October 10, 2008

Ambitious Films at Indie Memphis — Branches Out, Yet Stays True to Southern Roots

By John Beifuss

This week's Indie Memphis Film Festival marks the third stop for actor-turned-director Giancarlo Esposito and his new movie, "Gospel Hill."

But Esposito isn't following a strictly traditional film- festival path with his civil rights-themed directorial debut. True, the movie had its "official" world premiere Oct. 3 at the Woodstock Film Festival in upstate New York; but six weeks earlier, Esposito screened it at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

"It's a very powerful film, and we showed it with the idea that the word and the message of the film would be in tandem with Barack's message of change," said Esposito, 50.

"But the overall message of the film is about healing - healing old hurt, and wounds that we carry with us for years," said the veteran actor, best known for his work in such TV programs as "Homicide: Life on the Street" and in such movies as "The Usual Suspects,""The Last Holiday" with Queen Latifah, and Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" and "Malcolm X."

With an all-star cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Danny Glover, Angela Bassett, Julia Stiles and Esposito, "Gospel Hill" is the most high-profile of the almost 135 narrative features, documentaries, animated and experimental films, shorts and music videos that will screen today through Thursday at Malco's Studio on the Square during the 11th annual Indie Memphis Film Festival.

As is fitting for an event entering its second decade, this year's festival is the most ambitious yet: For the first time, all five Studio on the Square screens will be devoted to Indie Memphis, today through Sunday. Monday through Thursday, two screens will focus on the festival.

"Gospel Hill" screens at 6 p.m. Sunday. Esposito will introduce the movie and answer questions afterward, along with actor and native Memphian Chris Ellis, who appears in the film, and Memphis musician Scott Bomar, who composed the film's score. Bomar and Esposito met at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, where Craig Brewer's "Black Snake Moan," which was scored by Bomar, premiered.

Esposito also will take part in a public conversation at 4:30 p.m. at the Studio, hosted by Elvis Mitchell, the former New York Times film critic who regularly interviews filmmakers on his Turner Classic Movies program, "Elvis Mitchell: Under the Influence."

Mitchell - who has his own movie at the festival, "The Black List" - also will be an Indie Memphis juror this year, helping to select the winners in the "narrative features" competition. As usual, the festival will recognize its best documentaries, narrative features, shorts, experimental and animated films and music videos. Returning this year is the "Audience Award," voted on by festivalgoers. Some other notable jurors include Peter Gilbert, producer of the acclaimed documentary "Hoop Dreams," and Alison Bagnall Standefer, co-writer of Vincent Gallo's "Buffalo '66."

In past years, the Indie Memphis Film Festival stressed its Southern identity, but new executive director Erik Jambor says he wants to connect area moviegoers and moviemakers with independent filmmakers from around the country.

"Regional filmmaking is what it's all about," said Jambor, who came here this year as Indie Memphis' first salaried director after a stint at the BendFilm Festival in Oregon and almost a decade as founder and director of the lauded Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in Birmingham, Ala.

A regional film that may strike a chord in Memphis, according to Jambor, is "Song Sung Blue," a documentary about a former touring musician with the Esquires (the band that scored the 1967 hit "Get On Up") who becomes a professional Neil Diamond impersonator. "It's from Milwaukee, but the story probably will ring true to a lot of musicians and performers who are trying to make a living in Memphis."

Other movies are Dixie-fried in less obvious ways. The festival's two "Midnight Movies," for example, are anything but Southern in subject matter: Saturday's "Interplanetary" is a futuristic tale about an alien creature on Mars, while tonight's "Dance of the Dead" pits nerds and cheerleaders against zombies at the senior prom. But the sci-fi movie is a product of Alabama, while "Dead" was made by Georgians.

Jambor said festivals are "all about making connections," so this year's festival is intended to be "as community-friendly as possible."

To that end, an outdoor "Festival Cafe by Bogie's" will be operating this weekend, in the parking lot between the Studio and Bogie's Deli, where festival-goers and filmmakers can hang out and interact. At least 20 filmmakers from around the country are scheduled to attend Indie Memphis, to introduce their work, answer questions after screenings and mingle with moviegoers.

Esposito said Memphis was, in a way, an inspiration for "Gospel Hill."

"One of my hugest influences has been Dr. Martin Luther King, who took his last breath there in Memphis. I've always been inspired by people who take a stand and really take action. I remember visiting the Lorraine (before it was incorporated into the National Civil Rights Museum), for my own personal and historic reasons, and loving that particular neighborhood, and loving being reminded of what that man did, who sacrificed himself for all of us."

"Gospel Hill" is the story of a black neighborhood in a small town where a civil rights leader (played by Jackson) was killed 40 years earlier; the crime remains unsolved. Glover plays the slain man's son, a shade-tree mechanic no longer involved in "the struggle." Esposito plays a physician conniving with wealthy landowners to buy up property in the historic neighborhood, with hopes of converting it into a luxury golf course.

With its ensemble cast and political and social themes, the movie sounds like it could be a John Sayles production, like "Sunshine State." Sayles - called "a favorite filmmaker" by Esposito - was last year's guest at Indie Memphis with his film "Honeydripper."

Indie Memphis board president Les Edwards described the festival as "a significant cultural and entertainment event.

"There's no reason we shouldn't have a festival that's as prestigious as ones in Atlanta or Nashville. We need to be on a par with at least those festivals, and with this year's lineup and events, I believe we are."

-John Beifuss: 529-2394


Indie memphis film festival

Tickets to screenings are $9 at the door, or $7 online; a "5- Film Sample Pack" is $23, or $28 at the door. A "Film Pass" good for admission to all screenings is $85; a "Festival Pass" that includes admission to festival parties at the Historic Daisy and the Ground Zero Blues Club is $150. Celebrity/panel discussions are free, but seating is limited.

To order tickets and for a complete schedule and more information, visit indiememphis.com .


Originally published by John Beifuss / [email protected] .

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