More than 70 filmmakers will attend this year’s Kansas City FilmFest.
Many will be visiting the area for the first time, which means they will be bombarded by advice about what barbecue joint to visit and which roads are unencumbered by construction.
But a majority already have deep ties here. These ties either fostered their interest in moviemaking, helped them gain support for their creative endeavor or inspired the actual subject of their movie.
The mission of KC FilmFest, running Wednesday through April 9 on the Country Club Plaza, is to celebrate “the power of storytelling as a shared cultural experience through the cinematic arts.” With that in mind, here are several notable entries in the FilmFest lineup (and their formidable filmmakers) worth checking out. They range from tales of foreign adventure to crises of racial identity. From sports anecdotes to war memoirs. And puppies. Plenty of puppies.
Note: The following screenings will include appearances by filmmakers and/or cast.
7 p.m. Wednesday
“The only ‘small’ thing about Sonia is her physical size,” says filmmaker Leah Warshawski. “Big hair, big car, big personality and big impact equals Big Sonia.”
“Big Sonia” is also the title of the new documentary that profiles her grandmother, Sonia Warshawski. The titular character became a prominent figure in Kansas City as an inspirational public speaker, regaling listeners with her story of hope and perseverance in the face of the Holocaust.
“We often call our film the best ‘non-Holocaust, Holocaust movie’ you’ll ever see,” says Warshawski, who shared directing duties with Todd Soliday.
Sonia also developed into a neighborhood mainstay in Overland Park, operating her tailor shop in the bottom floor of the Metcalf South Shopping Center. But when served an eviction notice as the mall prepares to permanently close, she must decide at age 90 whether to open a new shop or retire. For the active Sonia — who stands a mere 4-foot-8-inches — the situation brings to the surface the trauma of her past.
St. Louis native Warshawski strove to both explore a story with a personal connection and keep an objective distance from the subject.
“In some ways it was tough, but making the film over the last six years was the most time I’ve ever spent with Sonia, and my job as a producer kept me focused on making the best film we could,” she says. “We have a large and very honest team who were involved from Day 1 to make sure we were on the right track to create the most compelling and engaging film possible.”
She says another essential ally was the setting itself.
“We adore Metcalf South mall, and in a lot of ways the mall is another character in our film,” she says. “It represents the death of American retail, the ‘good old days’ and community. I was very sad to see the doors close. We feel lucky to have called Metcalf South ‘home’ during production. It was the best ‘set’ I’ve ever filmed on.”
“Off Track Betty”
12:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday (as part of the Taking Care Shorts Block)
Clayton Dean Smith, a native of the KC area, came up with a novel way to help finance his filmmaking debut, “Off Track Betty.”
“My husband and I were married before it was recognized by the federal government. After the IRS changed its rules to allow for joint returns for same-sex marriages, we filed revised tax returns for the prior three years — and the check we got in the mail got this movie into production,” he says.
His short flick concerns Betty (Diane Ciesla), a longtime resident of a rapidly changing New York neighborhood who realizes she no longer recognizes the place she calls home. Then a young man shows up from her past, forcing her to contemplate when it’s right to hang on and when it’s time to let go.
“We shot on 16mm because the use of film dovetailed so perfectly with the story’s focus on things that are disappearing around us,” he says.
“Nearly all of our locations have been demolished or altered since we shot, so I’m very glad this story also captured the neighborhood of the Lower East Side at a specific moment in time. Also, ‘Off Track Betty’ was developed at NYC’s last film lab, right before they closed their doors. So we’re also all proud to be one of the last films developed in New York.”
Smith moved to Manhattan after high school and carved a career there as a working actor. He credits membership in the Full Circle Theater Company and the drama department and choral groups at Shawnee Mission East for cultivating his love for performing.
“A lot of friends from those years helped make my film happen (through crowdfunding), and that brings me a lot of joy,” he says.
He considers “Off Track Betty” his first motion picture, “if you don’t count the horror movies I made all my friends act in when we were 10.”
“The Dog Film Festival”
Noon and 2 p.m. Friday and April 9
When Tracie Hotchner launched the Dog Film Festival in 2015, she worried whether she could find enough good entries built around a canine theme. But she soon faced the opposite problem when the event premiered in New York City. And audiences immediately took to it like a dog to a … you know the rest.
Now Hotchner is partnering with the FilmFest to showcase her collection in KC, one of 17 such stops she’ll make this year. The Dog Film Festival celebrates “the remarkable bond between dogs and their people.” The cinematic mutt of a compilation features shorts (from one minute to 30 minutes long) including narrative, animation and documentaries.
“I’ve curated two entirely different 75-minute programs with a break between the two so that the really determined film buffs and dog aficionados can have the full emotional experience in back-to-back screenings,” Hotchner says.
The Vermont-based founder of the Radio Pet Lady Network and host of the NPR show “Dog Talk” admits it’s tough for her to choose a favorite among these pictures.
“But certainly ‘A Boy and His Dog’ is a remarkable documentary about a darling little boy with a serious medical challenge and the big dog his family adopts, who has suffered trauma. And together they complete each other. I also adore the brilliant little British film ‘Harvey and Harmony’ about a speed dating love affair between a Jack Russell and a glamorous standard poodle.
Hotchner is sponsored by the Petco Foundation and Bayer Animal Health, and they are partnering with the KC Pet Project for a Pooch Party from 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday at the Sheraton at Country Club Plaza. For $50, attendees can bring their dogs and enjoy “‘Yapp-itizers,’ cocktails, catered food, a green carpet and photo opportunities.”
As for Hotchner’s own dog situation, her household includes two rescued Weimaraners: Maisie and Wanda.
“Hitchhiking to the Edge of Sanity”
5:50 p.m. Friday
In 1970, two young Kansans faced the same dilemma as most of their generation confronting the turbulent decade: What to do next? So Steve Ewert and Dick Russell headed overseas for numerous adventures that culminated in a harrowing hitchhiking trek across the Sahara Desert.
The documentary “Hitchhiking to the Edge of Sanity” recounts their escapades.
“The title refers to how close you can get to the edge without tipping over it,” says filmmaker Scott Peteresen. “You might get close to falling off the edge, but you can also get enormous rewards that shape your relationships and the rest of your life.”
Ewert and Russell grew up in the Kansas City area, graduated Shawnee Mission East High School in 1965, then attended the University of Kansas. Wanting to further pursue writing and photography, respectively, they pooled their talents by producing articles about Kansans working interesting jobs in Europe and Africa.
“Anyone who has been young and just wanted to get out and discover the world for themselves can identify with the experiences of Steve Ewert and Dick Russell,” the Los Angeles-based Petersen says. “Along the way, they meet diplomats, anarchist weed purveyors, businessmen, revolutionaries, desert nomads, soldiers, cross-cultural tribal chiefs and a fetish priest.”
Much of the doc relies on the storytelling skills of its subjects. But Petersen visually embellishes the saga via historical documents such as Russell’s journal, exclusive photographs, newspaper articles and period-specific reenactments using a Super 8 camera.
He says, “In some ways, the movies is a scrapbook of the trip.”
“The Grand Illusion”
11 a.m. Saturday (as part of the Boys of Summer Shorts Block)
As a freshman on the University of Miami Hurricanes baseball team in 1990, Preston Mack recalls hearing legendary coach Ron Fraser personally regale him with a tale of the greatest trick play in College World Series history.
In 1982, the Hurricanes were facing the Wichita State Shockers when they used the infamous “hidden ball” ploy to pick off Wichita’s Phil Stephenson, the leading base stealer in NCAA history.
“It has been a story that I wanted to tell for the last 20 years,” Mack says.
In commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the play, Mack created the short documentary “The Grand Illusion.” This movie details the behind-the-scenes planning the underdog Hurricanes put into the construction and execution of deceiving the favored Shockers.
“But even they never expected this to work,” Mack claims.
Because of his status on the team, Mack already got to know some of the former Miami players involved in the incident.
“They were all willing to talk about the genesis of the play, but I was unsure the Wichita State players and coaches would be so willing to chat. I was pleasantly surprised that the three people I reached out to — head coach Gene Stephenson, base runner Phil Stephenson (Gene’s younger brother) and pitcher Bryan Oelkers — were all so gracious and candid in their interviews,” he says.
“To hear them speak about baseball strategy and history was an honor.”
The fabled play helped Miami earn its first NCAA national championship.
Now an Orlando-based photographer, Mack has spent many weeks in KC over the last few seasons shooting the Royals for MLB Photos.
“KC feels like my second hometown,” he says. “I love the people — and the barbecue.”
5 and 5:40 p.m. Saturday
Last summer, rookie filmmaker Morgan Dameron was busy shooting a wedding scene back in her KC hometown. During an on-set interview with The Star, she quipped, “Making a movie is like putting on a wedding every day.”
To what can she compare her post-production experience?
She replies, “Well, it’s not the honeymoon!”
Even so, Dameron could not be more excited for her full-length dramedy debut, “Different Flowers,” to screen at the festival.
“A lot of people will get to see the finished project for the first time after working on set or seeing behind the scenes,” she says. “It’s the kind of movie you want to share with your mom, your sister, your best friend. We can’t wait for everyone to see it.”
Dameron has served for years as a key assistant to Hollywood A-lister J.J. Abrams, director of two “Star Trek” and one “Star Wars” reboot. (Sure enough, the character of Poe Dameron in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is named after her.) Backed by a Kickstarter campaign and a dedicated circle of family and friends — and a healthy leap of faith — she spent several weeks in August crafting her dream project.
“Different Flowers” follows the story of estranged sisters Millie (Emma Bell) and Emma (Hope Lauren). On the day of Millie’s wedding, Emma helps her run away, initiating a road trip through the Midwest.
She believes the chemistry between these actresses is one of the main reasons the picture came together so well.
“They had never met before being cast, so it is truly impressive how trusting and willing they were to jump in head first with me. Creating an authentic sister relationship was essential, and they brought so much heart and wit and vulnerability to the characters. … Everyone thinks they’re actually related,” says Dameron, whose own two sisters and brother took on behind-the-scenes roles during filming.
Would Dameron shoot another movie in Kansas City?
“In a heartbeat,” she says.” Not only was the experience of sharing my hometown with the members of the cast and crew from Los Angeles special — I love introducing new people to Kansas City and KC barbecue — but we also got to feature some people and locations from my past.”
These included scenes shot at her alma mater, Pembroke Hill School, and incorporating her fourth grade teacher Billie Barnes, middle school principal Barry White and high school drama teacher Nancy Marcy.
“This is a Kansas City movie through and through,” she says.
Dameron says the FilmFest premiere will be a special event. Bell (“The Walking Dead”) and Lauren (“Supergirl”) will attend. Also hoping to return is TV icon Shelley Long (“Cheers,” “Modern Family”), who plays the sisters’ frank grandmother in the film. The screening is sponsored by Kansas City Women in Film, which Dameron credits with mentoring and supporting her journey as a filmmaker since she was a teenager.
7:40 p.m. Saturday
“Asia is NOT a country,” trumpets the tagline of “Yellow Fever.”
The coming-of-age comedy focuses on Asia Bradford (Jenna Ushkowitz of “Glee”), a girl adopted from South Korea who is not feeling at home in her adoptive country because folks are persistently reminding her that she is, in fact, not white.
“‘Yellow Fever’ has a lot of relevance today, especially in the wake of the shock election last year,” says Kat Moon, who makes her feature filmmaking debut.
“I am a Korean-American, born and bred in the U.S. I have to say this because when I say I’m American, people still ask me where I’m ‘originally’ from. A lot of the experiences and issues Asia struggles with are very much my own. By 2017, I would think we would have progressed.”
This sense of wondering how she fits in has become a constant for New Yorker Moon, who “went to film school in London, fell in love and never left.”
She returned to her native state to shoot the indie production in a speedy 18 days, with a tight budget and no room for reshoots. She praises the cast (which also stars Scott Patterson of “Gilmore Girls”) with making this pace feasible.
“This story (and) this film have been my baby for over half a decade,” she says. “I’m proud the story is finally out there. I’m proud to give the Asia Bradfords of the world a voice.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
The 21st Annual Kansas City FilmFest runs April 5-9 at the Cinemark Palace at the Plaza, 500 Nichols Road. Information about single ticket prices, festival passes, VIP passes and showtimes can be found at KCFilmFest.org.