Somewhere between the bluebonnets and magnolia trees, a film festival is growing in Waco, Texas. Celebrating its third year, Deep in the Heart Film Festival perfectly manages the challenges of rapid growth while still maintaining a small festival feel.

The brainchild of Samuel Thomas and Louis Hunter, it’s a festival run by moviemakers for moviemakers. The purpose of DITH is to bring members of the introverted film community together to honor one another. The focus isn’t on the awards (that takes place quietly on Sunday morning) but on celebrating being selected into a festival that only accepts a fraction of the films submitted.

DITH’s shorts blocks are rated and grouped with a central theme, so you know what you’re getting into. Want to see an “R”-rated block with a monster theme? It’s on the schedule. A “G”-rated block of kid-friendly films? No problem. My neo-noir sci-fi film, Sonny Vicious, was in the block “Our Twisted World” of “un inching films that explore the darker side of life.”

And the fest isn’t just three days of stellar films. Sprinkled between the blocks is a series of panels that allow aspiring actors and moviemakers to hear from industry leaders and glean their secrets to success. The “Acting in Texas” panel featured Linda McAlister of the prestigious agency Linda McAlister Talent, and a group of working actors that have been featured on such shows as Breaking Bad and Murder Made Me Famous.

Kodak sponsored “The Super 8 Camera Workshop” that covered a brief history of 8mm cameras, what film stock is still available, and a peek at the new 8mm camera in development. Very retro, and very cool.

For me, the highlight of DITH was the Waco Location Tour, sponsored by the Waco Film Commission. Forty or so moviemakers rode around town looking at diverse, film-friendly locations— from a western village to the gorgeous Oakwood Cemetery that dates back to 1878. Waco wants you to film in their city. They’ve hosted Where the Heart Is with Natalie Portman, The Tree of Life with Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, and The Old Man & the Gun starring Robert Redford. Fixer Upper, one of the most popular shows on HGTV, has almost single-handedly revitalized their downtown.

Screenings at DITH are in the historic Waco Hippodrome, built in 1914 as a vaudeville theater. Renovated with state-of-the-art equipment in 2018, each theater provides stunning picture quality and great sound—not projectors on bedsheets, like a few festivals I’ve been to. Since all the screenings take place in one location, there’s no bouncing around theaters all over town.

I had the privilege of seeing Laron Chapman’s debut feature You People, about a black college student struggling to find his identity after being raised by white parents. My favorite shorts were “Knowing,” about a janitor who witnesses a horrific event and does nothing, and “iRony,” by Perth native Radheya Jegatheva, an animated tale about the perils of social media, told by a cell phone. It’s based on a poem Jegatheva wrote in high school… and it’s genius.

Everywhere you turn there’s another mixer with delicious tacos, barbecue, bacon-wrapped jalapeños, and lots of free alcohol. Deep in the Heart Film Festival has been so successful so soon thanks to the support of the Waco community. It feels like the whole city is rooting for you. It’s amazing to see such a conservative town championing films with controversial and diverse subject matter. Bravo to Waco and DITH for combining quality films and southern charm in the heart of Texas. MM

Deep in the Heart Film Festival 2019 ran from March 28-31, 2019. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Summer 2019 issue.