deadCENTER Film Festival: Indie and Incredible
In Case You’ve Been Living Under A Rock For The Past 15 Years Or So, Oklahoma City Hosts A Great Film Festival Every Summer Called “deadCENTER.” Entertainers Like Oklahoma’s Own Megan Mullally Will Sometimes Slip Into Town For It, And Last Year More Than 25,000 People Attended The Five-Day Event. Dollar-Wise It Brought In More Than $2.1 Million To The Local Economy. It Really Is A Big Deal.
The name deadCENTER has nothing to do with that old rock group The Grateful Dead, or TV shows about brain-munching zombies. Rather, it’s named for its geographic location in the middle, or “dead center,” of the country.
“This is Oklahoma’s largest film festival,” said deadCENTER Executive Director Lance McDaniel. “According to MovieMaker magazine, we are one of the ‘20 Coolest Film Festivals in the World.’
“We received 1,000 films from around the world and our judges choose the top 100 to play at the festival. We also offer kids’ programming, education programs for high school students and teachers, filmmaker panel discussions, and we host awesome parties!”
Brothers Justan and Jayson Floyd founded the film festival, and 2015 marks the event’s 15th year. McDaniel has been with the organization for five of those years.
“Our best quality was established very early, and we treat filmmakers great,” he said. “If you get into our festival, it does not matter if you are with your first high school film or a Sundance winner, we make sure you have a great time and are celebrated as a filmmaker.
“My first film at deadCENTER was a short film called ‘The Gymnast,’” McDaniel recalls. “I still remember Melissa Scaramucci and Cacky Poarch embracing me and inviting me into their posse of filmmakers here in Oklahoma. It was the first time I really felt like a filmmaker. And now that I have screened six films and am Executive Director, I work hard to ensure that no matter how big we grow, we retain our focus on celebrating independent filmmakers.”
Growing big is what the festival continues to do, and through McDaniel’s leadership and the expertise of Director of Programming and Education Kim Haywood, deadCENTER has grown tremendously.
“I started just after the 10th anniversary,” McDaniel said. “With the success of the first 10 years, I believed the next growth opportunity for us as an organization was to formalize our education offerings into a formal statewide education program. Since that time, we have visited 30 high schools, leading free film classes and seminars to more than 3,000 students each fall. For our efforts, we received the 2014 Governor’s Arts Award.”
The education program has two components, McDaniel says, and is an integral part of what the organization does throughout the year.
“deadCENTER University is our program for high school kids. We work with the teachers we meet along the way to invite the best and brightest students from each school to join us at the festival. They can network with other students and attend seminars from university professors and visiting filmmakers and guests. Last year, Wes Studi led an acting class, Oscar-winner Gray Frederickson spoke about producing ‘The Godfather, Part II’ and Oscar-winner Matthew Mungle led a class on special effects make-up.”
A second component of the organization’s curriculum includes the “Oklahoma Film ICON Award,” and honors Oklahomans who have achieved great success and elevated the perception of Oklahomans in film around the world.
“We highlight a wide range of outstanding people in all aspects of the film business,” McDaniel said. “This year’s honorees include Bob Berney, who distributed two of the most successful independent films ever: ‘The Passion of the Christ’ and ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding.’
“We are also honoring Bird Runningwater, the Director of Native Programming at Sundance; Bradley Beesley, a renowned documentary filmmaker from Moore who made ‘Okie Noodling’ and ‘Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo.’ Additionally, honors go to actor/director Tim Blake Nelson, who starred in ‘Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?’ He also starred in ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Fantastic Four,’ and just debuted his latest film as a director, ‘Anesthesia,’ at the Tribeca Film Festival.”
So what’s on the horizon for deadCENTER?
“My goal moving forward is to establish the deadCENTER Film Institute as a year-round educational organization,” McDaniel said. “We will offer screenwriting, directing and producing labs for Oklahoma filmmakers. And we will also expand our statewide program to reach more high school, tech center and regional college students. Our annual festival would be one of many programs we offer.”
McDaniel hopes young filmmakers realize they don’t necessarily need to head for Hollywood to be successful. And as he gears up for the annual deadCenter Film Festival, he wants all Oklahomans to come out and enjoy.
“This is one of the most exciting weekends in Oklahoma,” McDaniel said. “We expect 30,000 people this year as we celebrate the best independent films and filmmakers from Sundance to Oklahoma and beyond.”
Movie Aficionados, It’s Time Once Again For That Five-Day Fix For The Soul That Is Starved For Out-Of-The-Box Filmmaking.
Whether you’re a film buff who pines for better independent movie options during the rest of the year, or a regular Joe who hasn’t ever viewed movies as art, the deadCENTER Film Festival probably has something for you.
This year’s festival (which runs from June 10-14) will be the 15th, and its growth from a single night of screenings into a five-day, internationally recognized independent film event is a source of pride for those who are committed to encouraging growth in Oklahoma’s cultural landscape.
You can take a look at the schedule online (deadcenterfilm.org/festival/2015-festival-schedule), and get a feel for which titles would best suit you. Planning ahead is also advised with regards to actual ticket purchases; the festival’s organizers suggest the All Access Pass, which gives you carte blanche entry to any screenings and additional networking events and parties. (Heads up for those intending to purchase single tickets to individual movies; All Access Pass holders are seated first, and then remaining seats are sold, starting 20 minutes before showtime.)
The offerings for 2015 range from informative to heartfelt and funny, but all are unique and express a spirit of filmmaking that doesn’t quite fit into the blockbuster mold. The films we’ve chosen to review represent a small portion of the list of choices, but do a good job of illustrating the range of subjects and styles available to enjoy during this year’s festival.
Directed by Marcos C. Barbery and Sam Russell
Oklahoma’s history is interwoven so tightly with that of its Native American population, it’s impossible to separate them. Thanks to the efforts of those who wish to illuminate the whole of our past – the good, the bad, and the ugly – most citizens know that our state’s creation had a heavy price for many. While we celebrate Oklahoma’s Native American heritage now, it’s good to keep the consciousness of past wrongs alive in some measure, as a means of responsible co-existence and understanding in the present.
However, that awareness can slip into a black-and-white view of Native American issues, and it’s that very tendency that is adroitly addressed in Marcos C. Barbery and Sam Russell’s documentary, “By Blood.”
The hour-long film looks at the issue of Seminole and Cherokee Freedmen, descendants of African slaves owned by Native Americans who were granted freedom – and tribal membership – by the tribes as part of the treaty agreements they signed after the Civil War. (Many Oklahoma Seminoles and Cherokees were allies of the Confederacy).
Both tribes began campaigns in the early part of the 21st century to remove Freedmen from tribal rolls … after more than a century of membership. The film examines a few of the reasons given by the tribe, as well as some posited by disenfranchised Freedmen. (The main suggestions being money and racism.)
It chronicles the struggle over the last decade or so, providing a macro-narrative while also highlighting individual stories with poignant simplicity. The story of Cherokee tribal member (and PetSmart employee) David Cornsilk representing the case of Freedman Lucy Allen as a lay advocate against the Cherokee attorney general is worth the price of admission all on its own.
► The Dawes Rolls and Blood Quantum
Understanding the Language of “By Blood”
Marcos C. Barbery and Sam Russell’s documentary “By Blood” references the different means that Native American tribes use to quantify tribal membership.
In a state where educational and health benefits for Native Americans and tribal revenue are frequent topics of discussion, understanding what makes a tribal member vs. who is “Native American” can be a helpful tool for comprehending the larger conversation.
“Blood quantum” refers to the amount of Native American ancestry that an individual has. It’s measured by the degree of Native American “blood” inherited from ancestors. (A person with a parent who is half Native American would be considered one quarter, etc.)
Many tribes require a minimum blood quantum for membership, and often, the means of verifying that blood connection is a base roll, or document that lists the tribe’s original members.
For the five tribes in Oklahoma that were once referred to as “Civilized,” the Dawes Rolls provide that base of information. One of the tribes profiled in “By Blood,” the Cherokee Nation, requires no minimum blood quantum, but it is necessary for a prospective member to be able to prove direct descent from someone listed on the Dawes Rolls as a citizen of the tribe.
The Verdigris: In Search of Will Rogers
Directed by Beau Jennings
Part of the charm of “The Verdigris” is its unassuming openness. While many documentaries double as critical thinking exercises, trying to lead you to a conclusion through a series of points, Jennings is just crafting an homage to a beloved fellow Okie.
The lack of pretension that characterizes the whole film is evident from the opening frames when you hear Jennings’ voice say, simply, “My name is Beau Jennings, and Will Rogers is my hero.”
“The Verdigris” is equal parts musical journey and travelogue; the soundtrack is composed of songs written by Jennings about Rogers, performed around the United States at sites that correspond with significant events in Will Rogers’ life. His birthplace in Oologah, Oklahoma, New York City (home to the Ziegfield Follies, where Rogers’ show biz career started) and the site of his death in Barrow, Alaska, among others.
As a fan boy, the quirky Jennings does a great job of engaging the viewer with his tangible enthusiasm during his quest to understand his abiding admiration of Will Rogers. As a filmmaker, he succeeds in matching the movie’s pace and style – homespun and fun – with the personality of its subject matter. And as an historian, he performs an even more noble task; showcasing the actions and traits that made a simple, good man famous, and sharing them with another generation.
► He Never Met a Man He Didn’t Like
Will Rogers’ Literary Legacy
In profiling one of Oklahoma’s most beloved sons, Beau Jennings is also examining a man who made a unique impact on the nation.
At the time of his death in 1935, Rogers had not only been a cowboy, but a vaudeville performer, movie star, radio personality, humorist, political commentator, newspaper columnist and author.
His famous one-liners delivered wry judgments on issues of the day, and cut big topics down to size. Although he dropped out of high school in the 10th grade, Rogers was a prolific newspaper columnist (over 4,000), and wrote several books. (Many of his papers have also been published.)
Easily one of the most quotable figures in recent history, Rogers’ role as a common sense philosopher made him one of the most accessible voices to the everyday man, and many of his observations remain timeless reminders of his keen wit and understanding.
“Lord, the money we do spend on Government and it’s not one bit better than the government we got for one-third the money 20 years ago.” ~Will Rogers
Directed by Patrick Brice
By turns heartfelt and sexually graphic, “The Overnight” might best be described as a slightly more cerebral version of “The Hangover.” (Yes, I’m admitting in print that I’ve seen “The Hangover.”)
Patrick Brice’s examination of life, love and shifting identity as a married couple has thoughtful moments (one of the main character’s concern about making friends in a new place is a rarely voiced adult worry), but enough awkward humor (and use of prosthetic penises) to keep it from being too serious.
Stars Adam Scott, Taylor Schilling, Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godreche do a fantastic job of playing married couples getting to know each other over an impromptu dinner party that turns into an overnight boundary-breaking frenzy after they put their two young sons to bed.
The four of them reveal hopes, frustrations and secret desires, consuming copious amounts of liquor and pot in the process.
Quotable (“Of course you’re feeling good … you’re drunk and stoned!”) and thought-provoking, “The Overnight” is definitely a jaw-dropper (it’s not described as a “sex comedy” for nothing), but also an acknowledgement that being grown up isn’t necessarily an arrival. Finding yourself is an ongoing process.
► What Does Independent Really Mean?
For those who are un-initiated in the terminology of independent filmmaking (and even among some of us who thought we were familiar with it) a question that may pop up during the course of a film festival like deadCENTER is … what is meant by “independent”?
In 2013 actor Robert Redford, founder of the Sundance Institute, which sponsors the yearly independent Sundance Film Festival (where “The Overnight” premiered this year), told the BBC that independent filmmakers had a “different type of voice” than those involved in Hollywood productions.
Some believe that the definition includes production outside of a major studio, which frees the director and producer to make the movie according to the dictates of their vision, rather than what would sell tickets to the majority of the population. (Always a concern when you have to cover salaries of big name movie stars and unlimited special effects editing). A byproduct of smaller production is usually smaller distribution, hence the association of independent movies with “art house” (read: small and obscure) venues.
But events like Sundance serve not just to showcase new films made outside of standard Hollywood methods, but to offer the chance for distribution companies to purchase the movies and give them a wider release. For some purists, this might taint the exclusive feel of independent films (it’s not as easy to feel edgy elbowing your way through a multiplex as it is settling into an uncrowded museum theater), but it undoubtedly increases a film’s audience, which is good for the filmmakers as storytellers. It’s also good for their pocketbooks; bidding on distribution deals at Sundance can climb into the millions.
Albert Einstein said, “Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.” Whatever your interpretation of the term “independent,” as it relates to films, supporting it in its various forms is one way of ensuring that all versions — including yours — get a chance to be seen by audiences.