The Hearts and Minds Film Festival 2009 brought 23 films, mostly short films to Dover, Del., on April 4. Of them, I thought there were about a half-dozen or so that were really outstanding. Because most of the people who made these movies live far away, some from the west coast, hardly any of the filmmakers got to attend. Yet, through my phone conversations, I was able to learn something very special that connected them.
The first filmmaker to whom I talked was Will Kim, director of the 9-minute movie In Search of the Colors. It was unique because of the 23 it was the only movie to be animated. It focused on Alexander's House, a facility in Los Angeles that fosters young people with developmental disabilities.
Will Kim is 24. He's from Los Angeles but grew up in Seoul, South Korea. His heritage is Korean, but he left when he was 15. He got his bachelor's degree in animation, and he's a part-time teacher at Westwood College while currently studying for his master's degree at UCLA.
Will Kim has been drawing and painting probably since he was an infant. He told me over the phone that he's also always been fascinated with seeing those drawings and paintings come to life. Pardon the pun, but he was drawn to animation because he's thought of it as moving painting, or painting in motion.
Animation is his method of storytelling, but the colors were just a metaphor. Will Kim wanted this film to be about the young people in that house. This is unlike most movies that are more about concepts or strange conceits, the sophomoric comedy, the ridiculous action sequences, or the computer-generated images that surround them.
No. Like most independent movies, Will Kim wanted to avoid all those superficial Hollywood tactics and spectacles. Instead, he wanted to concentrate on the people, knowing and showing the human condition, their human condition, and he wanted to show it in a more pure and perhaps more playful way that opens it up more honestly.
When I watched his movie, it reminded me of recent, animated documentaries, which were Oscar-nominated like I Met the Walrus (2007) or Waltz with Bashir (2008). But, what starts as real people talking with roto-scope creations, super-imposed over their faces, evolves into an explosion of watercolors, painted designs, and swirls of brush strokes in motion.
Kim said he likes to be creative and loves watercolors and basically wanted to seem them move. He got his inspiration from filmmakers like South African charcoal animator William Kentridge who used mostly black-and-white, Cornelius Cole III, a mentor and teacher at Cal Arts, a man on par with Walt Disney, and Ryan Larkin, a Canadian who pioneered abstract watercolor cartoons. Abstract cartoon is exactly what Kim's film becomes. I told him that it was almost like a moving Jackson Pollack painting.
Next, I talked to Andrew Barrow whose short film Second Mourning screened after Will Kim's. Barrow is 30 and is also studying for his master's but at Ohio University where he teaches as well. His interest in filmmaking wasn't innate as his father who was an art professor and photographer most likely is Barrow's biggest reason for pursuing the career.
On the phone, he told me about his discovery of Werner Herzog, one of the most revered independent, European filmmakers. We talked about Herzog's Rescue Dawn (2007), which was part biographical and part a fictionalized account of a true-life subject Herzog had been studying for years. Barrow told me that his movie was similar except his true-life subject didn't focus on the Vietnam War as Herzog but instead the current war in Iraq.
Barrow said he started out doing non-narrative, experimental films, montages and whatnot. He said recently he's been doing more political stuff. His film itself isn't political. His ten-minute movie, which he shot over four fays in Athens, Ohio, centers on a woman whose husband and son became casualties in the Iraq conflicts under Clinton and Bush. An apparition visits the woman, which forces her to face her feelings and fears.
Barrow wanted to explore in a supernatural way the unseen effects of war, not just what you see in the news, but the emotional damage or the fact that it's left a lot of people lonely and a lot of families with holes. Sadly, Hollywood movies that have tried to explore that very same thing, like In the Valley of Elah (2007), have all tanked at the box office. Unlikely there will be any major motion pictures in the near future that will broach the topic.
So, if there are those who want to make movies dealing with this or who want to see movies dealing with this, a festival like the Hearts and Minds is their only outlet and connection. Yet, if Hearts and Minds is the hub or the bridge, then the vehicle carrying them is the website Withoutabox.
Both Kim and Barrow mentioned their use of it to find this particular festival. Withoutabox is like a search engine in that if you are a filmmaker trying to get your movie into a festival or even if you're an organization trying to put together a film festival, Withoutabox is the nexus that unites them. It supplies organizations with filmmakers and matches filmmakers with festivals that would best fit them, according to content or style.
The Hearts and Minds Film Festival has as its mission to select and screen films that do what Kim and Barrow wanted to do. They wanted to tell a story the Hollywood moneymakers wouldn't, one that's unique and creative, and one that touches upon devastating social issues. Withoutabox is like Match.com or Chemistry.com. It's like cupid for film festivals and filmmakers.
I was able to talk to Tony Heriza and Cindy Burstein whose movie Concrete, Steel and Paint definitely touches upon devastating social issues. It centers on the Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia that partnered with Graterford Prison to create a painting known as the Healing Wall that was done collectively by prisoners and crime victims. Convicted murderers painted alongside family members of murdered people. Heriza and Burstein's purpose was to raise awareness about rehabilitation programs in the criminal justice system.
They feel too much focus is spent on merely building more and more prisons to house an ever-growing criminal population. They believe more should be spent on projects such as the Healing Wall to try to lower recidivism rates. That particular point is never fully addressed in their film. Yet, the movie does challenge conventional and, some might argue, stereotypical views of prisoners, which is again something you don't get out of Hollywood or mainstream media.
At its heart, civic engagement is what Heriza and Burstein's movie is all about. The two also mentioned Withoutabox and how it matched them with the Hearts and Minds Film Festival. Heriza and Burstein said the festival's philosophy was selfsame to theirs.
But, of all the movies that played at the festival, none of the director's philosophies were more about civic engagement than that of Hearing Everett: The Rancho Sordo Mudo Story. The 68-minute documentary tells from his own lips the story of Luke Everett, a man suffering from partial hearing-loss whose father moved his family south of the border to start a school and foster home for deaf Mexican children.
The movie was produced by James Kirk-Johnson, the director of operations at Strong Tower Ministries, a church based in California. Civic engagement is the core of what most churches are. Civic engagement is involvement in the community to address social issues at a hope to better them. Kirk-Johnson submitted this movie to the festival because it shared in the church's goal of civic engagement. The similarities between the two were very blatant.
What wasn't blatant was that another network of filmmakers were also being brought together almost in parallel to those of the Hearts and Minds Film Festival. I didn't realize it until I talked over the phone to the director of Hearing Everett, 36-year-old TC Johnstone.
Johnstone didn't study filmmaking. He started making movies with a friend in Steamboat, Colorado. He realized that the only way to make a career out of it is if he moved to Los Angeles, which he did. After a while, he left when he saw that the competition was really fierce and younger. He settled with friends and fellow filmmakers in Austin, Texas, where he established his company Gratis 7 Media Group. Johnstone's company has two divisions, a for-profit division and a non-profit division.
The for-profit develops and produces movies that rally around redemptive stories, or those that would be done for the purpose of implementing change for the good, helping the poor, fighting disease, etc. This was of course a common theme of the Hearts and Minds Film Festival. The non-profit worked with filmmakers, not unlike Johnstone himself, with similar artistic visions as him, to help give them the resources they needed to make their movies.
I thought of Gratis 7 as a sort of hybrid of the Hearts and Minds Film Festival and Withoutabox. Whereas those two brought people together at random, Gratis 7 had more interpersonal, relationship-building purposes. Much in the way Johnstone was supported by Strong Tower Ministries, he gets support from faith-based organizations for his filmmakers.
Johnstone said his network has grown to about 30 to 40 filmmakers. One example of how his network works is how he connected a Wisconsin director with a Bolivian cinematographer. The two lived thousands of miles away from each other and probably would never have known about each other, but both shared a common goal and interest. Johnstone brought them together. He's like a filmmaking cupid.
Elizabeth Lockman, the program director for the Hearts and Minds Film Festival, with whom I got into a brief conversation following the festival, said movies like Johnstone's, with a Christian theme or Christian message, aren't readily embraced by the mainstream. Therefore, it's only through independent means like the festival or Gratis 7 that these kinds of things are championed.Again, it's about bringing people together in a nexus or network of like hearts and minds who have an overlapping passion to do art that's important or creative that we wouldn't get by any major corporation, if not for these networks.