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DISPATCH FROM INDIANA: Faith is in the spotlight at Heartland Film Festival

DISPATCH FROM INDIANA: Faith is in the spotlight at Heartland Film Festival

Filmmaker Catherine Hardwicke would never have been invited to Indianapolis’ Heartland Film Festival for her acclaimed coming-of-age drama “thirteen” although its messages of a wayward teenage girl’s self-improvement and learning to make good choices would fit under the Heartland Film Festival banner of “stories that display courage, integrity and hope.” Heartland’s expansive selection committee, its teams of fifty volunteers comprised of local film buffs, fans and industry professionals, would surely have jettisoned the 2003 Sundance Film Festival hit due to its strong sexual content and drug use. And yet, Hardwicke is here.

Heartland, which celebrated its fifteenth year on Oct. 19 and continues its program of some twenty-five features and eleven shorts through Oct. 27, is a thematic festival, one focused on the human spirit. Granted, some films contain wartime violence and adult language but the challenging fare that’s a staple at other film festivals, the latest features from experimental directors like Bruno Dumont and Carlos Reygadas for example, are intentionally missing. Heartland is about faith and family. After years of operating on the fringe, the fast-growing festival appears in-sync with intense interest by entertainment industry leaders on evangelical communities and the types of movies they want to see.

“It seems like a very interesting place where people care about more emotional films with some, maybe, spiritual component,” Hardwicke says, speaking inside the coatroom of the Indiana History Center, a plush auditorium and museum on the edge of the city’s sprawling downtown. “Maybe some of the films in the festival have that. I hope so and I hope that this audience will appreciate what we’re trying to do with this film (“The Nativity Story“) and spread the word so people will go and see it.”

Catherine Hardwicke, director of “The Nativity Story,” with the Heartland Film Festival’s Jeffrey Sparks. Photo by Steve Ramos for indieWIRE

At 51, Hardwicke’s liberal beliefs and counter-culture interests are as clear as the sparkly bangles on the sleeves of her black top. Fresh from an argument with a combative limo driver, she is ready for a Sunday evening presentation of her latest film, “The Nativity Story,” an adaptation of the Biblical story of Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes of “Whale Rider“), Joseph and the birth of Jesus. With more editing work left to complete, Hardwicke has taken her first break in nine months of work on the film to come to the growing festival and present twelve minutes worth of footage to the moderate-sized audience. Answering questions with Heartland president and CEO Jeffrey Sparks, Hardwicke hopes to start building word of mouth to the target audience of faithful churchgoers she needs to support her Biblical drama.

When Sparks tells the people in the audience to return to their churches and spread the word, Hardwicke is hopeful that they’ll listen.

“I think faith-based people are searching for peace. That’s part of why I am here. Our consumerist, fractured society might have material things but not anything else. You need something deeper in life.”

Faith Is a Niche

Last month, News Corp.‘s Fox Filmed Entertainment announced the creation of FoxFaith, a boutique arm like Fox Searchlight with a focus on low-budget films based on Christian stories. Its slogan is “Films You Can Believe In” and its titles include the previous Heartland entry “End of the Spear,” among others. Thanks to their small budgets and equally small marketing campaigns, the films are consistently profitable due to the steady business of the evangelical community. What these divisions are chasing is a shot at repeating the box-office marks of past, Christian-themed phenomenon.

The success of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” “The Da Vinci Code” and “The Passion of the Christ” explain the current high interest in faith-based cinema. But directors of faith-based films struggle to be taken seriously. Another challenge is to prove to others that stories of faith do not have to be square. (The TV show “Lost” is a frequent example of something that tackles faith but is still hip). The faith-oriented audience is a niche audience but as the niche grows, this niche film festival will also grow.

You see lots of Indianapolis at the Heartland Film Festival as the two main venues are on opposite sides of the city. Point “A” on the Heartland map is a suburban multiplex on the north side of town that’s home to a majority of its screenings. Point “B,” is a second multiplex on the far south suburbs, a long drive on the expressway circling the city. The emerging filmmakers in town to experience their films as a movie, on the big screen, with an audience, often race to get to their showings on time.

The best crowd pleaser is director Klaus Haroe‘s Finnish period drama “Mother of Mine,” a sprawling movie with sweeping landscapes and precise period detail. Its melodramatic flourishes about a young Finnish boy sent by his mother to live with a Swedish family during World War II fall into the realm of cliche but there is much about the film, especially its photography, to recommend.

Director Michael O. Sajbel‘s “The Ultimate Gift” is about a spoiled rich boy (Drew Fuller) forced to learn some life lessons after the death of his wealthy grandfather (James Garner). The film is breezy, likable formula storytelling until some last-act, outrageous melodrama sidetracks the storytelling.

Shooting Dogs,” director Michael Caton-Jones‘ Rwanda genocide tale, is taut and believable and filled with good performances from John Hurt as a British priest and Hugh Dancy as a young teacher at his Catholic school. Hurt and Dancy battle to protect refugees at their school from slaughter and their struggles build to an expected but still devastating climax.

The common film festival goal, whether Sundance or elsewhere, of recognizing challenging work and showcasing better-known actors stretching themselves in more independent fare are replaced at Heartland by films with a stronger emphasis on family values. Heartland’s opening-night film, “Amazing Grace,” director Michael Apted‘s sprawling period drama about William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) and his attempts to end the British slave trade, fits Heartland to perfection. But like many social-message dramas, “Amazing Grace” (which closed the Toronto International Film Festival last month) is crippled by its good intentions. Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd makes a solid leading man and Romola Garai provides smart and lively romantic support but the story sinks into repetitive speeches of freedom and equality.

Showing at an IMAX Theater attached to the Indiana State Museum, the crowd responded favorably to “Amazing Grace.” It was further proof that Heartland was its natural home. In fact, “Amazing Grace” producer Ken Wales, speaking after the opening night festivities, points to Heartland as proof of the continued growth of faith-based dramas.

“Sundance has its focus and does what it does, and Heartland does what it does and it’s good that they’re not on top of each other,” Wales says. “But Heartland is reaching into the heart of what people really experience and want to see.”

“There are reasons why the “G” and “PG” films do well. When you go to be entertained and informed with delight, people don’t want to pay the ten and twelve bucks to be insulted. They don’t mind being stretched but they don’t want to be insulted. They don’t want to get just the explicit version of something from the director.”

God Grant Me Audiences

What Wales is saying is that film festivals are bubbles and the universal catch is getting the movies seen. At Sundance, it’s Hilary Brougher, director of the artful teen pregnancy drama “Stephanie Daley.” At Heartland it’s director Zach Gray, in town with the family adventure tale “Secret of the Cave,” a movie produced by the college where he teaches, Southern Adventist University. But the point of Wales and his fellow “Amazing Grace” producer, Cary Granat of Walden Media, is that Heartland films arguably have a greater chance of getting seen by audiences because they’re family friendly.

Heartland Festival founder and president Jeffrey Sparks is quick to emphasize that his festival is not controlled by film industry interests, while a gigantic Radio Disney balloon is inflated in the lobby outside the history center’s theater. Of course, Sparks is referring to the celebrities and corporate gift houses at various festivals like Sundance. As dogs gathered for the kids showing of the Disney film “Air Buddies” start barking, Sparks, clarifies his words. Heartland is not about being anti-industry. It is about choosing what members of the industry you want to partner with, and he wants to partner with Walden Media and Disney, companies as committed to family friendly stories.

Heartland is not a festival celebrated and seen by many professionals in the film industry. There is not an official marketplace for the buying and selling of films. It’s a small slate of movies; giving limited network opportunities to the filmmakers in attendance.

Sparks is somewhat of an outsider himself. His background is in social work and he first formed the idea for Heartland while working at the New Harmony Center, a community in Southern Indiana. He replaces slickness with friendliness and it appears to be working.

The gridlock on the streets and sidewalks of Indianapolis comes from the Colts football game Sunday afternoon but many of the screenings have sizable crowds, almost capacity, an amazing achievement for films with little name recognition. Its awards and financial prizes are impressive.

Asked if there are misconceptions about Heartland, Sparks responds with a definite ‘yes.’

“People try to put us in a right-wing conservative box, that we’re trying to clean up the movies,” Sparks says. “No we’re not. We’re trying to celebrate the movies. I know that one reason is the name but I won’t change it.”

Heartland is at its nosiest at the Saturday evening awards ceremonies held at the Conseco Fieldhouse, home to Indiana Pacers basketball games. Inside the massive basketball stadium, a mix of volunteers and donors join the filmmakers on the arena floor. There are no appearances by celebrities; only Jon Voight is on-stage to receive a lifetime achievement award. So there is no media spotlight. The attention is a good thing, if it can trickle down to other filmmakers.

Filmmakers Christine Spindler, Anna Christopher, Frank Kelly, actor Jon Voight, Diego Quemada-Diez and Varda Hardy at the Heartland Film Festival. Photo by Steve Ramos for indieWIRE

“Shooting Dogs,” about the Rwanda genocide, was the $100,000 Grand Prize Winner for Best Dramatic Feature. “The Hip Hop Project,” about a group of New York Rappers, won the $25,000 prize for Best Documentary. Other awards standouts include the short “Shade,” and the student films “Sirah,” “Wednesday” and “Queen of Cactus Grove.”

The usual film festival comments about daring filmmakers willing to question the country we live in; are replaced by thanks to God. Still, the filmmakers are having too good of a time to complain. They are seldom treated so well.

“These are people who are believing and willing and they certainly have capital,” says Christine Spindler, director of the short “Sirah,” about a young Muslim girl facing taunts from a classmate. “They remind me of why I started this in the first place. They celebrate the filmmaker and not just the film and they’re celebrating me and hoping I do more of what I did.”

Spindler admits that she had not heard of Heartland before. Her sister, who recently moved to Indianapolis, recommended that she enter. The feeling is different from what she experienced at festivals at San Francisco and Tribeca but she has no regrets.

“I thought it was a little film festival with a little bit of heart,” she says, speaking after the awards ceremonies. “I’m all about the film that doesn’t end well, that doesn’t make you feel good. But I’m also about the film that simply makes you feel. There’s something very different about this place and I think it’s growing and I would gamble that it will keep growing.”

[The Heartland Film Festival continues Friday Oct. 27 with a closing night screening of “The Queen.” More information is available at]

ABOUT THE WRITER: Steve Ramos is an award-winning film writer based in Cincinnati, Ohio. When not on assignment, he maintains the blog Flyover Online.

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