Telling Our Own Stories | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Telling Our Own Stories

Our readers' grass-roots "Fahrenheit 601" campaign to bring Michael Moore's film to Jackson is inspiring them to band together to bring other independent and edgy films to Jackson. Since we launched, this has been one of the JFP's active goals to help improve the cultural climate in the capitol city—and we have helped with a number of e-mail campaigns to help get people out to films like "The Pianist" and "Saved!" (now in theaters here). We've also run several stories about the need to bring better films here, and to tell our own stories through film. We are pulling some of those stories back to the top of the site this week to add some fuel to the current fire.

Richard Weiss, owner of Flashback Video Café, wasn't planning to start a film series. But at the urging of the Mississippi Film Office's Nina Parikh, he decided to screen a collection of shorts by a filmmaker from Oregon and wound up drawing 50 people into the store—more at that point in the store's brief existence than had ever set foot inside it at once. At Flashback's most recent screening, there weren't quite so many folks on hand—this was, after all, the night after the St. Paddy's parade and at the crest of the Sweet Potato Queens' siege of Jackson—but those who showed up were treated to an impressive collection of film-trailer parodies, music videos and other short works, variously funny and poignant, by McComb filmmaker N.T. Bullock.

"It's great," says Weiss, speaking of the film series that wasn't originally part of his plan but that's now becoming a regular part of his business. "By sheer force of good will, our customers have gotten us to actually do this as opposed to just talking about it. And why not? We have a thriving if not widely recognized filmmaking community here. The more we can help nurture it, the more it'll be encouraged to push the boundaries. I'm glad for Flashback to carry the torch until someplace more suitable can pick it up."

Bullock, whose work is astonishingly varied and accomplished, has just released a compilation of five years' worth of filmmaking under his Sequential Pictures imprint. "The idea from the beginning," his notes on the DVD read, "has been to learn, mature and grow as a media house. This disc encompasses the majority of that process, and hopefully the maturation will be evident."

All kinds of artistic and technical improvements distinguish recent Sequential Pictures parodies like "A Glitch in the Matrix" from earlier efforts like "Star Wars Episode II." More striking, though, is that even the early stuff holds up. Bullock's day job is as a computer guy, and in "Frontyard Asswhoop" a couple of long-suffering joes who've had it with their PCs take them outside, component by component (keyboard, monitor, mouse, CPU) and open up a can of you-know-what on each crappy piece.

Almost as good as the films themselves are the outtakes, audio commentaries and director's notes on the Sequential Pictures DVD and Web site. These are as professional looking and sounding as any extras from a big-budget film—except when they're meant to be anything but—and in most cases less pretentious and more amusing.

The Web site for 4South Posse, a filmmaking collective made up of students at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, links to an article from the school newspaper, The Vision, that begins with this announcement about one of the group's recent productions: "Today, at two in the afternoon, 4south posse productions premiers their third video this year in Hooper, Room 109, Bobby Jarrell's class. They release it to the general public at three."

The video being premiered and wide-released in a single hour is "Enter the Players," a loose montage of the Posse making its entrance at school to the tune of the theme song from "Shaft." Bobby Jarrell is the group's math teacher, and they've made a short film about him in which they follow their leader drone-like down the hall into class, where they sit mesmerized (or maybe stultified) watching him fill the blackboard with equations.

Another short, "Danger Zone," has the Posse's Blake Buck butt-boarding down a handrail on the steps outside one of the school buildings—a routine joy-slide that turns hazardous, thanks in part to Kenny Loggins' overwrought emoting on the soundtrack.

Two 4South Posse films, "Beatstick" and "Run!"—both co-directed and-produced by Buck and William Miller—are set to air in the Youth category of screenings in the Crossroads Film Festival. The Vision story reveals that the Posse members "do much of their work at night, after curfew," and extols the group's creative synergy. "Alone, none of them think they could produce any film as appealing as the ones they have released, only together with the others."

The same sort of camaraderie and deference to the power of collaboration characterizes the answers I got from Bullock and his friends as well as their 20-something colleagues, such as frequent collaborators Jared Hopkins and Matthew Magee (along with Sequential Pictures contributors like Scott Kohn and Anthony Washington). Last year Hopkins and Magee were awarded Mississippi Film and Video Alliance grants to make their own films, both of which are slated to air in this year's Crossroads short films screening. (Similar grants—also in the amount of $2,500 and likewise awarded "to foster indigenous film productions throughout the state," in the words of MFVA president Dixon McDowell—went to filmmakers Kent Moorehead and Tom McGraw.)

Magee and Jamie McGary produced Hopkins' film "A Few Simple Truths" about an underground poker game that's morally (and mortally) high stakes. The film's director of photography is Bullock, who also does a fine, funny cameo turn as a wall-eyed card shark. Magee—whose film, "Foster," is based on a short story by Seattle author David Drury—has started Being Films, which is dedicated to developing projects by Mississippi writers and filmmakers. "There's a great pool of people around with no pretentiousness about them," he says, "people who work hard and enjoy life and love making movies. I want to be a part of that."

Magee and Hopkins should both benefit from the exposure their films will receive at the 2004 Crossroads Film Festival, to be held April 1-4 at the UA Parkway Place theater in Flowood. Ed Inman, who'll be handling the 16-millimeter and digital projection, offers this bit of background on the evolution of the festival, now in its fifth year:

"Crossroads evolved somewhat out of the Monday night series Ferrell Tadlock and I used to host at New Stage that featured indie and foreign films. Some of my friends and I were interested in seeing Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused," which had just come out. None of the theaters here even thought about showing it."

Inman was able to secure a 16mm print of the film and a place to screen it, the now-closed Living Room on Capitol Street. The series later moved to the Deville Cinema and later still to New Stage, finally winding up at the Unitarian Universalist Church. From that start, he says, and thanks largely to Tadlock's work (and the participation of the Mississippi Film Office and Krauscape Films—whose president, Monte Kraus, is the festival's new director—and others), sprang Crossroads.

In February the Magnolia Festival in Starkville celebrated its seventh anniversary, and last year's MFVA's annual Film Summit toasted the 30th birthday of the Mississippi Film Office. A new festival has cropped up in Oxford, there's another one being planned for Tupelo, and Mississippi State University's art department (through its graduate program in computer animation and multimedia) recently sponsored a screening of animated and live-action films from within and outside of Mississippi that was broadcast on UPN Mississippi (a network affiliate serving northeastern Mississippi towns) under the moniker "Free Admission: A Film Festival in Your Living Room." The show was re-aired by several other North Mississippi TV stations.

Here in Jackson, though, there's an often-overlooked resource that more fledgling (or just equipment-deficient) filmmakers could be taking advantage of: the local public access TV station.

Channel 18 goes heavy on the church- and government-sponsored shows (with some community affairs shows tossed in), but that's mostly because the folks with original programming in mind and the fervor to produce it aren't beating a path to the station's door. TV producer (and JFP columnist) Ken Stiggers, who came to Jackson from Atlanta in 1995, calls TV-18 "the channel people say they don't watch, but they do." Almost a year ago, he says, the station graduated 30 students certified to be producers.

"I think public-access TV and film offices can make great partners, both by training new technicians and by cultivating new content producers. I saw it done in Atlanta, on People TV/Cable 12 … people breaking the mold, bridging video production and filmmaking. Now that's access."

Stiggers describes his own entry in this year's Crossroads festival as "a ghettoized version of 'Follow the Bouncing Ball.'" Both a sardonic sing-a-long and a moving tribute to Nina Simone (it's a riff on her version of the folk song "Little Liza Jean"), the animated short is an episode in a series of four that Stiggers wrote and produced for Channel 18. He characterizes the production as crude but says, "I'm an advocate of freedom, and of working with the tools you have. I like to ask, 'What if the average person produced a TV show?' It doesn't have to look like 'Entertainment Tonight.' Public access demystifies mainstream media—helps bring us 'out of the cave and into the light,' as Plato said."

Building renovations and studio upgrades now underway will make Channel 18 a more attractive bet for aspiring filmmakers willing to trade some of their free hours (as volunteers) for access to the station's production facilities—which will ultimately gain several new studios and editing suites and make a switch to all-digital production equipment. When Jackson filmmaker Vincent Wright made "The Pledge" (in which a young man faces hard choices during fraternity rush), there was just one studio, and the editing facilities were hardly cutting-edge; still the film won second place in an American Film Institute competition and landed in the top 10 (in a field of nearly 2,000) in a competition sponsored by the Alliance for Community Media in Washington, D.C. Wright says he couldn't have finished his movie without the use of the station's editing suite.

Wright's Philm Phactory Productions is centered around his twin nephews and based on what he refers to as the "Mary Kate & Ashley model." The Olsen twins' parents set up a production company in their name so that the girls wouldn't be at the mercy of industry types. Their first film, "Sleepover," had a production budget of $10,000, according to Wright. "Nine years later, they've made a billion dollars in sales and are, for all intents and purposes, a franchise unto themselves."

"There's absolutely nothing on the video-store shelves that shows black kids in a positive light," he says. "You go straight from one or two little black kids on Barney to teen thugging and drugging. Those are not the images I want to put in front of my kids."

"There's plenty of outside interest in a project like this," Wright says, "but I want it to be something made by Mississippians that we can export to the world." To that end, he's working to build a film company he hopes will bring a new sort of industry to Mississippi—that will serve as an incubator for film-service businesses. "I'm not interested in just turning out product. We need to train more film-industry technicians along with developing a deeper talent pool. There are—just to name one example—a lot of minority unit production managers in Hollywood who need work and who could be brought in to train people here as UPMs."

Filmmaker Ron Rodenmeyer, who worked for Mississippi Public Broadcasting when it was still plain old ETV and who now produces educational and training videos for the State Department of Education, agrees with Stiggers and Wright that Channel 18 is a great resource that's largely been ignored by Jackson-area filmmakers. Ron and his wife, Kathryn, had a public-access program of their own back in the late '80s called "The Sideshow," a video magazine of alternative film that viewers who remember it still consider a cult classic. Ron's feature-length film (a collaboration with ETV colleague Art McAlpin) "Sins of Omission" had a special-event showing at Crossroads three years ago, but he says it's still being edited and that he wants to rescore it. "Getting a film finished is hard. When you're old and tired and have three kids running around, it gets harder."

Ron is helping Kathryn edit a documentary film she shot for several years—logging and whittling down a hundred-odd tapes into a finished product of 60 to 90 minutes. One of Kathryn's previous documentaries, "Uprooted," (about Dan Overly, who for years tended a Japanese garden in Ridgeland until land-development plans and health problems forced him to move) premiered at last year's Crossroads festival. For her part, Kathryn cites the Southern Circuit filmmakers showcase, which makes a stop at Millsaps College on March 29, 2004, as "a jewel" for Mississippi filmmakers, an event that "creates a new audience for our work and gives us a chance to meet filmmakers from other states." She also expresses gratitude to the Arts Alliance of Jackson/Hinds County, which funds the Web site for the Rodenmeyers' Polaroid-picture project "Company Photos."

A corollary to cultivating homegrown film talent is enticing Hollywood and other movie-making entities to come to Mississippi. Just last week Film Office director Ward Emling sounded out state lawmakers on his proposal (soon to be forged into a legislative bill) for a tax rebate whose theme is "Give me a dollar, and I'll give you a dime." What Emling is touting is a plan that would return to film companies shooting in Mississippi 10 percent of their production costs—an incentive similar to the one Louisiana already offers but more streamlined, straightforward and appealing.

"Ten percent is a pretty clean wash," Emling says. If a company spends $5 million, the state gives them back $500,000 and immediately makes 4 percent in individual and corporate income taxes. And the first time that money turns over—is spent on goods and services here—that's another 7 percent that comes back to the state in sales tax.

"We get 60-70 percent of productions that express interest once they visit the state. If they don't come in the first place, the odds aren't so good. Hollywood is a business, and increasingly the emphasis in on the bottom line. The question to state film offices used to be: 'What locations do you have?' Today it's: 'What incentives do you offer?'"

On the other hand, Emling says, state film commissions were originally set up to attract the Hollywood film industry. Yet the Mississippi Film Office's new manifesto, as he puts it, is to focus on "telling our own stories. Look at Australia. Movies like 'Breaker Morant' and 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' didn't come from Hollywood, and Hollywood didn't invent Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe; the Australian film industry trained and supported them. Mississippi is a fascinating place, full of great stories—let's start producing and exporting them ourselves instead of letting everyone else do it for us."

That's a sentiment shared by veteran Jackson filmmaker Jim Dollarhide, who adds: "Storytelling is what this place is famous for. A lot of us have worked as day players on outside productions that have filmed here … it can get frustrating. All my life I've watched Japan TV, the BBC and public-broadcast producers from New York and elsewhere parading through here to tell our stories."

Dollarhide says he believes that for film production to really take off here, several things need to happen: "More Mississippians need to become the filmmakers—from executive producer on down—and we've got to get more depth in our crew positions. Also, local ad agencies and advertisers could better support our film industry. And finally, the endowment community—and banks and charitable organizations—should continue improving its understanding of film production and financing."

Then again, dollars aren't everything—it isn't so critical anymore how or at what cost a film is made these days, Dollarhide says. "The HBO film 'Lalee's Kin,' which I worked on, was shot on film over a three-year period, with a budget of way over a million dollars. But LisaGay Hamilton shot her documentary on [actress, poet and Vicksburg native] Beah Richards with a DV camera."

Dollarhide gives kudos to the Mississippi Broadcasting Network for showing more willingness of late to hire local freelancers and start joint ventures with Mississippi filmmakers. This encouraging sign is borne out by a statement from MPB's filmmaker-in-residence Robert Mugge, who says MPB is increasingly interested in working with local filmmakers and assisting projects such as Crossroads Film Festival. Mugge notes that MPB is working to revive "Southern Expressions," a past showcase of local films and filmmakers.

"At the recent Film Summit," Mugge wrote, "filmmakers made clear that what they wanted most of all from MPB is exposure for their work, so Scott Colwell, who produced the last edition of 'Southern Expressions,' and I are working with Gene Edwards and programming director Art Starkey to start putting together another group of films which can be broadcast together as a series. We already have a number of films that have been submitted to us since the airing of the last 'Southern Expressions,' and we will soon be putting out a call for additional submissions. We simply have to work out some procedural and funding issues before we do issue that call, probably through the Mississippi Film Office and the MFVA."

Jackson lawyer/filmmaker/movie reviewer Anita Modak-Truran—whose film "Belles & Whistles" does a nuanced dance along the us-and-them, insider-outsider divide—has this to say about developments on the Mississippi filmmaking scene that she's witnessed since moving here from Chicago five years ago: "The number of film and video professionals has exponentially grown. Opportunities to screen movies have expanded."

"Still, it's difficult to sell films from Mississippi," she said. "The distribution companies are not located here. Without a distribution deal, it is impossible to reach a substantial audience. The next step for Mississippi filmmakers is distribution. That's the rub."

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