Heartland: Talking with the Heartland team


'Buzkashi Boys' is one of dozens of films featured this year. - DAVID GILL
  • David Gill
  • 'Buzkashi Boys' is one of dozens of films featured this year.

As part of our coverage the 2012 Heartland Film Festival, NUVO joined three key members of the Heartland team - Tim Irwin, artistic director and the lead narrative feature programmer; Louise Henderson, VP of operations and the lead documentary programmer; and Greg Sorvig, director of marketing and communications - for a lengthy chat about the state of Heartland, conducted in their state-of-the-art screening/board room, which is equipped with multi-channel sound and dampeners tastefully arranged about the walls.

Heartland moved into its Fountain Square offices in September 2011, just in time for last year's festival. Their space, in the Murphy Arts Center in the storefront space formerly occupied by Dolphin Paper, was once part of a movie theater; Sorvig points out that the theater closed down on the day that Jeff Sparks, Heartland president and CEO, was born. An archival photo shows that the theater was equipped with a prominent, Golden Age of movies-style vertical marquee. Are there any plans to reinstate it to stake out Heartland's space? "Well, we are getting permits for a sign, but it won't be that big," says Henderson.

Henderson volunteered for the festival - she recalls coordinating Heartland's filmmakers suite at the Canterbury Hotel - before she joined the staff full-time last year. She's the prime mover behind the documentary slate, while Irwin, who's been with Heartland for two years full-time and has been involved with four festivals, is in charge of all narrative (read: fictional) features and shorts.

Irwin, whose favorite Troma film is Cannibal: The Musical, the first narrative feature by the creators of South Park, was born in Indianapolis but grew up in Pakistan. He says he's familiar with the traditional Afghan sport, buzkashi, depicted in one of this year's award-winning shorts, and that the film, Buzkashi Boys, "perfectly captures the atmosphere" of the region: "the dust, the beauty, the spirit of the place." Of buzkashi, he says, "It's kind of like polo, and instead of the mallet, you use your hand to pick up the headless body of the goat. And the head's off doing something else I think."

Sorvig began his job at Heartland June 1, making him the newest arrival to the team, which consists, according to Irwin, of six to seven full-time staff members, five seasonal employees during a three-month period that includes the festival and three interns, not to mention a small battalion of volunteer screeners, including local academics, film critics - and even a representative, Craig Mince, from Indy Film Fest. Sorvig says he's enthusiastic about Heartland's year-round programming, which will include a classic musical series at The Palladium at the Center for the Performing Arts, presented with Michael Feinstein's Center for the American Songbook, with which he had hoped to collaborate since his arrival.

Our interview has been ruthlessly chopped into several segments, which were then liberally sprinkled throughout this cover story. Here's the first slice:

NUVO: How do you provide for your significant grand prizes, not to mention limo transportation and other filmmaker perks?

Tim Irwin: Our grand prize was, for a while, the largest single grand prize in the world. Now there are a couple other festivals that offer $100,000 grand prizes; there isn't much above that. In the past we've had some very dedicated board members and donors whose whole mission has been to see that these films keep getting made. And what's a great way to accomplish that? Give a grand prize for the best of those that allows the filmmaker to a) pay off their credit cards that they racked up making it and b) hopefully, have the seed money to start their next project. And also I think part of the prize over 21 years has been answering the question of "How do you get filmmakers to Indianapolis?" You have Sundance, which is glitzy and very industry-oriented. You have a whole bunch of different coast festivals. How do you get them to land in the flyover states? I think part of Jeff's vision at the beginning was, if we have cash prizes, we can get them here. And once we get them here, if we treat them awesomely, they'll come back. We've seen that grow and grow for 20 years now.

NUVO: And how do you get across the point that Heartland isn't all about family-friendly films? Because while you show some edgy stuff, you're still not going to show the next Lars von Trier.

Irwin: Right, we won't show Melancholia, or whatever his next one is. We have a specific niche. The way we talk about that with our screening committees and our jurors is we ask, "What's a truly moving picture for a certain audience?" A kid who hasn't seen a thousand movies will be hit by basic lessons, by some of the family films we've scheduled this year. Then the audience with teenage kids might be hit by a different way than if I, by myself, went and saw something. Then we have those films like a Truly Moving Picture award winner like Precious - or this year, a selection like Otello Burning, which I would not recommend taking your family to. It's a powerful film for adults about black surfers in South Africa; they've been scared of the water their whole lives, and as they're dealing with Apartheid and the violence around them, they're doing amazing things. It's a gritty journey, and an inspiring, education, engaging film at the same time.

NUVO: And part of reaching out to different audiences is doing First Friday programming?

Louise Henderson: This year we've done a really big push for more community screenings. An LDI grant allowed us to purchase high-quality mobile equipment, so we've been doing screenings at the JCC, we've engaged with Franklin Artcraft, with the Palladium, the Zionsville Performing Arts Center. We're trying to get in the community so that we're not just the Heartland Film Festival in October, talking to community organizations to say that we've got a film that's near and dear to your constituency, and let's schedule a screening. We've been trying to be more of a community asset in that way. In most people's minds we kind of went into a cave and came out in October - and by the time people realized the festival was going on, it would be over! We're really trying to stay on people's radar this year. Moving to Fountain Square was huge for us, because it increased our visibility significantly.

Jackass III and Heartland

NUVO: I can see pluses and minuses to holding screenings at a multiplex. On the one hand, you have access to quality projection equipment, and you allow people the ability to move between theaters on a given night. On the other hand, it's a multiplex!

Henderson (documentary programming): One of the things that we really value, in the interest of honoring filmmakers, is showing films in their best possible quality. We insist on that, and filmmakers are really grateful. We've been to some other festivals where they're showing on a TV in the basement of a coffeehouse, and that's not an excellent projection experience. The movie theater will obviously, sound-wise, projection-wise, screen-wise, be better. We really fuss over quality, because we want the filmmaker's work, that they worked so hard on, to be shown in the best possible way. They know if it's off by just a little bit, and they appreciate that we have that same dedication to quality that they want in their own films.

Irwin (narrative feature programming): A lot of these films won't hit theaters; that's just the reality of it. For a lot of filmmakers the dream is to see their work on a big screen. They don't just want people screening it on Netflix; that's great, but hopefully only after it's been on the big screen at least a few times.

NUVO: And it's probably a little subversive to show Heartland films at a multiplex.

Henderson: We only take up one side of a theater, so a couple years ago, at Castleton, we had three or four theaters, so it was Heartland, Heartland and then Jackass III, and then Heartland!

Films that stick with you

NUVO: Do you choose films solely on the basis of quality or are there other factors?

Henderson (documentary programming): Because we're a missional festival every film has to hit what we feel is a truly moving picture, the kind of film that sticks with you, that makes you think, that you bring up with people. I don't make a decision on a film right away. If I'm still thinking about it the next day, I know there's something there. You look for artistic and technical quality; they have to be decently made films, keeping in mind that they are independent. Sometimes you will make allowances if it's such an awesome topic and they just didn't have the budget to do it as well as it could've been done, but they really tried hard. So you take all of that into consideration, but you're still going to have more films than slots. Then I do, at least with documentaries, I think about the audience and I do try to have a nice variety of films. I could program five to seven films on different topics of the Jewish Holocaust, but that's going to hit a narrow audience. So I have two very strong films, on very different topics, dealing with that.

Irwin (narrative feature programming): And you can't just have a lineup of 25 hard-hitting narrative features. Everyone's going to be walking around depressed. So we have some lighter fare that's just fun - an independent comedy or a feel-good, uplifting film. Sometimes there are really great films that we would have loved to program, but if they're too similar in theme, atmosphere, style or content to two or three other great films, they might not make the final cut.

Henderson: After the shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, I changed course a bit and I ended up programming a film called Erasing Hate, about a man who had been in a white supremacist group for many, many years. He and his wife decided to leave it, and not only did he leave it, but he was tattooed head to toe, and he needed to remove those tattoos in order to fit into regular society. We really felt that in the wake of that shooting, it would be a very timely film. I hesitated at first because he goes through a really tough process of tattoo removal, and I wasn't really sure that that had a broad audience.


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