Hardacre film fest celebrates independents' spirit

Diana Nollen
Published: July 29 2009 | 8:32 pm - Updated: 30 March 2014 | 6:46 am in
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Indie filmmakers from around the world have turned their eyes toward Iowa, narrowing their focus to Tipton.

The Cedar County town of about 3,200 residents is home to the state’s longest running film festival, the 12th annual Hardacre Film and Cinema Festival.

And it’s “the perfect place” for married filmmakers Joe Wilson, 45, and Dean Hamer, 58, of Washington, D.C., to screen their film, “Out in the Silence,” which provides a voice for homosexuals living by a code of silence in rural communities.

“Coming to Tipton is thrilling to us,” Wilson says. “For an Eastern Iowa town to have the courage to air this in their film festival is an credible display.”

It’s among 30 films of varying lengths to be showcased Aug. 7 and 8 in the Hardacre Theatre, a 300-seat, air-conditioned art deco movie house in operation since 1917. The films, selected from 140 submissions, range from animated and live action shorts to narratives and feature-length documentaries. Some run two hours, others run five minutes.

What: Hardacre Film and Cinema Festival

When: 6 p.m. to midnight Aug. 7 and 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Aug. 8

Where: Hardacre Theater, 112 E. Fifth St., Tipton; after-hours coffee and conversation, A Place to Land, 523 Cedar St., Tipton

Admission: $15 all-festival pass or $6 each for opening night, Saturday day or closing night

Information and schedule: www.hardacrefilmfestival.com

The event, which began in 1996, gives audiences “the chance to see films you just can’t see in Eastern Iowa,” says festival director Will Valet, 34, of Tipton. “Most are not even on DVD or are extremely hard to find.

“Most of the films are Iowa premieres or Midwest premieres, and some are world premieres. We’re always looking for films with good entertainment value, but also topical and thought-provoking.”

The filmmakers “get a chance to see their films with an intimate audience, to see how they react, and get their questions afterward,” Valet says. “Some films are finished, but others can still be tweaked. They get to interact with people serious about film in a setting where people will most appreciate them.”

The festival generates “a lot of buzz in the independent film world,” he says. “When we started, there was very little in the way of that type of event. Now they’re popping up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and West Liberty, yet we still have quite a bit of name recognition. It’s where (indie filmmakers) want their films to premiere and this is where they want to show them.”

This year’s festival features a lot of animation and documentaries, he says, and choosing them was tough.

“We had a lot of really solid documentaries (submitted) this year,” he says.

Two documentaries of note are “Out in the Silence,” showing at 5:15 p.m. Aug. 8 and “Pride of Lions,” winner of the festival’s Best Documentary award, showing at 8:45 p.m. Aug. 8.

“These two films couldn’t be any more different in topic and both are very entertaining and thought-provoking,” he says.

‘Out in the Silence’

This film was born when co-producers and directors Wilson and Hamer put their wedding announcement in Wilson’s hometown newspaper, igniting “a firestorm” of controversy.

Married April 10, 2004, in Vancouver, Canada, Hamer first placed the announcement is his hometown paper, the Yew York Times, and the couple received “a lot of congratulations,” Wilson says. Then Wilson sent it to The Derrick in his hometown, Oil City, Pa.

“I didn’t put a whole lot of forethought into it,” he says. “Why shouldn’t I have the freedom to do that — many, many other people do that. Surely there were people living in Oil City, who, like me, as young people, were confused or afraid. And seeing somebody from our hometown who had a decent life would be a nice thing to see in the paper.”

It appeared May 10, 2004, and the backlash began “the moment it hit doorsteps,” Wilson says. “People started sending letters to the editor,” which continued to play out for six to eight months, he says.

“They were writing the most outrageous things imaginable, usually based in some kind of religious framework,” Wilson says. “It also didn’t take long for people with a different point of view — more welcoming — to share their perspectives. It became this kind of amazing dialogue between people in the pages of the paper.”

Then came a letter from the mother of a high school boy being bullied for being gay. With nowhere else to turn, she wrote to Wilson and Hamer.

“With this particular family, if we didn’t try to help them in some way, it was clear there wasn’t going to much help at all,” Wilson says. “We knew it was important to document this kind of story. It’s not unique to Oil City,” an old industrial town nestled in the “stunningly beautiful” foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, between Erie and Pittsburgh.

“We thought the courage this family showed would inspire others,” Wilson says.

“We traveled there several times a month over three years and became immersed in the community in many other ways. We met others interested in creating the kind of change others need to live freely and openly.

“It became quite a magical experience for us. It reintroduced me and my partner to my hometown in new and exciting ways.”

The project cost about $100,000 in “real money,” Hamer says, with support from the Sundance Institute and the local PBS station. It will air on PBS in Pennsylvania in September and across the country most likely in 2010, Hamer says.

Bringing the film to Tipton, in a state that has marriage equality, is “a perfect pairing for us,” Hamer says.

‘Pride of Lions’

A trip to Sierra Leone to capture one life experience grew into a full-length documentary on the resilience of people rebuilding after 11 years of civil war.

Louise Woehrle of suburban Minneapolis, a documentary filmmaker for 10 years, followed her heart to Sierra Leone after seeing how a trip there changed her brother John. He traveled to the West African nation in 2004 to document a meeting between his student, Sarah, and her birth father.

Watching the footage was as much “a transformational experience” for Woehrle as the trip had been for her brother. Thus began their five-year odyssey to bring the story of the Sierra Leone people to film.

“Our heart told us this isn’t a documentary following around three people and getting a glimpse of their lives,” she says. “It’s a much larger story to tell of the people, the country, who they were before the war, what’s happening after the war. The survivors of the war have a unique perspective of their country and their life and what they’re doing to move their country forward.

“It was challenging to tell all these stories and weave them in layers — and still make it a story, without going off on tangents.”

Her brother spent $200,000 out of pocket, and with in-kind services, they spent about $270,000. Without so many cost-breaks, it would have cost up to $500,000 to produce.

With so many smiles and so much determination despite horrendous injuries and strife, the people of the tiny nation that had only known peace before war have much to teach the world, Woehrle says.

“As others are recovering from war (they can teach) about hope — about the true meaning of hope, the true meaning of forgiveness. ... It is their nature to live like we all wish we could live, in peace and harmony and without judgment.”

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