Festival tries to create an alternative A movie about torture in a World War II Japanese prisoner-of-war camp may not seem a likely choice for the Heartland Film Festival. The Heartland festival is about family films, right? Jeff Sparks, the festival"s president and guiding hand, leans over a conference table in Heartland"s downtown offices. He"s bleary-eyed, having screened more movies in the past three days than many people see in a year. But he"s also eager to do what he can to debunk what he considers misconceptions about the kinds of films that Heartland presents.
"A lot of people grab for this simple handle," Sparks says of the "family" label. "That"s an element of the festival - and we want to have that element, but it"s not what we"re about." On the surface, it would seem that the Heartland Film Festival"s mission statement should be explanation enough: "To recognize and honor filmmakers whose work explores the human journey by artistically expressing hope and respect for the positive values of life." But we live in a time when one person"s positive values can be another person"s call to arms. What"s more, we"re in Indiana - a place not always associated with open-mindedness. Finally, let"s remember what we"re talking about: movies. Words like "hope and respect for the positive values of life" aren"t necessarily what come to mind when contemplating the latest fare at the multiplex. So what is Heartland really about? "It"s about celebrating truly moving pictures," Sparks says, quoting the festival"s new tagline. It"s a phrase, he says, that has enabled lots of people to engage with what Heartland is trying to do on a more personal level. Practically everyone has been truly moved by a movie at one time in their lives. It"s that experience that Heartland is after. "I think we look for that," Sparks explains. "Films that when you walk out of the theater, you take something with you." It"s been difficult, nevertheless, getting people to understand that this means more than mere "feel good" films or, for that matter, the "family" tag. While Sparks allows that part of Heartland"s concern is that there aren"t enough good films out there for families to attend together, and that he has nothing against well-made fluff, he wants people to recognize that the Heartland Festival can"t be reduced to a simple formula. "I think you"ve got to say that we"ve matured," Sparks reflects. "I don"t want to go where the culture is going. I want to push the envelope in a thoughtful way." This means that while Heartland isn"t interested in movies that use sex, violence or language for shock value, it"s not willing to rule a movie out because a filmmaker has included these elements. "The more the language or violence, the more you better be getting at something redemptive or purposeful," Sparks declares. This year, more than 330 films - features, feature-length documentaries and shorts - were submitted to the festival. Eighteen made the final cut. This suggests at least two things: that after 11 years, the movie industry is beginning to take Heartland seriously - and, in part, this is because the festival has set high standards for itself. "Because we"ve stayed with it, kept the bar high and been very consistent the industry has said this is a good thing," Sparks says. "They see the Award of Excellence going to a film like Hearts of Atlantis, which is not a family film Ö Now that we"ve gone through this process and made the decisions and awarded films like Dead Man Walking and Shawshank Redemption, I think it"s clear we"ve grown." But getting this reality across can still be difficult, even with some of the festival"s best allies. Sparks tells of meeting with a top Disney executive who told him his studio wouldn"t submit The Count of Monte Cristo to Heartland because he thought the film was too much about revenge. "He still doesn"t fully get that we want to take tougher films!" Sparks exclaims. "We still wrestle with that." The festival has also had to overcome what, for lack of a better term, might be called the Dan Quayle factor. Started with an anonymous grant in 1991, at the height of the culture wars over so-called "family values," the Heartland Festival aroused suspicion in some quarters regarding what, exactly, its agenda was about. When the festival invited Richard Dreyfuss to receive an award for Mr. Holland"s Opus in 1996, Dreyfuss felt the need to call Los Angeles Times film critic and festival supporter Charles Champlin to assure himself that coming to Indianapolis wouldn"t constitute the political equivalent of sleeping with the enemy. After setting Dreyfuss" mind at ease, Champlin called Jeff Sparks: "He told me "I had to convince him that it wasn"t the Dan Quayle Memorial Film Festival,"" laughs Sparks, adding, "Dreyfuss came, he had a good time. People who come get it. They understand." When the Heartland was launched in 1991, many observers were a bit skeptical about whether a film festival - any film festival - could sustain itself in Indianapolis, a city not known for its support of cinema. But 11 years later, the festival is still standing and, by all appearances, looks stronger than ever. "I think we"re in an interesting time now," Sparks says, noting several new initiatives aimed at turning the Heartland into a year-round presence - not just in Indianapolis, but nationally as well. Heartland has just created a nationwide video store distribution arrangement for one of its award winners, Best Man from Grass Creek. Not only that, Sparks says the festival will be looking to partner with national organizations on the order of the YMCA to use the Heartland imprimatur as a means of mobilizing the public to go out and support Heartland-endorsed films during their opening weekends. "Let"s develop an awareness for these great films when they"re coming out," Sparks says, pointing out that, in most cases, films either make it or go bust depending on the business they do in their first three days. "What people don"t realize is that they really do vote on opening weekend," Sparks explains. Finally, Sparks wants Heartland to be happening in Indianapolis on a more frequent basis than its current 10 days in October. Now that he has a professional staff to work with, not to mention a corps of over 300 volunteers, Sparks wants Heartland to become associated with a larger menu of film-related events. "My thing," he says, "is to find these truly moving pictures and do something with them." To this end, the festival will sponsor this year"s Indianapolis Oscar Night America party at the State Museum"s IMAX theater. In the meantime, Sparks and his crew continue the job of trying to help people understand what they consider the true range of Heartland-approved movies. That"s why a film like the Japanese prison camp saga To End All Wars takes on a special significance. Sparks says that when, several months ago, he first heard of the Kiefer Sutherland vehicle he contacted the film"s producer to see if it would be submitted for festival consideration. At that time Sparks was told the film was thought to be a "hard R." In other words, "too much for the Heartland Film Festival." Sparks let the matter drop. Subsequently, To End All Wars went through four additional edits which evidently softened its violent content - and prompted its producer to send Sparks a copy. Sparks took it home and screened it with his wife, Denise, who told him she thought the violence, particularly a scene in which a prisoner is crucified, while relentless, was never gratuitous. When Scott Robinson, head of the festival"s selection committee, said that he, too, was impressed by the film, Sparks submitted it to the Heartland jury who, in turn, selected it for this year"s lineup. "I"m really happy we"ve chosen it," Sparks says now. This, in spite of the fact that he still has the occasional person who tells him they want Heartland films to be palatable to both their parents and their grandkids. "It can"t be like that," Sparks says, shaking his head. "We are here," he adds, looking back on the past 10 festivals, "trying to create a voice and an alternative Ö I think people are beginning to trust that Heartland films are good."