Hungry for More: A New Crop of Independent Film Organizations Thrives in the Great Plains
As far as multiplexes go, my local one in Wichita, Kansas, was wonderful. Eschewing the corporate homogeneity of AMC and other chains, the sprawling Art Deco–revival Warren buildings were meant to recapture the glory of old movie palaces. The red carpet climbed up the walls as wainscotting in the bathrooms, which were distinctly creepy. The ceilings were covered by murals depicting Grecian deities. Portraits of John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, and Bogie hung on the walls. But in 2017, the eight-location chain was purchased by Regal Cinemas, and while the red carpet and Grecian deities remain, we resent the corporate encroachment. I still often go alone, in the middle of the week, happy to pay whatever inflated price for 90 minutes of air conditioning, red carpet, and haunted bathrooms.
Just as formative were experiences at the historic Wichita Orpheum, which in addition to serving as a live music venue, has long supported cinema culture. The Orpheum provided rare opportunities to view repertory favorites like Moonstruck (1987), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and Psycho (1960) on a big screen inside of a genuine movie palace—one just as haunted as the Warren. The Orpheum, as was the now-defunct Old Town Warren location, is a frequent screening location for Wichita’s Tallgrass Film Festival, and we still benefit from our storied drive-in, Starlite Drive-in, which narrowly avoided permanent closure in 2018.
The Midwest in general has long been a home for independent film and repertory cinemas, and still houses numerous renowned film organizations, from the Chicago Film Society, and Columbia, Missouri’s Ragtag Cinema and True/False Film Fest, to Film Streams in Omaha. Sav Rodgers, director of Chasing Chasing Amy (which premiered at Tribeca earlier this year) and founding executive director of the Transgender Film Center in Olathe, Kansas, acknowledged the many Kansans living and working to develop film culture, “They’ve been working to create this environment longer than I’ve been alive.” Rodgers cited Oscar-winning filmmaker Kevin Willmott and Kansas Film Office Director Steph Shannon as examples. And in the past few years, a new generation of film organizations has also cropped up.
Wichita’s mamafilm exemplifies the new current of regional film advocacy. In 2018, Lela Meadow-Conner launched mamafilm as a repertory microcinema in a shipping container. “Doing the microcinema was a no-brainer, because there was nothing like that here,” Meadow-Conner said. Laser-focused on themes of parenthood and reproductive justice, mamafilm was forced to pivot by the COVID-19 pandemic. Soon, the organization moved away entirely from a physical space and its original festival-like approach to programming. “It’s hard to get people to sit on their couch and watch five days of film about reproductive justice,” Meadow-Conner said. “Because it’s mostly depressing. Also, we realized that it’s not a once-a-year conversation.”
Instead, mamafilm now operates a stunningly diverse and savvy array of programs. Its monthly virtual publication, rePROFilm, consists of a short film, an accompanying podcast, and a playlist curated by an in-house DJ. Meadow-Conner is pragmatic about audience expectations, and uninterested in the more snobbish sensibilities espoused by connoisseurs of almost every creative field. Elaborating on mamafilm’s multimedia approach, she added, “We’re going to give you a 20-minute short film that you can watch, and then we’re going to record a podcast with the filmmaker so that after you watch the film you can go do your laundry and listen to that conversation, and then we're going to curate a playlist with our in-house DJ so you can consider the month’s theme. We’re providing small bites of activism.”
However small the bites may be, they’ve made a big impact. Serving as an invaluable resource for the regional film scene, mamafilm often funds projects and creators directly, or utilizes Meadow-Conner’s own professional network to make otherwise unlikely connections. For instance, Meadow-Conner served as producer for Rodger’s Chasing Chasing Amy, which showed at Tallgrass in October. The mamafilm original podcast Feminist Foremothers, created by my fellow Kansas arts writer and community-builder Emily Christensen, won a 2021 WIFMCO Content Creator Award from SeriesFest. Still, some are skeptical about Kansas as a home base capable of producing indie cinema. “Whenever I talk to people in New York or L.A., and I tell them where I’m based, they’re always shocked that rePROFilm could be based in Wichita,” Meadow-Conner said. “But when you think about documentary, a lot of the most interesting stories are not coming from New York, L.A., or Chicago.”
Mamafilm is far from the only innovative film start-up in the Great Plains and lower Midwest. Stray Cat Cinema’s dogged repertory approach in Kansas City stands in contrast to mamafilm’s pragmatic activism. A storefront microcinema in the Crossroads Arts District, Stray Cat has also been operating since 2018, after receiving a startup grant from the Charlotte Street Foundation. With several screenings per week, Stray Cat’s October program ranges from Tampopo (1985) to Vampyr (1932, screened on 16mm with a live score), evincing an immersive, aesthetic, and unabashedly nerdy experience. Talking with core members and programmers David Alpert and Andrew Linn, I was touched by their palpable enthusiasm. Both spoke warmly about how film shaped their lives and their desire to share it with other people. Linn explained, “For introverts like me, going to the movies with someone is great because we don’t have to talk, but we can still connect by saying, ‘Here’s this thing I like and I think you might like it too.’”
Alpert also emphasizes the role programmers’ affinities play in their curatorial selections. “We show movies that we like, and that we think are important for people to see,” he said. Aligning with my own relationship to the Warren, both Alpert and Linn attest to the particular charm of being in a theater, arguing that films ought to be seen in a physical cinema space. “There’s something about being in a movie theater that’s important,” Alpert said, testifying to the communal power of film-going. “Agreeing that we’re going to be there together, watch this thing together, and share in that.”
Linn added that the proportions of theaters themselves are vital to a film’s success: “I’ve seen Jeanne Dielman at home and in the theater. It’s totally different in the theater. You’re having to think about what you’re seeing and why it matters.” Viewing a film at Stray Cat, it’s easy to understand that special something. While visiting in late September, I sat front row in a deep, plushy couch, Miller Light in hand, as Linn screened his monthly “Andrew’s Video Void,” a program of archival footage curated around a loose theme. I submitted to a barrage of images: fork-lift safety videos complete with gory reenactments, a supercut of Fanny Cradock one-liners, and an exhaustive AARP video about safe driving for seniors. Linn’s training as an archivist left him with a democratic notion of documentary. “Any moving image is a document,” Linn said. “If you watch Hollywood movies, you see how gas stations in the United States have changed from the ’30s to today. There’s important information being lost on the periphery. If we preserve these things and hold them together, they become a lot harder to ignore.”
Visibility, the act of seeing and remembering, was the enduring thread in all my conversations. Meadow-Conner attested to the particular power of documentary: “People in places like the Midwest are so hungry for documentary because it gives them a window into another world.”
Region plays a crucial role in the missions of both mamafilm and Stray Cat. Both organizations are trying to fill a void, meet an appetite, and create a different reality. It seems their communities are ready to join them. “People here are so hungry, they want to be a part of something,” Kylie Brown, mamafilm’s digital director, said. “It seems like if you just throw it out there and show up, most of Wichita, and most of Kansas, will come out to play.”
Rodgers acutely understands that “hunger,” and how satiating film, in particular, can be. “I might have found myself earlier,” Rodgers said, when asked how benefiting from an organization like his own would have helped him as a young trans filmmaker. “To have seen the possibilities that were right in front of me, to have seen myself supported on an institutional level, would have been priceless.” The Transgender Film Center (TFC) aims to support trans filmmakers through grants, education, and professional advocacy. Its signature TFC Career Development Lab selects eight participants for a 12-week intensive designed to “[accelerate] the careers of some of the most promising transgender and nonbinary creators in film and television.” TFC also offers an early career bootcamp (currently sponsored by Warner Bros. Discovery) and annually selects recipients of the Trailblazer Grant, which provides start-up or completion funds to documentary and narrative films written, directed, or produced by transgender creatives. Harmonizing with Linn’s expansive view of documentary, and its importance in keeping histories alive, Rodgers affirmed, “Documentary invites us into someone else's reality. It takes guts to be optimistic right now. I’m interested in films that show us how we’re more alike than different.” Hence his stalwart focus on developing and funding trans filmmakers, whose welfare, Rodgers believes, depends on their ability to shape the conversation: “Trans people are everywhere,” Rodgers said, “and we need to tell our own stories.”
Whether curating, funding, or developing films, the new generation of Great Plains film organizations are using the medium to illuminate neglected corners of human experience. Watching Chasing Chasing Amy at Tallgrass inside of Temple Live, another grand and haunted nonprofit theater space, the synchronicity between these organizations’ missions and the film’s theme was undeniable. In the documentary, Rodgers details how Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy (1997), despite its loaded history as a contentious representation of queer womanhood, provided a lifeline for the young Rodgers, feeding his hunger for queer stories, characters, and points of view. Similarly, these organizations feed their communities, delivering overlooked stories to overlooked places, often by way of unexpected routes. After the screening, Rodgers answered a few questions as part of a panel. One community member asked him what he, as an Olathe native and University of Kansas film school graduate, learned from growing up in Kansas. “I spent my whole life dreaming of something bigger and better,” Rodgers answered. “I went to New York, I went to L.A. Once I came back I appreciated how lovely it was coming up in the Kansas City film community, with Tallgrass in my own backyard. It’s quite moving to be able to show my movie here. I am grateful to be from somewhere with such a rich independent film community, where people show up at 4:30 on a Friday to see my film.”
Jeromiah Taylor is a writer from Wichita, Kansas. His work appears or is forthcoming in the Chicago Review of Books, Millions, Los Angeles Review, New Territory, and others.