Lights, camera, but no action in movie theaters at the moment.
COVID-19 has paused the 20th anniversary Cedar Rapids Independent Film Festival, slated for Friday and Saturday at Collins Road Theatres. But organizers are hoping to reschedule the milestone event later in the year, to keep this networking venture on track and on screens.
“It’s a great networking opportunity for anyone interested in film,” said festival director and co-founder Scott Chrisman, 40, of Springville. “I’ve noticed over the last 20 years now, we have a lot of people who will show up year to year — no matter wherever they’re at in their journey of being a visual creator-type person — and meet other people.
“They go to something on the schedule that they’re interested in, then hopefully, meet up with the filmmaker and people involved, and say, ‘Hey I liked your movie — can we work together?’
“We get more and more of the cross pollination over the years — not only within people on production crews trying to be creative together, but also members of the audience, who get used to the annual (event) to see what’s interesting for Midwest-Iowa flavored productions and some of the ideas they’re talking about,” said Chrisman, a filmmaker who works in the marketing department at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids.
“Our family reunion here is kind of on hold.”
The festival has been on hiatus before, most recently in 2017, when staffing turnover made it seem like all the pieces wouldn’t be coming together that year. The next year, the festival came back, and so did its community.
“Community gathering is the thing,” Chrisman said. “Watching a movie in a dark theater is a unique experience.”
Another unique experience is that all the films showcased in this festival have Iowa ties. Some were filmed on location in Iowa, and others feature Iowans and Iowa natives in front of and behind the cameras. Some films have been created on a shoestring budget using a smartphone, others are theatrical-release quality with fancy equipment and big budgets. Many can be watched today through various platforms, with links a click or two away on internet searches.
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From about 60 entries this year, festival judges narrowed the field to 36 films, ranging in length from a couple of 2-minute student documentaries and “Chance,” a 4-minute, 42-second pro-am freestyle by Alisabeth Von Presley and Rob Merritt, both well-known in Cedar Rapids-area arts circles, to a 1-hour, 17-minute professional feature titled “A Dead Dame in Hollywood” and a 1-hour, 45-minute pro-am feature titled “The Seagull.”
Descriptions of all the chosen films can be found at crifm.org/aboutfilms.html.
This year’s festival filmmakers run the spectrum of ages and experiences.
“We seem to have a good range again — veterans all the way down to at least high school. I’m not sure if we’ve got any younger than that this year,” Chrisman said. “Other years we’ve had down to middle school or elementary, that had help from their parents. It’s kind of the universal language. The skill level is going to be different, but the ideas they’re trying to communicate are pretty well human — the run of the gamut here.
“You’ve got people of all ages trying to express themselves or get their ideas out there,” he said. “Even more so, people that are trying to understand other people. It’s interesting in terms of a reaching-out introspection of, ‘Here’s how I feel about this person or this topic. What can I learn from making a film?’ What that communicates to other people who may not know about this person, group, lifestyle, experience, whatever it may be. A movie’s a great way to show that.”
For example, “Sons & Daughters of Thunder,” set during the 1834 Lane Seminary anti-slavery debates in Cincinnati, Ohio, is this year’s professional feature entry from Kelly and Tammy Rundle of Fourth Wall Films in Moline, Ill. Organized by firebrand abolitionist Theodore Weld, the shocking oratory at these first-in-the-nation debates caused near-riots and “awakened a young Harriet Beecher (Stowe) to the horrors of slavery,” according to the film’s description. She later would turn these memories into her novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Among the film’s Iowa connections, Tammy Rundle is a Waterloo native, and many of the people involved in the production are from Iowa.
“(Cedar Rapids Independent Film Festival) was the first festival we entered with our first film, and it presented us with our first award, so it’s always a special event for us,” Kelly Rundle said via email. “CRIFF and other festivals present opportunities to introduce new audiences to our independent films.”
With so many festivals canceled or postponed, he added, “It’s going to be an interesting and a difficult year for people who are engaged in creative endeavors.”
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Zombie films were all the rage when the 2012 festival showcased “Collapse,” a $1.7 million movie shot in West Branch in 2009 and starring Hollywood actors Chris Mulkey, an Iowa native, and his real-life wife, Karen Landry.
This year’s festival entries are taking on more of an introspective, social awareness trend.
“Several films thinking about either how to feel about myself or my relationships with other people or where my place in society is or commentary on that society,” Chrisman said. “It’s kind of an introspective year, it seemed like, taking a lot of flavors. Some are darker, some of them are lighter, hopeful things — even just short, animated things of ‘Hey, we’re going to send this rocket into space — how does that work?’ ”
It’s not unusual for film themes to reflect the world in which we live, he noted.
“One of the things that I’ve always thought is the idea that there are few things like a movie, with the exception of maybe a book, that can really put somebody in the experience of someone else,” he said, “and a film does a great job of doing that.
“A film puts you in another person’s shoes and you live in their world through their eyes. It’s a really good way to understand a character or an issue, when you think about things like racism or discrimination that you may not experience personally. But if you can get an audience to buy into a character and understand how their relationship with their parents isn’t going well, or their marriage. Whatever they’re experiencing, you’re experiencing through the character, so if it’s done well, you learn what it is to live that life for two hours.”
Your turn to DIY
Now that we’re in the midst of social/physical distancing, it’s a good time to pick up your smartphone, tablet or whatever video-making device you have on hand, and become a filmmaker inside your home or outside on a nature walk or drive.
“We’ve had a couple of (festival) films shot only on their phones a couple years ago already. It’s much easier than it used to be,” Chrisman said.
It reminds him of the time he made a short film with his kids about five years ago, on a weekend where he knew they were all going to be inside. It was a family affair, with his wife and kids pitching in to create a farm film using a little barn set with plastic people and animals. He wrote and narrated the film, and the others voiced the characters and moved them around with their hands.
He captured the action on his film camera that also shot video.
“It was not extensive at all,” he said.
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He put it through his editing program and added “a tiny amount” of special effects, and ended up with a short film under 5 minutes in length.
“It was kind of silly and fun and the grandparents loved it,” he said. “My father-in-law was in hospice at the time, and he got to see it. It was a nice little way to share some fun with people at a distance, but also something to look back on years later.”
He advises do-it-yourselfers to experiment with their smartphone or tablet.
“Come up with something fun, even like a hide-and-seek idea at your house,” he said. Or ask you kids what ideas they’d like to try or the kind of movie they’re like to see.
“It doesn’t have to be that complicated,” he said. “Think of it as a video version of having your kids help you write a story. Anybody can pick up pencil and paper or the computer and type up a story. I think writing is going to be a big thing right now, just because people have the time, and hopefully the wherewithal to do it.
“But certainly, get involved with your kids. It’s something pretty easy to do, and don’t worry about the final product. It can look as terrible as it needs to. It’s just something fun to do with them.”
Those who want to get a little more sophisticated can find editing programs online, like DaVinci Resolve or iMovie, and some mobile phones have editing tools.
“With smartphones, you can probably do things that 20 years ago would have cost 30 grand and a crew,” he said.
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At a glance
• What: Cedar Rapids Independent Film Festival
• Updates: crifm.org
• Film descriptions: crifm.org/aboutfilms.html