Free State Festival: A Week in Review

From Monday, September 17 through Sunday, September 23, the Lawrence Arts Center presented the 2018 Free State Festival. Over the years, the festival in Lawrence, Kansas, has gone from being a film fest to an all-around arts fest, to bringing acts like Public Enemy and George Clinton for huge street concerts, to what it is now: more of a balanced arts and culture festival, with an emphasis on film.

Having attended several years of the festival, it seems like this year’s organizers made a distinct effort to have every event tie into one another and connect with the town as a whole, as well. Case in point: several of the documentaries were tied to Native issues, coinciding with Haskell Indian Nations University’s anniversary, which took place on September 17.

Additionally, Free State Fest’s weekend activities coincided with Haskell’s Keeping Legends Alive, commemorating the dedication of Haskell’s World War I memorial, the first to honor Native troops who served in that conflict. Given the importance of powwow culture in director/producer Elizabeth Castle’s film about activist Madonna Thunder Hawk, Warrior Women, it’s only appropriate that it screened right before a celebration of what was arguably the progenitor of the intertribal powwow culture, which still continues today.

To go back to Monday, the first night of the festival, the organizers connected the opening events with Hispanic Heritage Month, which started on September 15. The first event was a screening of Agave: Spirit of a Nation, from Matt Riggieri and Nick Kovacic, a film which explores the connection of Mexico’s Jalisco and Oaxaca regions to the growing of agave and distillation of mezcal and tequila. The connection of those who grow the agave and distill it into spirits to the land and people is powerful stuff, but the real focus here is on family, and how many of the distillers are part of families which have been doing this for generations.

It’s less a documentary, and more of a portrait of a people, although the filmmakers do a solid job of making sure that the film focuses on how global climate change and the monoculture of the blue agave has affected things, in addition to the global demand for tequila changing how some of the larger producers’ make their product. None of the family distillers make what’s referred to as “mixto,” which is when sugarcane is added to the agave to make it stretch, even if it means not being able to grow as much as they’d like.

The identity of the people in Agave, how much family means to them, and how mezcal is something which some think should be considered a cultural product tied to a specific region  — much like champagne — led nicely into points made by Monday night’s speaker a couple of hours later.

Courtesy facebook.com/freestatefestival

That speaker was activist, author, and half of one of the most iconic comedic duos of all time, Mr. Cheech Marin. Marin was there to speak about Chicano art, and the massive collection he’s amassed over the last 40 or so years. Listening to the man speak, it was a combination of art lecture and improvised comedy performance.

Not five minutes into his remarks, someone yelled out “Órale!” and without missing a beat, Marin quipped, “Hour late? I thought we started on time?” And so it went for the remainder of the evening: there’d be insightful artistic analysis, wherein he explained how comparing Chicano artists to commonly accepted masters, like Modigliani, resulted in quite a few “Oh, yeah … now I get it” remarks from otherwise intractable curators, and then he’d be joking about a baby crying in the audience.

It kept the evening brisk and entertaining, but Marin’s point was this: Chicano art is American art, and just as deserving of consideration as any Caucasian artwork hanging in a gallery or museum. If nothing else, given that Chicano and Latinx people are becoming less minority and more majority, this is artwork that has strong meaning and cultural relevance to more and more Americans; as Marin pointed out a couple of times, half-joking and half-serious: “We come in peace, and we have you surrounded.”

Seriously, though, Vincent Valdez’s 2001 painting “Kill the Pachuco Bastard!” might be vividly violent and unflinching, but how is it any less appropriate for a place where school children might venture for a field trip than any number of museums displaying some variation on the Rape of the Sabine Women? “Oh, yeah …” as one of Marin’s curators might say.

Tuesday night was an author talk, and I missed it to watch screeners for films I was going to miss because of other things. Plus, I was unfamiliar with the author’s work, and it’s weird listening to someone speak for an hour plus when I’ve not read a single thing they’ve written. Anyhow, that meant I was able to watch Wednesday’s early screening, Warrior Women, back-to-back with the Friday night film, Mankiller.

There’s a lot these films have in common: Native women activists who both spent time in California during the time of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, and who remained active for their entire lives. They both fought strongly for their people, but in very different ways: whereas Wilma Mankiller became the first-ever woman to become chief of the Cherokee people, Thunder Hawk has been active as part of every major Native activist occupation “from Alcatraz, to Wounded Knee in 1973 and more recently the NODAPL protest at Standing Rock.”

The interview segments were arguably the most interesting aspects of both documentaries. While Mankiller’s pieces came from archival footage (she died in 2010), Warrior Women’s were conducted as a round-table interview with Thunder Hawk, her daughter, Marcella Gilbert, and several other women, and hearing the stories come directly from these Native women who fought so hard to protect their people and a way of life is incredibly powerful. While Wilma Mankiller might have a bit more of a politician’s tact, with Madonna Thunder Hawk coming across as more rabble-rousing, they’re both astonishingly matter-of-fact and wonderful storytellers who communicate vividly the struggles they went through.

A similar tale of fighting against ingrained oppression is what starts Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, but the overall story becomes something more. The film was introduced by its co-writer, University of Kansas professor — and director in his own right — Kevin Willmott. The screening at downtown Lawrence’s Liberty Hall was free, which meant that it was packed, despite having played at the 12-plex on the other side of town for several weeks.

The movie’s funny in its absurdity at times, and the script definitely plays up the connections between past and present. Characters reflect on past atrocities done to the black community, and the events of the ‘70s are mined for comparisons to today’s political climate, to the point that — in case you didn’t pick up on the previous two hours’ subtle and not-so-subtle comparisons between David Duke and our current president, or past lynchings and the attacks in Charlottesville — the film concludes with footage of Duke, the president, and the events in Charlottesville.

And that ending, coming after a film which ably made the point that we were a racist country, and every time we’ve thought race was a thing of the past, we were wrong, wrong, wrong, only feels like Lee doesn’t trust his audience to get the point he’s made. I can see the argument that it’s another link in the chain of ideas he constructs over the course of BlacKkKlansman, but I couldn’t quite express after seeing it just what made it feel so wrong.

It took 12 hours’ reflection, but I figured out what bugged me about Lee’s film: BlacKkKlansman features numerous monologues. It’s almost Shakespearean, in terms of how many characters get lengthy speeches to reveal their inner thoughts and desires to the audience. However, all that talk leaves the film feeling like a build up to something which never happens. The ending, especially given its fictional nature, doesn’t really live up to all the fiery rhetoric which precedes it.

Racists say racist shit, activists say inspirational things, and people relate events which affected them in the past, but the viewer just experiences a slew of telling, not showing, with the exception of brief scenes near the beginning and the film’s finale.

The end result is that the events in Charlottesville which play after the film and before the credits feel like exploitation of real pain for narrative purpose. Lee doesn’t put his characters into situations of explicit danger, but he’s willing to use the hurt of others to drive the point home. It’s tacked-on, and worse, exploitative.

Thursday night, I missed the screening of the Meow Wolf: Origin Story documentary because of stomach troubles and a sinus headache back-to-back, but fear not: the folks at the DIY art collective reached out, and we’ll have a feature on the film and a chat with one of the directors ahead of its wide release in November, so that’s pretty cool.

courtesy @FreeStateFest Twitter

Friday afternoon, I went and saw KU professor and film director, Laura Kirk, discuss the two chapters she contributed to McFarland & Co.’s new book, When Women Wrote Hollywood, about “female screenwriters in the silent era, a time when nearly half of all films were written by women.” Her talk covered all of the writers covered in the book, as well as the one writer she had to abandon covering, due to a lack of information and time.

It was a fascinating talk, with some really great discussion afterward. If you’ve been enjoying the latest season of Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast, wherein she’s been fact-checking Kenneth Anger’s infamous gossip book, Hollywood Babylon, then you’re familiar with the shabby treatment of women during the silent era, and will likely find much to enjoy in what she has to say.

Also: if you want to know real film nerd shit, go to a discussion about silent films. Genre film nerds have nothing on silent film fans. It’s some deep, detailed, nuanced question-asking and references.

I missed the screening of The Price of Everything, the HBO documentary about arts sales, which is a damn shame, but it was because I went and saw Waxahatchee play on a deck behind a century-old schoolhouse on the edge of town, so that’s totally a fair trade. You can see my photos from that night over at the Kansas City Pitch.

Saturday started off with a 10 a.m. screening of The Big Bad Fox (And Other Tales), an animated film from France that features a barnyard and more’s worth of animals telling three stories. It’s gorgeously drawn, and looks like pen and watercolor drawings come to life. The characters are all adorable and clever, and best of all, it’s both heartwarming and really, really funny. The theater, which was equal parts adults and little ones, all seemed to enjoy The Big Bad Fox equally, and for good reason: it’s really quite good. There’s a moral of “stick by your friends and family” which isn’t hammered home, but deftly inserted into each tale.

Plans to see Sadie were derailed by the fact that I’d been up since 3 a.m. on about four hours’ sleep, to say nothing of having little beyond a doughnut for breakfast. I wandered across the street to get some food from the nearby Indian restaurant, the Bayleaf, ate two plates of food, several pieces of naan, drank a mango lassi, and promptly headed home to take a nap.

I slept until nearly 4:30. Whoops. Managed to get up, head downtown, and make it to Liberty Hall in time for the day’s final screening, Burden, which won the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Written and directed by Andrew Heckler, the movie tells the story of Mike Burden and how he came to leave the Ku Klux Klan.

It’s a story of love triumphing over hate, and it is not subtle at all. There’s some expository dialogue in this movie which will make you cringe, but Forest Whitaker handles his role as Reverend David Kennedy — who helps out Burden when he’s at his lowest — with aplomb. Tom Wilkinson as Tom Griffin (the head of the local KKK who basically raised Burden) delivers a performance wherein hatred rolls along with an amiable smile, and it’s entirely discomforting.

Overall, though, the movie is way too long, and there was a solid 30-40 minute section wherein I and the folks I was sitting with realized that Burden had been given something early in the film that would’ve solved every single problem he had, right from the get-go, and it just drove me mad to realize that Burden was just too dumb to know what he had.

For the most part, the film is fine, but the constantly-wobbling camera work and seemingly interminable rollout of the plot is maddening, and I’ve never been so glad to have to pee during a film. It broke things up to a point where it was at least manageable.

Much more enjoyable was a performance back at the Arts Center to close out the night. The winner of the first NPR Tiny Desk Contest, Fantastic Negrito, knocked out a set of songs which rocked, rolled, and were full of passionate blues and soul. The lyrics spoke to the themes which had been explored in the various films throughout the week —  two of the first three songs were titled “Nobody Makes Money” and “Working Poor” — and had the audience responding rollickingly to every guitar lick and bit of vocal inflection.

Sunday, the last day of the festival, saw me sitting and watching short films at Liberty Hall all afternoon. While the most noteworthy was what was, essentially, the final film of the Free State Festival — Transformations (The Film), a documentary about the staging of the seventh annual Transformations charity drag show at Lawrence’s Liberty Hall just this past January — they presented a variety of subjects and styles and lengths.

It also showcased the only genre moments of the festival, courtesy of Aly Migliori’s terrifying and hallucinatory tale of a missing girl, After Her, as well as Chris Reese’s The Reckoning, wherein a man is judged for his crimes by a mysterious, hooded figure. After a slew of documentaries and “based on a true story” films, seeing weird things unspool on screen was a nice return to what is my comfort zone.

courtesy @FreeStateFest Twitter

My experience at the Free State Festival concluded with a panel discussion between myself, Abby Olcese, Lonita Cook, and moderator Chris Blunk at the Alchemy Coffee House and Bake Shop. We covered pretty much every film screened, had some great audience interaction, and Lonita offered up the idea that BlacKkKlansman could be considered a romance between Ron Stallworth and David Duke, and now I want to see it again.

So, basically, the festival ended with me getting a new perspective on a film I might otherwise have dismissed entirely, and I can’t think of a better summation of what make the Free State Festival such an integral part of my annual movie-going experience, and why I’m so glad to live in Lawrence.

Nick Spacek

Nick Spacek

Nick Spacek writes about films scores in his monthly OST column for Starburst Magazine (http://www.starburstmagazine.com), and can be found talking about movie soundtracks via the From & Inspired By podcast (http:///www.fromandinspiredby.com). He was once a punk, but realized you can't be hardcore and use the word "adorable" as often as he does.
Nick Spacek
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