Tim Irwin was an intern at the 2009 Heartland Film Festival. Seven years later, he is the organization's artistic director and has watched it evolve from 64 films to a 10-day affair featuring 147 films from around the world. Over the last five years Heartland has seen a lot of changes. They moved their offices to the current location in Fountain Square, rebranded from Heartland Truly Moving Pictures to the much simpler Heartland Film, and welcomed a new president, Stuart Lowry.
Through all of those changes, they have laid aside their family-friendly reputation and pushed audiences to think about the art form and power of film in new ways. This year Irwin is looking at the largest festival lineup to date, and it features some of the most difficult films he has ever seen.
"That's part of pushing the audience a little bit," Irwin says. "We get to look at a lot of films each year. We don't just want to give the audience all of the easiest, most digestible films. We want to challenge them a little bit."
Films like India's Daughter and Tell Spring Not to Come This Year, are certainly not easy films. They serve as a reminder of how much has changed since the first festival took place nearly 25 years ago. In the early years, Heartland Film Festival was a 4-day event that only showed about 15-30 films, and initially they wanted to celebrate and honor films that were countercultural to the violent films of the '80s.
"After the rise of VHS, a lot of people were making cheap horror movies, and the founders of Heartland really wanted something that was a little bit opposite of that. Something that was more uplifting, inspiring," explains Irwin.
They worked with Disney and showed quite a few re-releases of films coming out of the vault. There was the occasional harder hitting documentary or war film, but for the most part, you could take a child to any screening at the festival and be confident it would be appropriate. Then in 2009, during Irwin's first festival, the film Precious was awarded the Truly Moving Picture Award.
"That was definitely not a film you would take the whole family to, but the key story really resonated with our mission," says Irwin. "We started exploring what our mission statement meant and how it related to the films we chose. We decided there were films that still met our mission that weren't intended solely for entire families."
This year's lineup includes films like the documentary Tell Spring Not to Come This Year about the Afghanistan war from the perspective of the Afghan army and Fourth Man Out, the story of a car mechanic who comes out to his three friends who all fit the very masculine stereotype. All reels with heavy issues behind them.
Heartland will of course still have the palatable films, hoping that people will come see those and then stick around for some of the more challenging ones.
"It's kind of like here's your lollipop, and here's your medicine. And pretty soon that medicine has a much more profound impact on you," explains Irwin. "And I think that's the narrative moving forward. How do we keep broadening that audience while retaining our core mission? What does that look like year after year?"
If it looks anything like this year's lineup of films, they're on the right track.