Indianapolis International Film Festival features 191 films

Brian Owens sits at the eye of a gathering storm. In this case, though, it’s a good thing — a storm of activity called the Indianapolis International Film Festival. On this particular afternoon he’s sitting in a room that’s little bigger than a walk-in closet, locked-on to a computer screen, talking on the phone and calling to a nearby intern — pretty much simultaneously. The rims of Owens’ eyes, by the way, are red.

IIFF director Owens started the IIFF in 2004. At the time it seemed an unlikely addition to Indianapolis’ cultural menu. This wasn’t known to be a film-friendly town. Indianapolis had fewer screens than other cities its size and, apart from Castleton Fine Arts up north and Ron Keedy’s stalwart efforts at Key Cinema on the Southside, there weren’t many opportunities to view art house fare.

The IIFF was like an act of cultural protest about this state of affairs. It was also prescient. Owens and his cohorts turned out to be just ahead of a curve that would soon see the arrival of the seven-screen Landmark Cinema at Keystone at the Crossing, establishing a major new venue for art and independent film. In the meantime, they would also see their fledgling festival exponentially grow in reach and entries.

NUVO ventured into Brian Owens’ whirlwind long enough for this conversation about the upcoming International Film Festival and the burgeoning state of cinema in Indy.

NUVO: It seems film culture has grown in Indy since the festival started in 2004. What’s changed?

Owens: As far as the number of art house screens in a city our size, we were way behind. When Landmark was willing to bring a seven-screen theater to this city that was a sign we weren’t being looked at like a bunch of podunks anymore. We’re a more metropolitan city than a lot of people gave us credit for.

There’s a growing international community here — there’s the Spanish-speaking community, but there’s also a growing African community; there’s always been a significant Russian presence, and other communities that have always been here, but haven’t been as visible, like the Korean community. The Indian community is very active. There’s a lot more cultural exchange happening here.

NUVO: How would you characterize the audience for art cinema?

Owens: To a certain extent there is a legitimate stereotype for the art film fan. They generally tend to be more educated, a slightly higher income level. But, at the same time, we’ve found a vast and diverse group of people interested in what we’re doing, so I don’t think you can completely pigeonhole an art film fan. I mean, there’s a stereotype that if you’re interested in art films, you’re not interested in sports. Well, I know that’s not true.

NUVO: When you started the festival, you must have had some preconceptions about what was necessary to be successful. Are things going as planned?

Owens: We developed a 10-year plan and, in some areas, we’ve actually achieved it. In other areas, like growing the audience, we’re not at 10-year levels yet, but we’re on target.

The creation of the Career Achievement Award to Albert Maysles is a big step this year. Going to someone as respected as he is in the film community is going to make the award more valuable in the future. I think it will give us more opportunity to reach out. We’re obviously not to the super A-listers yet, but we’re building our way up. This is the year we wanted to start a career achievement award and it happened.

Quantity and quality

NUVO: Where else have you seen growth?

Owens: The biggest has been entries. That comes from recognition of the festival outside the local community. Sometimes with an arts organization it’s actually easier to build your reputation outside of your home to a certain extent. People outside see what’s going on and say, “That’s impressive.” I’m sure if I lived in Toronto, the Toronto Film Festival wouldn’t be as exciting to me. But we’ve gone from 65 entries in 2004 to 526 in 2007. That’s astronomical growth of 720 percent in three years.

An area that’s been a little slower than we’d like it to be is getting local donors or funders to create a decent cash prize pool. That is priority No. 1 for next year. Increasing our prize money base will increase our entries. This would benefit us and it will benefit the community to the extent that the more films you have to choose from, the higher quality presentation you’re going to get. Each year, as our entries have grown, so has the quality.

NUVO: What’s going on in the larger world of film that accounts for the increase in entries?

Owens: is an online entry service that basically catalogs all of our entries. Filmmakers who are members can fill out one entry form and then go through and shop for festivals, click a single button and their entry is submitted. They also have a message board system that has allowed filmmakers to communicate with one another, whether they’re from Hungary, Australia or Africa. It also allows us as festival and programming directors to communicate with filmmakers. It’s been fantastic and it’s really strengthening this community of people. It allows for critical eyes to check each other’s work out in the early stages and get good advice. That has strengthened filmmaking across the board because while filmmakers are in competition to some extent, that cooperation makes everyone a little bit better.

NUVO: The festival has provided a platform, to some extent, for local filmmakers. What’s your take on the state of the art of local filmmaking?

Owens: The first year we had three Hoosier natives who submitted films, though none were shot here. They were all really good short films and that was exciting. The next year we decided to go ahead and do a Hoosier Lens award to try and help support Indiana filmmakers. We crossed our fingers that we’d get something as good as the year before. Well, we got a great short, but we also had three feature films, Novem, Pearl Diver and the documentary The Innocent. It was amazing. I was stunned.

I thought those movies were so fantastic we’d have to lower our expectations in 2006. Damn if we didn’t get a dozen films! They just keep getting stronger and better. There’s some great stuff this year. I think there’s more in the Hoosier Lens category that were shot here than were created by transplanted Hoosier artists, which is great because I’d like to see these Hoosier artists come back here and shoot. The new tax incentives are going to make a big difference as far as that goes.

NUVO: What can we do to build a more vibrant film community in Indianapolis?

Owens: There are a lot of filmmakers here but they have to have day jobs. I would like to see the sort of support system set up that would allow them to totally focus on their art for a time. I’d also like to see more pooling of resources. I think there are a lot of creative minds in and around the city and Central Indiana and I know they have to keep their unique vision, but if you’re only going to get $5,000 to shoot your short film and your buddy Joe has $7,000 for his, what could you do if you worked together? Money doesn’t indicate good storytelling, but sometimes money can make things better in other ways.

The good stuff

NUVO: What’s exciting to you about this year’s festival?

Owens: If I were a stranger coming to this festival, No. 1, I would take a week off work so I could see everything!

There’s a Chinese film called Little Red Flowers that is a stunning achievement, with a performance by a 6-year-old kid that, if we had an acting award, would probably win it. It is charming, it’s funny, it’s got some darkness to it.

Last year we had a South African take on Bizet’s Carmen. This year, the same filmmaker and cast are back with Son of Man, which is the Christ story set in the present-day fictional African kingdom of Judea. When I saw it at the Chicago Film Festival it brought me to tears. The Christ story has been done abundantly in film; this is probably the most moving one I’ve ever seen. It’s glorious. If you like movies, Son of Man is a beautiful movie.

Last year we called our experimental shorts “Horizons.” This year we call them “From Left Field” because most of the entries are kind of funny, wacky. There’s a collection called The Patterns Trilogy from Canada. We showed Patterns One last year, which was kind of a cross between Hitchcock and Almodovar about a woman named Pauline. Now we have Patterns Two and Three. It’s like Vincente Minnelli and Christopher Guest collaborated. The selection committee saw these films and started applauding, not because anybody else was in the room, but because we were so glad we were there to see them. I’ve never seen anything like it.

There are a couple of documentaries I strongly recommend. In the Shadow of the Moon is about the Apollo missions. It’s chock-full of never-before-released footage from NASA and it’s amazing. The surviving astronauts really open up and are honest about their experiences — laughing and crying. We’ll be the third or fourth showing inside the U.S.

There’s another one called Summer Camp! This is three weeks in the lives of some kids who go to a nature camp in Wisconsin. There are these intense relationships and when it comes time for people to leave you find yourself going, “No! Don’t stop!” You’re not ready to give them up yet. It’s pure pleasure. I can’t imagine that any kid over 10 wouldn’t just enjoy it. And it has all original music by The Flaming Lips. How can you beat that?

NUVO: What about the international flavor of the festival this year?

Owens: We’ve got 45 nations represented. There are films from the Philippines, Indonesia, Yemen — the first feature film in the history of that country and, of all things, it’s an Islamic romantic comedy — Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Guatemala, Peru, Argentina — that one’s about a punk rock tango band! We’ve never had that type of reach before.

NUVO: Tell us about short films.

Owens: We have 105! There’s something really satisfying about a movie that feels complete in eight minutes. I think every well-told story is told at perfect length, whether that’s 90 seconds or two and a half hours. People who overlook short films are missing out because short films don’t even get into theaters — and there’s something really impressive about telling a story in 90 seconds.

NUVO: What’s it like living through all this?

Owens: It’s a range of emotions — mostly good. I don’t mind 16-17 hour days during the festival because I’m on such an adrenaline high that I only need a few hours sleep a night. Thankfully there are interns here to help with the post-festival work and cushion my postpartum depression. Then I plan on crawling into bed for at least 20 hours. It’ll be a couple of weeks before I can just sit down and enjoy a movie again. Last year I put in about 160 hours during the course of the festival and this year will probably be more than that — but it’s worth it.

What: 2007 Indianapolis International Film Festival
When: April 25-May 5

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