferrell’s Beale Street Blues, the winner of the IndieGrant, and Laura Jean Hocking’s Hot Singles, the winner of the Women’s Short Film Grant. Both films played in the Narrative Shorts Competition, a robust showcase of emerging Memphis talent like Jean Jackson of The Nest: a pastel fairy tale about a girl who doesn’t leave her bedroom until the age of twenty; Mars Lee McKay of The Watch, a sci-fi horror that leans into our fear of creepy archival footage and TVs with a mind of their own; and Noah Glenn of The Devil Will Run, an endearing comedy about a boy named Shah (Bryce Christian Thompson) who thinks the devil lives in a hole in his backyard. Both one-location, faith-based morality plays, Tymika Chambliss’s black and white melodrama, Timothy, a highlight of the Narrative Shorts Showcase, and Rod Kirby’s thriller, The Prayer, a highlight of the After Dark program, suggest a wide breadth of considerable acting talent in Memphis. 

So does Vivian Gray’s Tape 23, featuring two undoubtable performances by Jarron Webster and Jarron Lee as a father and son who make their last home video together. Gray made her short with the $4,000 production package that Indie Memphis provides every year to winners of their Youth Festival’s Grand Jury Award. The organization also set her up with a professional crew. “It’s an intimidating thing for these kids to have a bunch of adults want to help them make a movie, so it’s up to us to make them feel comfortable,” says Director of Artist Development and Youth Program’s Joseph Carr. Indie Memphis partners with local vendors VIA Productions and Cloud 901, the video lab in what the Smithsonian recently called “the nation’s most innovative public library,” to provide gear to young filmmakers in the non-profit’s year-round youth programs. For IndieGrants, they’ve partnered with in-kind vendors and rental houses like Firefly Grip and Electric, Music + Arts Studio, and LensRentals. “A lot of these companies see this as an opportunity to cultivate and educate emerging filmmakers so they can take crew positions when jobs open up. These production companies understand that they need the film community to grow to sustain themselves and that organizations like Indie Memphis need to facilitate the environment for that,” Carr added. Film festivals both large and small could learn something from these symbiotic relationships and Indie Memphis’s self-sustainable ecosystem, whereby the filmmaking community grows alongside the festival, making it less dependent on outside filmmakers who come and go.

Memphis’s music community is also thriving, evidenced by this year’s festival’s arresting suite of music videos, including highlights by musicians Don Lifted (Brain Fluid and Lost in Orion), Idi X Teco (Buzzsaw Kick), Lucah (Shutters), Daz Rinko (Candy Mane), and Talibah Safiya,  whose “Story video” for her deceptically erotic soul song “Animal Kingdom” was directed by Zaire Love, the fellow chosen by Boots Riley for last year’s Black Screenwriters Fellowship.  

Safiya’s song also played in the pre-roll and promotional materials of the festival. Myers observed, “People were saying, ‘Most of the time music at festivals really bothers me or annoys me by the fourth screening, but this one was actually good to listen to.’ If you listen to the full song, it is very dirty. Amanda [Willoughby, Festival Producer and Mentor Coordinator] and Macon [Director of Marketing] edited a version of it that is good for public consumption [laughs].” The Indie Memphis team also played songs from the music video block at the Awards Ceremony and local musicians played before each film screening. Further connecting with the Memphis community beyond the film industry, the festival hired local vendors like Grandma’s Desserts Etc, a revered bakery inside a family home, to cater the in-person kickback for the Black Creators Forum, and Beale St. Brewing, a Black-owned Brewery. “We supported those places rather than asking them for donations because we wanted to support local businesses, especially Black-owned businesses,” Bale said. “Memphis has always been a place of Black entrepreneurship and Black enterprise, and that’s always really important to reflect.”

Reel Rock: Black Ice

Each year, the festival’s Hometowner Documentaries create new opportunities to engage with different, non-film communities in Memphis. Erin Cole’s Own the Land, Myers says, “considers the relationship between food and land sovereignty. I have my own interest in food and Black people's relationship to food and growing. So, I think it’s really interesting to see the different ways people in Memphis are organizing in the food system, and thinking about blight, et cetera.” For the Q&A, Cole invited two people from Black Seeds Urban Farms. “They talked a lot about land sovereignty and how much their practices as Black farmers are informed by Indigenous practices and knowledge,” Myers added. The intersectionality of Indie Memphis allows for conversations that extend beyond film. I’m reminded of a recent, opposite example, Tribeca’s virtual Q&A for All These Sons, Bing Liu and Joshua Altman’s documentary about two community programs that support young men who are likely to be victims or perpetrators of gun violence in the South and West sides of Chicago. Some of the young men from the film were present at the Q&A, but the moderator only asked them a single question, and the conversation, like the festival, remained isolated to filmmaking. 

Several Hometowner docs observed therapeutic, community building in Memphis through sports and arts. Reel Rock: Black Ice, which took both the jury and audience award for Best Hometowner Feature, follows the mostly Black MemphisRox crew of aspiring ice climbers as they take on snow-capped mountains in Montana. One of the climbers, S’Lacio, had never left Memphis, and blossoms on-screen for the first time when his team arrives at their wintry cabin in the mountains. Firebird Rising, a short Hometowner doc about Collage, a Black and Brown dance collective that reimagines classical ballets, played before Black Ice. In a pre-recorded Q&A, the two crews discussed how they made the people in their films comfortable on camera. David Roseberry, a white director, talks about how he asked the Collage dance collective to answer questions as a group, rather than interview them individually. Chris Dean, a Black producer on Black Ice, later responded to Roseberry’s approach: “I appreciate you saying your job was to get out of the way and let conversations happen in front of the camera, because I had to get out of the way to let S’lacio enjoy his first time being outside of Memphis. I didn’t want him to feel like I was over his shoulder or directing him.” Malik Martin, one of Black Ice’s cinematographers and a significant presence in the film, went on to say, “People feel safe around me, I can get them to open up and indulge with a camera in their face because I approach it like you’re talking with me, a human, instead of a device. And I’m relatable, not some dude who’s not from here. The film world, I’m not gonna lie, is really lame.” 

As film festivals and arthouse exhibitors have historically alienated people of color, working class people, and people outside of the film industry, Indie Memphis continues to evolve both internally and externally to welcome more of the Memphis community. Myers conceded, “By no means are we perfect. The evolution of Indie Memphis to look more like the city that it is housed in is still a process.” Sometimes that’s as simple as not replicating the sins of the past, Bale explained: “What are we sick of seeing? What do we see too often? I think these questions rule every creative decision we make.” Unlike most U.S. film festivals, Indie Memphis boasts a visible growth curve, a hopeful future, and a real affinity for change. As the community multiplies, it pushes the festival to grow and open more doors, Carr demonstrated, “As we create more opportunities, we’ve seen increased demand for them. There are more filmmakers than ever applying for these opportunities, so it’s an ever growing thing and we never feel like we’re doing quite enough—there are so many new people coming along.”

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State of the FestivalIndie MemphisIndie Memphis 2021Festival CoverageZaire LoveDaniel R. FerrellLaura Jean HockingJean JacksonMars Lee McKayNoah GlennTymika ChamblissRod KirbyVivian GrayErin ColeDavid Roseberry
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