Movie News & Reviews

Kansas International Film Festival: Around the world in 72 movies

“The Cabining,” a horror spoof, shows Sunday at the Kansas International Film Festival.
“The Cabining,” a horror spoof, shows Sunday at the Kansas International Film Festival.

The nearly empty Metcalf South shopping mall that houses the Kansas International Film Festival is at risk of being leveled. But that’s not stopping the pillar event from emerging stronger than ever this year.

The 14th annual KIFF will showcase a roster of 72 features, documentaries and shorts at its Overland Park home base.

Even more impressive is the number — almost 30 movies — for which the filmmakers will be present and participate in a Q&A.

Two world premieres (“The Navigator” and “The Syndrome”) and five U.S. premieres (“A Trip to the Island,” “Cold,” “Nocturne,” “Hamarkiv Hasodi/The Secret Ingredient” and “Rosa”) bolster the lineup.

Here are some noteworthy KIFF inclusions that range from paranoid thrillers to social injustice exposés to explorations of quirky subcultures.

They also represent very personal and committed quests by the filmmakers, who often collaborated with family members to put together these projects. (All these highlighted films include discussions after the screening with cast and/or crew.)

As Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson says, “The most honest form of filmmaking is to make a film for yourself.”

Jingle Bell Rocks!

7:50 p.m. Friday

For the past 25 years, Mitchell Kezin has crafted an annual audio Christmas card called “mitchell’s merrymix” (lower case intentional) for friends and family. It’s a collection of the coolest and/or weirdest tunes he uncovers that year.

“I knew the impact that this mix has had on people’s holiday celebrations, but I wanted to reach beyond the small circle of my mailing list,” Kezin says. “And I was frankly tired of having people look strangely at me when I would express an affinity for the music or the eye rolls that inevitably came when I’d say, ‘Wait a second, you don’t understand …’”

Now those eye rolls are confined to a darkened theater when viewers witness “Jingle Bell Rocks!” The documentary exposes the subculture of alternative underground Christmas music. Kezin promises the songs whose origins are revealed will probably be unfamiliar to almost everyone. But that’s a good thing.

Helping Kezin in his quest are a bevy of noteworthy fans of the subgenre, including Joseph Simmons of Run-D.M.C., Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips and cult film icon John Waters.

“‌It took years of handwritten letters, persuasive emails and ultimately industry connections, which I forged as the film took on a life of its own,” he says. “But I always knew in my heart that if I could just get my project in front of them, they’d be intrigued. And then, once they’d read my letter, they’d recognize a kindred Alt-Xmas spirit, and they could trust me to tell their story.”

The Vancouver native first premiered “Jingle Bell Rocks!” in Amsterdam last year, and he has been on the road with the film ever since. For Kezin, Christmas comes 365 days a year.

He says, “The reaction from folks is always the same: They say, ‘Thank you for telling your personal story. It was unexpected and moved me deeply … and also for opening my ears to music I never knew existed before.’”

The Umbrella Man

2:50 p.m. Saturday

The assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas proved a watershed moment in the life of “Umbrella Man” director Michael Grasso, who was 13 at the time.

“The same was true of thousands of others, many of whom went on to dedicate their lives in the search for the truth regarding the murder,” Grasso says. “I wanted to do a film that wasn’t about the assassination per se, but about the men and women who get sucked into, for whatever reason, what is commonly known as ‘the labyrinth.’ That’s the Byzantine mystery of the assassination and its multiple layers of facts and falsehoods.”

Instead of a traditional conspiracy theory thriller, Grasso concocted a 1980s-set tale of a man who gets fixated on the incident for a more uncommon reason. Peter Brennan (Carter Roy) loses his young son in a hunting accident, then “uses” the assassination to distract himself from personal trauma.

Peter becomes obsessed with the “umbrella man,” a true life figure who held an open umbrella just steps away from the limousine when Kennedy was shot. Grasso says the notion of a man protecting himself with an open umbrella becomes a metaphor for what Peter does with the shooting itself, in spite of the ramifications on his marriage and sanity.

“One of the challenges was creating believable, three-dimensional characters and then weaving the aspects of the boy’s death with events regarding the assassination,” says Grasso, who co-wrote the film with his brother, Joe Grasso, both of whom are based in California.

“Actually the biggest challenge was the last day of the shoot, when we shot in Dealey Plaza, the place where the assassination took place. The scene is the most critical in the film because it is here that Peter Brennan has his epiphany.

“(Carter) was required to rant about the details of the assassination, reflect on the death of his son and then come to terms with each as the boundaries between the two events blur, then merge. We had intermittent traffic control and one day to shoot, but we pulled it off. I think.”

The Syndrome

12:15 p.m. Sunday

“I can’t imagine being charged and convicted for a crime that never happened, and thinking of all of the people in prison who shouldn’t be there makes me sick,” director Meryl Goldsmith says.

The crime is shaken baby syndrome. And according to Goldsmith’s provocative new documentary “The Syndrome,” an estimated 1,000 people are wrongfully imprisoned for this bogus offense.

“The Syndrome” focuses on a Georgetown neurosurgeon, a former Minnesota state medical examiner and the head of Stanford’s Pediatric Neuroradiology Department who began to question the validity of the trendy diagnosis.

“They’ve had great success and built a movement debunking the theory as junk science, which has been used to charge and convict thousands of people. … These doctors are coming up against shaken baby syndrome promoters who are refusing to back down and are determined to silence their critics,” says Goldsmith, who teamed with investigative reporter (and first cousin) Susan Goldsmith to create the documentary.

She says it was a monumental effort to find the clips needed to illustrate the story, especially since the conferences focusing on shaken baby syndrome don’t allow video recording. She credits her cousin’s investigative reporting skills for unearthing the material.

Although Meryl is based in Los Angeles and Susan lives in Portland, Ore., their film possesses a local tie. Kevin and Kathy Hyatt, a couple from Macon, Mo., feature prominently. Kathy was arrested and tried for child abuse via shaken baby syndrome. She was found not guilty.

Everything Is Forever

2:35 p.m. Sunday

Filmmaker Victor Zimet spent 15 years chronicling the life of Croatian-born composer/rocker Nenad Bach as he toils to get his music heard by audiences. The result is “Everything Is Forever,” a documentary Zimet calls a “cinematic journey through war and peace and rock ’n’ roll.”

Bach was a rock star in his home country prior to the 1991-95 war that ripped the region apart. (He’s regarded as the Croatian John Lennon.) His efforts to export the music became increasingly difficult.

“The viewer is privy to what America looks like through the eyes of an immigrant, particularly one who witnessed firsthand war and turmoil in his homeland. This is particularly apparent in his unique work, which combines the Croatian folk sounds of klapa, a choral form, with a rock sensibility,” Zimet says.

Zimet, a former editor on TV series such as “48 Hours” and “Extreme Home Makeover,” was drawn to Bach as much for his activism as his talent.

“We are very proud to have persevered and have told a very human story about a musician who makes a difference in the world,” says Zimet, whose previous film, “Random Lunacy,” screened at the 2008 KIFF.

“Nenad is a peace activist, and his passion for truth and justice is resonant in his work. We are also very gratified to find that the story resonates with a decidedly multicultural audience.”

The Homestretch

4:50 p.m. Sunday

“Homeless is a situation. It’s not who you are.”

Those words embellish the poster of “The Homestretch” and hammer home the viewpoint of this documentary by Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly.

“When we were in our research and development phase, it became clear that there were two pervasive, stereotypical stories out there about homeless youth: the drug addict street kid sleeping under the bridge and the ‘Homeless to Harvard’ story,” de Mare says. “But these were such a small percentage of the fuller, more complex experiences we were witnessing around us. We are proud that the film focuses on the 95 percent of kids who are homeless whose story is in the middle of those two extremes.”

“The Homestretch” follows three homeless Chicago teens — Kasey, Anthony and Roque — as they move through the already demanding milestones of high school, determined to build a brighter future.

“The lives of youth who are experiencing homelessness are extremely chaotic, unstable and challenging,” says de Mare, who presented her previous documentary, “Asparagus! Stalking the American Life,” at the 2006 KIFF.

“It was often hard to stay in consistent touch with our subjects as they moved around, navigating different places to stay, trying to find support from various service agencies and schools. We were constantly inspired by their resilience and hope.”

While “The Homestretch” documents youth in inner-city Chicago, the homeless problem exists in most communities throughout the country.

Kerry Wrenick, the McKinney-Vento homeless liaison for the Kansas City, Kan., public schools, will join de Mare during a post-screening Q&A to discuss the local homeless education crisis.

The Cabining

7:20 p.m. Sunday

No place is more likely to make one a victim of a shadowy menace than an isolated cabin.

Movies such as “The Evil Dead” and “The Cabin in the Woods” have bludgeoned home that point. But it’s also a place where some murderous laughs can be found.

Enter “The Cabining.”

“Our alternate title for a while was ‘Screamwriters,’ which I still like,” says star and co-producer Mike Kopera. “But, in the end, I’m happy we went with this totally bizarre, nonsensical option. It sets us up for the sequel: ‘The Cabininging.’”

Shot in Michigan, the film introduces struggling writers Todd (Kopera) and Bruce (Bo Keister), who are guaranteed funding for a horror film by Todd’s wealthy uncle if they can devise a worthy concept. So they head to an artists’ retreat to gain creative motivation for their horror screenplay.

“Turns out (Bruce) is only interested in the girls, but I do find real inspiration when all the other artists start dying. In very odd ways,” Kopera says.

The feature is written and directed by Kopera’s brother, Steve. They aimed for a mix of “about 80 percent comedy, 20 percent horror.” They say the resulting effort plays like a cross between “Clue,” “Pineapple Express” and “Friday the 13th.”

“I think it looks and sounds just beautiful,” the actor says. “The cinematography by Jeffery T. Schultz is subtle and grand, at times, and accentuated by the beautiful, clever and occasionally intense — during the horror scenes mainly — score by Steve Sholtes.”

The movie will be released to DVD and online sites on Nov. 18.

As the tagline states: “Deadlines are killer.”

Moving From Emptiness

7:35 p.m. Tuesday

Kansas City native Shaeri Richards began her 30-year career as a journalist at WHB radio, then at KMBZ before eventually settling in Arizona.

Her husband, Jerry Hartleben, spent an equal amount of time honing his cinematography career in Los Angeles, earning accolades for shooting the Emmy-winning “thirtysomething” series.

While co-directing “Moving From Emptiness: The Life and Art of a Zen Dude,” they realized their own relationship became intertwined with documenting the work of Zen artist Alok Hsu Kwang-han and his fellow artist and significant other, Raylene Abbott.

“As a husband and wife filmmaking team, our biggest challenge was learning to work together harmoniously, even when we had differing opinions about the film and its direction,” Richards says. “It’s interesting to note that Alok and Raylene’s struggles as a couple that we captured on film were also reflected in our struggles as a couple making the film. The challenge and the resolution for all of us is contained with the Zen practice of experiencing life fully without rejecting anything.”

Richards characterizes “Moving From Emptiness” as more than just a movie but a transformational experience. Calligraphic painter Kwang-han teaches and engages in the “creativity of non-doing.” This Zen practice generates the opportunity for the mind to quiet, so that chi energy can move through him and get expressed through the painting itself.

The film also explores the artist’s history, his relationship with his parents, their efforts to leave China during the Communist civil war and Kwang-han’s and Abbott’s challenges working together as a couple.

Richards adds, “Many people leave our film profoundly moved and uplifted both from the beauty of the film as expressed through the exquisite cinematography and from the story itself.”

So very Zen, indeed.

Starting Friday

The 14th Annual Kansas International Film Festival runs Friday, Oct. 10, through Thursday, Oct. 16, at the Glenwood Arts Theatre, 95th Street and Metcalf Avenue in Overland Park. Festival passes are $40 for Film League members; $60 for non-Film League members. Individual ticket prices range from $6.50 to $8.50, with a discount for seniors. A full schedule and synopses for all of the films can be found at

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