Tennessee Waltz: A Visit to Indie Memphis 2016 is a Beautiful Dream

My first job out of school was as office assistant at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

I made badges, worked will call, and, in between shifts, slipped into the darkened theatres to watch films. Years later, I am still as excited as ever about slipping into that elusive dream world. Which brings me to my 24 hours at Indie Memphis.

Intimate and accessible, Indie Memphis is the kind of festival where local musicians set the mood for screenings, Q&As evolve into long conversations, and panelists drop the seminar format in favor of deep, candid reflection. For the 19th edition of the festival, programmer Brandon Harris—who also happens to be a novelist, a critic, a film professor and a filmmaker— poetically framed the year in film, and the city’s stake in American cinema, with works from such Memphis-born auteurs as Ira Sachs, there attending the 20-year anniversary screening of his iconic feature The Delta.

I was at Indie Memphis to show my documentary “Brillo Box (3 ¢ off),” about the journey of an Andy Warhol Brillo Box my family loved and lost, and the ephemeral nature of art and value. Brandon had paired it with The Act of Becoming, which explores the cultural legacy of the novel Stoner through stylized direct-to-lens interviews and ethereal images of text. Our films were connected through themes of personal history, memory and loss—themes that recurred in a line-up of powerful expressionistic documentary films like Cameraperson and Tower.

On the “Documentary is the New Narrative” panel, I joined filmmakers Jamila Wignot, Chris Leggett, Tom Yellin and the journalist Emily Yellin (yes, relations: siblings whose late father was Memphis’ beloved documentary professor David Yellin), and we explored how the illusion of cool objectivity—once the hallmark of nonfiction films—had made way for the highly personal, aesthetically inventive and emotionally engaged docs of today.

Craig Brewer’s panel conversation with screenwriter Larry Karaszewski was disarmingly open and frank, revealing insight into both their craft and the legacies of their work. When Larry wrote Ed Wood with Scott Alexander, who could have foreseen that he would forever remap the bio-pic from the province of “great men” to the province of the real, the human, the flawed? Craig (wearing a Big Star T-shirt) recalled that his 2005 feature Hustle & Flow was not considered a “box-office hit” when released, but today it plays so frequently on cable that the cast he directs on Empire these days think it must have been successful.

Rapt audiences at Indie Memphis 2016, the 19th edition of the festival. Photograph by Breezy Lucia

My time at Indie Memphis ended with a late-night screening of Tower. As the musician closed his set with the Big Star classic “Thirteen,” someone in the front row lovingly cried out “Alex” in recognition of the late frontman Alex Chilton. For a moment, I could have sworn he was there. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker’s Winter 2017 issue. Indie Memphis Film Festival 2016 took place November 1 – 7, 2016.

Lisanne Skyler is the writer/director of the HBO Documentary Film “Brillo Box (3 ¢ Off),” airing on HBO in June 2017.  Watch the trailer for the film below.

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