The Knoxville Film Festival and the Gift of Stories


Last weekend, the Knoxville Film Festival lit the screens of Regal Downtown West. Festivalgoers enjoyed four days of independent cinema including local, regional, and national filmmakers. From five-minute shorts to feature-length productions, the screens came alive with stories. At the same time, fans, filmmakers, and aspiring artists swapped stories in the lobby, sharing insights, networking, and extending the impact beyond the screen to the world outside.

Earlier in the year, Executive Director of the Festival Keith McDaniel and his team narrowed down three hundred submissions to around forty films. The festival also featured a range of student films and films competing in the 7 Day Shootout. This year marks the third annual Knoxville Film Festival, and it grows in participation, scope, and quality every time.

Even as the festival has expanded, McDaniel and company have worked hard to keep a strong focus on regional participation. McDaniel started out with the Secret City Film Festival in 2004, and in 2013 he teamed up with Dogwood Arts to create the Knoxville Film Festival.

As I watched movie after movie, I kept thinking about David Byrne’s film True Stories, where he captures the quirks and the wonder of small town America. The narrative films and documentaries alike introduced a cast of fascinating, eccentric, and sometimes loveable people. While a good story captures our attention, it also brings us face to face with odd, beautiful, angry, and needy characters who often reveal glimpses of our own lives.

Winning first place in the documentary short category, Spearhunter introduces us to Gene Morris, a man obsessed with his legacy of spear-hunting. He even builds a surreal museum in his honor that continues to operate after his death. Viewers are treated to film clips of Gene beating his chest, howling, and proclaiming, “Greatest Living Spear Hunter in the World!” Interviews with his widow, his former lover, and his friends serve to make a strange story even stranger.

No. 2: The Story of the Pencil took third place in the documentary feature and was one of my favorite films. Focusing on the simple design and potential of the pencil, filmmaker William Allen turns his camera to a wide range of pencil lovers, a pencil maker, and even pencil historians like David Rees, who informs and entertains with a tongue-in-cheek passion for artisanal pencil sharpening. Henry Hulan III, President of Musgrave Pencil Company, gives viewers a glimpse of his family’s pencil manufacturing company in Shelbyville, Tennessee. Author and Civil Engineering Professor Henry Petroski talks about how the simple yet ingenious design of the pencil has endured centuries of change and will continue to thrive in our techno-driven society.

Funny and poignant, the film inspired wonder at the chewed up pencils in my drawer. At one time, those pencils gave voice to essays, poems, doodles, and journal after journal of reflections covering almost fifteen years of my life. The pencils and journals gradually faded into the background as I turned to computer screens, Palm Pilots, and other electronic devices. While there are benefits in the trade, there are losses, like the loss of smelling and feeling a pencil in my hand and the countless doodles that covered my notebooks. After watching the film, I promptly ordered a box of No. 2 pencils from Musgrave Pencil Company. Maybe I’ll start chewing up my writing tools again.

Documentary filmmaker, Dwight Swanson loves home movies and considers them one of the most direct types of filmmaking. The art form captures moments of intimacy and reveals a form of history that can easily be lost. Swanson came to Knoxville to research a possible documentary on Cas Walker and ended up exploring the story of Pappy “Gube” Beaver. A regular on the Cas Walker show, Reverend Pappy was a bluegrass singer turned singing preacher who kept broadcasting until his death at ninety-seven in 2014. The short documentary Rev. Pappy focuses upon a concert he performed, occurring just a few months after nearly dying in a car wreck. Swanson gives viewers a gentle glimpse of a man who loved singing about his faith up until his dying day. Pappy might have been the kind of man easily overlooked for his old time Pentecostalism and his simple faith, yet this film honored him and shined light on his quiet faithfulness across a lifetime.

Hallie Bonn Miller made a documentary about women taking selfies. She asked a variety of women to take selfies using a mounted smartphone. While they snapped pictures, a second smartphone was recording their responses to the various pictures. Almost all the ladies complained about their looks and sought to reduce embarrassing features with filters or adjust lighted. The only woman who loved every selfie was a young girl. This simple setup provided an ideal tool for Hallie to offer an unspoken commentary on female self-perception and insecurities in her six-minute short Unfiltered.

The narrative feature Johnny Walker draws upon Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground to tell the story of a filmmaker lost in a circle of nihilism. A once respected Hollywood director lives atop a hill in a remote village and is surrounded by people he can barely understand. Most of his barren ramblings repeat philosophical meanderings about outliving his worth. He is trapped in a circle of self-consumption when a pregnant woman appears at his door—contrasting his closed past with her open future. The pregnancy is an image of the future, of new creation. As she enters the story, she listens to his ideas about a film project that seems stuck in the conceptual phase. She encourages him. At one point, she challenges him to change the pajamas that he always wears and put on an outfit that expresses his creativity. This change of clothes points to a change in him, a movement beyond idol dreaming to active engagement. Her interruption breaks into his comically dark rants with hope and an invitation to step back out into the world.

Not all the narratives were quite so philosophical as Johnny Walker. There were plenty of laughs, love and screams. Bass Hunter is a dark comedy about two drunken fishermen searching for the ultimate bass. An audience favorite, Turkey, tells the story of two different sorts of turkeys: people and poultry. In the end, an unlikable but funny family starts a yearly tradition of Thanksgiving in the car in the garage. Third place winner for Tennessee films, Terminal, tells the story of a man trying to find meaning even as he faces his final months on earth.

One film that continues to make me laugh, How I Got Made, took second place in Tennessee Films and won an audience favorite award. This narrative short piece by Tracy Facelli opens with the classic problem of childhood bullies as Joey Lagomasina nurses a bloody nose. The dad encourages Joey and his sister Gaby to stick together and show some family loyalty by standing up for one another. After watching The Godfather with her dad, nine-year-old Gaby confronts the school bully, suggesting he’ll “sleep with the fishes” unless he returns her brother’s lunch money. Young Briley Thomas, who plays Gaby, does a marvelous job as the little girl standing up to the rough and tumble teens with the sheer bravado of a young mobster.

The festival also hosted a 7-Day Shootout Competition with a $20,000 award for the winner. In August 2015, participants were assigned elements to be used in their entries. They had seven days to make a film not shorter than four minutes and not longer than seven. The final products debuted this past Friday night, serving up a variety of comedy, horror, adventure, and drama. Chad Cunningham’s film of childlike wonder, Space Cadet, captured the Grand Prize and the Audience Favorite.

Watching such a wide range of independent films, brought to mind a G.K. Chesterton quote. He once said, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” Chesterton was not advocating mediocrity; he was advocating doing things. At the time, he was responding to the trend of professional sports and suggested that playing a game in the backyard was far more valuable than watching a professional sports team.

The Knoxville Film Festival reinforces Chesterton’s call to arms creative people in all walks of life, from part-time hobbyist to aspiring professionals. Create. Tell stories. Have fun. Making good films is not limited to multi-million dollar productions. By featuring local and regional films alongside national productions, McDaniel and company invite people to participate in the cinema: making films, watching films, and discussing films.

This festival is a treasure for our city, and I’m thankful to those who worked hard to bring this gift to light.

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