Southern Films in the Spotlight at Indie Grits Film Festival

Nickelodeon Marquee, India Grits 2015
The Nickelodeon Theater, Columbia, S.C., Indie Grits Film Festival 2015. Photo by Sean Rayford.

Film festivals like Sundance and SXSW might represent the ultimate movie orgy for indie film lovers with their 10-day schedules of more than 120 features, but there are some excellent alternatives for those seeking something less overwhelming and time intensive. The Indie Grits Film Festival is one. Scheduled for April 12-15 in Columbia, South Carolina, the event is a more intimate and casual affair for viewing new works from film and media artists.

Now in its 12th year, Indie Grits serves up 15 feature-length movie premieres and a huge assortment of short films that range from documentary to experimental, with a mostly Southeast regional connection, either through the filmmaker or the subject matter. The organizers have also creatively arranged the shorts in programming blocks that share a thematic relationship under category headers like Body Chronicles or Acts of Vulnerability. Variety is the drawing card here, as in the Late-Night Mixtape program where you can see such diverse fare as Tiger Toilet, Laurence Unger’s animated Dada-like homage to Marcel Duchamp, Earworm, a narrative short from South Carolina filmmaker Anil Dhokai, and Sean Weiner’s 11.14.91, a mini-documentary about growing up in a multiracial family.

Tiger Toilet
Still from Tiger Toilet, Laurence Unger’s animated homage to Marcel Duchamp.

Some of the festival’s premieres are eagerly anticipated after having generated considerable word-of-mouth buzz at other festivals, such as The Gospel of Eureka and Rodents of Unusual Size. Co-directed by Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, The Gospel of Eureka focuses on a culture clash in the town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, which is home to the famous roadside attraction the Christ of the Ozarks statue, commissioned by anti-Semitic clergyman Gerald L.K. Smith in 1966. A longtime haven for right-wing Christians, Eureka Springs has also become known in recent years for its sizable LGBT community. Both groups are brought into sharp focus by the filmmakers as they crosscut between a performance of The Great Passion Play, an annual event at the Christ of the Ozarks statue, and the drag queen headliners at the local nightclub Eureka Live Underground. Considering the circumstances, you might expect a portrait of an extremely divisive and volatile place but the filmmakers have instead delivered an unlikely tale about a town’s hard-won tolerance for lifestyle differences and beliefs.

The Gospel of Eureka
Scene from The Gospel of Eureka.

Another offbeat entry is Rodents of Unusual Size, which depicts an ecological threat to Louisiana from the nutria, an aquatic beaverlike rodent that was first introduced into the state from Argentina during the Great Depression. The nutria (some locals refer to it as a swamp rat) was originally imported and bred for its fur. Unfortunately, the oversized critter, which can grow to more than 22 inches in length and 35 pounds in weight, has since become a major threat because of its insatiable appetite for vegetation and roots, adding to Louisiana’s erosion problems. Filmmakers Chris Metzler, Jeff Spring and Quinn Costello weave a fascinating if disturbing true-life environmental tale featuring a cross-section of Louisiana residents, including animal rights activists, Cajun hunters and celebrity chefs (anyone up for nutria gumbo?). Narrated by Wendell Pierce (The WireTreme), Rodents of Unusual Size is also notable for its foot-tapping music score, courtesy of The Lost Bayou Ramblers, and some humorous animated sequences.

Rodents of Unusual Size
Louisiana hunter Thomas Gonzales is among the interviewees in the documentary Rodents of Unusual Size.

Fans of landscape design and gardening as an art form will want to see The Well-Placed Weed: The Bountiful Lift of Ryan Gainey by Emory University professor/filmmaker Steve Bransford and Atlanta artist Cooper Sanchez. Gainey was known for his award-winning landscape designs, which paired native plants of the Southeast with English garden aesthetics. He was featured often on TV and in national home and garden magazines, but Bransford’s documentary reveals a more complex and mercurial personality behind the scenes, one that could be prickly and gregarious at the same time. Filmed over a six-year period, from 2010 to 2016, The Well-Placed Weed charts the remarkable success story of this colorful figure from his impoverished childhood in rural South Carolina to his tragic death in a house fire in 2016 (he was trying to rescue his beloved Jack Russell terriers).

Well-Placed Weed: The Bountiful Life of Ryan Gainey
Well-Placed Weed: The Bountiful Life of Ryan Gainey  is a documentary by by Emory University professor and filmmaker Steve Bransford and Atlanta artist Cooper Sanchez.

Other standouts in the feature film premieres include Witch, Vanessa M.H. Powers’s visually enticing fantasy-drama starring Columbia-based artist Katly Hong, and Purge This Land, a film essay by Lee Anne Schmitt on the legacy of radical abolitionist John Brown. In the words of the director, the film “uses the image and legacy of John Brown to contemplate the culpability of White America in the ongoing disenfranchisement of Black America.”

Indie Grits Film Festival 2018
Still from Purge This Land, about radical abolitionist John Brown.

There are more than sixty short films featured at this year’s event and they run the gamut from Jason Rhein’s animated musical fairy tale, You Can’t Play With Us to Dorian Warneck’s Hardcore Wrestling Alliance, which exposes the underground culture of backyard wrestling in Portland, Oregon. Among the titles that are generating some enthusiastic pre-festival buzz are Nathan Willis’s Cowgirl Up, a short doc on an African-American woman competing in the white, male-dominated Mississippi rodeo; Aaron Lovett’s Gays for Trump?, which is not a satire but an authentic account of an interracial gay couple who campaigned for Trump in the 2016 election; and Ava Lowrey’s All Fried: Carolina Fish Camps. The latter is produced by the Southern Foodways Alliance and documents a vibrant time in the Carolinas during the 1940s when fish camps and family-run restaurants along the Catawba River were an important part of Southern food culture.

Indie Grits Film Festival 2018
Hardcore Wrestling Alliance exposes the underground culture of backyard wrestling in Portland, Oregon.

All of the Indie Grits film screenings take place at the Nickelodeon Theater (the former site of the historic Fox Theater) on Main Street in Columbia. But films are only part of the four-day festival, which includes filmmaking workshops, a puppet slam, more than thirty live bands and a Sunday supper with music by Dom Flemons (the founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops) and others. To get the entire schedule, visit here.

Jeff Stafford writes about art, film, music, gardening and other favorite topics for various digital publications.

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