The Kansas International Film Festival may be located only halfway to Hollywood, but their dedication to innovative and socially conscious films extends to the moviemaking capital and beyond.
Founded in 2001, the fourth annual Kansas International Film Festival will take place this September—but MM sat down with festival founder Ben Meade to discuss how moviemakers can get involved today.
Tim Rhys, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Last year you changed the festival’s name from the “Halfway to Hollywood” festival to the Kansas International Film Festival. Why the change? Although new name sounds more “grown up,” your mission—a dedication “to exhibition and preservation of independent and classic cinema,” seems consistent. Along with the name change, was there any kind of philosophical shift at the festival?
Ben Meade (BM): Halfway to Hollywood was a cool festival name and we experienced a great three-year run with it. The Kansas Film Commission suggested a name change and an emphasis on international films as a method to take the festival to the next level—to attract more attention and diversity as well as an instrument of fundraising. Our philosophy is the same even though the festival has become the largest annual film event in Kansas or Missouri.
MM: Did “Halfway” have any metaphorical meaning? And if so, are you there now? With your “Lucid Underground Competition” and “Best of the Digital Underground Film Festival” sections, it certainly seems like you’re still keeping your distance, in some respects.
BM: “Halfway” simply meant that we are geographically halfway to Hollywood—right in the middle of the USA, landlocked flat, and in need of some new excitement. Regarding the “Lucid Underground” and “Best of Digital” competitions, these were freestanding film events that needed support in our community. We partnered in order to give these eclectic films a larger venue, thereby creating a new audience for films that many viewers would never otherwise see.
MM: You’re a moviemaker in your own right. How hard is it to run a successful international festival while also trying to further your own film career? (Not to mention be a successful parent/husband, as well?)
BM: I am the luckiest guy in the world, but I have to work for it. I have produced and directed three feature films in three years, am a full-time university professor and a film festival president. We work about a 16 hours a day, often 24/7. I also have six children and five grandchildren! Every hour of each day has a place… There is no other way to hake it happen. I love what I do—all of it. It’s hard to describe my life except to say that none of it would work without the help and support of my wife, Dianna. We love to travel with our films and share this ride as a team. We have been all over the world
MM: Give me a bit of history on the festival. I’m interested in how you decided to found it and about its evolution to date…
BM: I started the festival with Ben and Brian Mossman, two of the hardest working guys in the theatre business. They restore and operate the Fine Arts Theatre Group, the most amazing indie theatre chain in the country. I had served on several other festival boards in the greater Kansas City area, and quite honestly had become discouraged. It seemed as if the festivals weren’t really about the filmmakers anymore, but more about the film business. The Mossman’s and I agreed that our new festival would be a labor of love.
MM: Tell me about the THINK! competition. This is your socially conscious and documentary film section? What is your definition of a “socially conscious” film, and how did this section evolve?
BM: The THINK! Film Series is a natural outgrowth of previous festival programming and the interests of several KIFF board members in film as a medium to inspire and educate while also entertaining the audience. We just talked about what we were already doing and made a formal decision to label our documentary series the THINK! series, featuring socially conscious films.
KIFF already had partnerships with Women Make Movies and The Midwest Center for Holocaust Education. Last year we established a new partnership with the Sundance Channel to show films in the Human Rights Watch series. Each year we’ve screened films that dealt with issues of world peace and gender equity, frequently bringing in filmmakers to talk about both their films and the social issues. This grew out of recognition that film is a very persuasive and powerful medium.
Really, it’s the perfect medium to call attention to wide variety of social issues. We want to recognize those filmmakers who choose to make films about topics that they are passionate about in their real lives. Sometimes these filmmakers are forgoing making more “commercial” films to make ones that they believe will ultimately make the world better.
Dotty Hamilton, the VP of Programming for KIFF, says it best: “I believe that films can be both entertaining and enlightening, and I have always admired filmmakers who do both. Some films may be great eye candy or a fun roller coaster ride, but they don’t stick with you. The films in the THINK! series are made to do exactly that—give the audience something to think about when they leave the theater. Sometimes they will want to stay and talk to the filmmakers, and we actually have to cut off the discussion to make room for the next audience to come in.”
As for a definition of socially conscious films, the programming committee of KIFF gives wide latitude to defining what makes a film socially conscious. We have had films that examine the relationship between Palestine and Israel, conditions for women in prison, the lives of folks suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, speculation on how AIDS developed, and examinations of how musical forms grow out of society.
MM: This year’s festival dates are Sept. 9th to 15th, and you recently announced an Andy Warhol Film Series, sponsored by the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. How did this come about?
BM: On opening weekend, KIFF will feature three programs in conjunction with The Andy Warhol Museum to coincide with a visit by curator Geralyn Huxley. The Nude Restaurant is a “sexploitation” comedy featuring a number of Warhol stars wearing G-strings assembled in a restaurant. KIFF will also show a series of short Warhol films, including the infamous Blow Job. Additionally, in true Warhol spirit, a film will be playing on the wall during the opening night party. Since many of Warhol’s films were originally shown at “happenings,” frequently to live music from The Velvet Underground, we thought it would be great to give our audience a similar viewing experience of a classic Warhol film. I met Geralyn through Adrienne Wehr, a good friend of mine from Pittsburgh who produced The Bread My Sweet in 2001. She has been a big supporter of the festival and my work and helped us develop a relationship with the Warhol.
MM: Any other surprises you can reveal about the 2005 event? What can you tell us so far about this year’s potential special guests?
BM: The jury is still out on special guests, but be assured, it will be great. MM
The Kansas International Film Festival is currently seeking entries for its 2005 competition. Deadline: April 30, 2005. For the list of rules and a submission form, log onto http://www.kansasfilm.com.