On the opening night of the Film Commune"s second annual Indianapolis Underground Film Festival at Key Cinemas, the lead feature is American Mullet, a documentary about the history of that decidedly peculiar hairstyle. It receives peals of laughter at every turn.
Members of the Film Commune are the organizers behind the Indianapolis Underground Film Festival.
American Mullet is an excellent piece of low-budget work, hilarious and informative at the same time. It is also a work not made by an Indiana filmmaker. Neither is the closing film, States of Control. To be sure, the IUFF features a number of locally produced films, including a tribute to actor/director Matt Kerkhoff and Reconciliation, a feature from Bunk Films, one of the largest independent film operations in the state. But the choice of lead feature illuminates a key issue facing the local scene. In the end it comes down to balance. Is local filmmaking a zero-sum game? Does supporting the national film scene mean shortchanging local film? Does the success of one film come only at the cost of others? This festival is the capper to a long and expansive year in Indianapolis filmmaking. Local film has been a constant staple at the Key, and production has increased all over the city. The Film Commune has produced five of an anticipated 13 episodes of the Indie Scene TV program dedicated to local film. Movie Maker magazine declared Indianapolis an honorable mention in its list of best cities for independent film production in 2001; many now eagerly await the 2002 listing and anticipate Indianapolis" place in the top 10. It may be the most tangible evidence of the scene"s swift and not always smooth maturing process. In the lobby, after the feature, Key owner Ron Keedy and Film Commune President Chad Richards hold forth on the nature of the scene, one year later. Keedy is particularly disappointed with the constant turnover for the audiences at his frequent showcases of local film. "People will show up, show their film, bring all their friends, then you don"t see them again until they have another film to screen," Keedy says. "That wasn"t the intent. The idea was to get people together to network and learn from each other. And I don"t know what to do about it. They were worried about getting the reputation of being cliquish, and that"s what"s happening." Richards nods. "I"ve been doing a lot of talking with filmmakers in other cities and they say the exact same thing is happening to them. They see each other as competitors." "I wonder if maybe we should have them grade each other?" Keedy says, at least half-seriously. Richards looks at him like he"s suggested planting land mines in the lobby. "It would end in FIRE!" "Oh, my theater"d be leveled before the end of the night," Keedy says. "But it"s worth a shot!" Last year, Richards notes, the festival was geared towards showcasing local film. This time around, the organizers accepted submissions from all over the nation. It"s about balance. After all, the makers of American Mullet and States of Control are not unlike the members of the Commune themselves: young local filmmakers trying to get their work in front of as many audiences as possible. The only way to do that is through film festivals. That"s the philosophy behind the Screening Room events, co-organized by A Song For Jade director Shari Lynn Himes, which has brought in dozens of independent films from across the nation for what are often their only Indianapolis showings. It"s also the Commune"s reasoning in featuring so many out-of-town picks. "Hopefully, people are inspired by them," Richards says. "None of these are giant legendary films." "And if we don"t play them in Indianapolis, you"re not going to see them," Keedy adds. The change in focus does not come without cost, though. "We heard from a lot of people that they"re not coming this year because we didn"t play their submission," Richards says. It"s about balance. Petulance? Self-preservation? It"s a struggle any subculture faces, particularly when it"s a specialized culture aimed at presenting an artform to the masses. Where"s the line between supporting the local scene, supporting one"s own work and supporting the artform itself? "You can"t divide and conquer," Keedy says. "If [local filmmakers] are going to make this a viable film scene, they have to come together." At the same time, this is merely internal grumbling, the kind of growing pains that accompany any artistic scene that finds itself growing faster than anybody expected. But an answer of sorts does present itself. Subculture aside, networking aside, in the end such things always come back to Doing The Work. Keedy"s monthly showcases do not lack for new material; in January the screenings will go back to a biweekly schedule. Richards notes he"s seeing more productions than ever in the works. Film Commune member Joel Umbaugh estimates that productions have quadrupled in the last year. Connected or not, people are making films and getting them seen. Those people include the brand new and do-it-yourselfers such as Don Boner, who first picked up a camera not long ago and has already contributed two shorts to the scene, including the raw but attention-grabbing Ripple. They include the experienced professionals, such as Javier Reyna, whose highly polished skills made Legwork and Junk Drawer two of the most noteworthy short films to come out of Indianapolis in the last year. Then there are the somewhere-in-betweeners, like Matt Kerkhoff, whose comedy feature Seeing Thru was short on production value but long on script creativity; Ryan Penington, who brought noir crime drama to the local screen last year with Foolproof Plan; and the all-volunteer Bunk Films, led by Tino Marquez Jr., who produced the feature-length Reconciliation this year. On the fringes you have the completely bizarre, best typified by Garrett Crowe, who wrote and directed the bombastic festival oddity Death of a Barefoot Tour Guide, which made the average David Lynch film seem accessible. It was nonetheless a well-produced film capable of maintaining a run of several weeks at a mainstream theater, which is rare in the local film scene. Before the premiere of his feature was complete, Crowe was hustling to get his next project moving. Most importantly, the scene is gaining momentum in the public eye. "I have so many people in the community at large talk about [local film] to me," says Jane Rulon, director of the Indiana Film Commission. "There are more people in the state than ever who are aware that there are people who live here and make films. The more people are aware, the more it bodes well for the future Ö There is a lot of promise. There"s been a lot of activity." And the future promises more: QT-1, currently in production, based on one of Isaac Asimov"s I, Robot tales and local actor and all-around renaissance man Blaine Hogan, fresh off a highly acclaimed stage run of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, takes to the screen in Dylan Griffith"s The Letter, screened at IUFF and screening at the Key"s showcase Jan. 21. In other words: The future is happening. It forms slowly, sometimes agonizingly so, but it moves forward, a combination of ingenuity, creativity, hustle and just plain stubbornness to bring vision from page to screen. Maybe Richards is onto something as he sums up the local scene: "It"s a big dysfunctional family."