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ESSAY: Memphis Film Fest

Indie Memphis & the Value of Regionalism in the South 

indie memphis

Among the many events surrounding this past Indie Memphis Film Festival was a panel led by producer Mike Ryan (Junebug, The Comedy) called “State of Indie Film: No Money? No Excuse.”

For filmmakers concerned about the actual cost of equipment, the conversation started practically; Ryan enthused about the bounty of VHS cameras available at the junk stores that dot the city’s Summer Ave and noted that aspiring filmmakers could also purchase a DV camera at any local Walmart and return it in a couple weeks after they were done shooting their movies. If they’re crafty enough, Independent filmmakers can find a way to make it work—even a way to make flat, faded VHS footage work to their advantage.

The panel’s subject matter is a perennial topic among indie filmmakers, especially those just starting out. Everyone wants tips, secrets, and shortcuts in order to navigate the daunting process of getting a movie made and seen. They often talk about it in wistful terms: “Oh, if we only had money, we could be shooting right now!” “Why can’t we get someone with money to look at our film proposal?” “If this was 1992 we would already be making this movie.”

The discussion reinforced the immutable truth that story reigns supreme and should always be the essential starting point in any project. But just like advice to eat less and exercise more, filmmakers still think there has to be an easier way. It may not be easier per se, but for writers and directors living below the Mason Dixon line, the advice coming from Ryan was simple: look around you. The South is teeming with stories that are unique and that Southerners are uniquely positioned and qualified to tell.  

Ryan’s mention of the junk stores on Summer Ave—treasure troves of Southern knick-knacks and electronic castaways—shifted the conversation towards the value of regionalism. At one point Ryan looked out at the audience and excitedly said (in these words or something a lot like them), “This is where the stories are. This is America: Memphis, the South, Mississippi. This place here is what all the hipsters want to replicate. Where do you think they got the trucker hat look? Trucker hats that say Mississippi?! They just put up four bars in Williamsburg made to look like your Grandma’s chicken coop.”

indie memphis

Ryan’s enthusiasm may have seemed cheeky or over the top to some. These days, few Memphians, much less their grandmas, have chicken coops (unless they happen to be Nuevo-urban farm transplants from Williamsburg). But we do have stories that only people who have lived and breathed the air here can tell accurately. Ryan’s larger point was correct: The essence of America is readily available and accessible in the South. “It all comes from here,” he said. “Everything about America can be understood from here.”

So being Southern is a commodity, but the trick for those in the South is to look for the real story, not to reflect people’s perceptions about the region. That’s where the independent part of visual storytelling comes in. Independent films can take risks and, most valuably of all, take the time to let the culture speak for itself. That is one of the reasons why Martha Stephen’s film Pilgrim’s Song won the annual Indie Memphis “Soul of Southern Film Award” (as well as The Oxford American Best Southern Film Award this past summer). The movie uses Kentucky’s Sheltowee Trace Trail as the backdrop for the character James, a recently pink-slipped music teacher who embarks on a soul-seeking adventure. It is Stephen’s use of the characters James encounters, the people that could only be found along the Sheltowee Trace, that creates the genuine Southern landscape of the film without reducing her personalities to Southern caricature.

In casual terms, regionalism really means; the kind of things that can only happen to you, the kind of things you can only see, and the kind of people you can only meet, in this particular place. Successful Southern filmmakers add to that definition by making films that tell the kind of story that can only be told from here. It’s not like we need a panel of producers to tell us we are sitting on a goldmine, but we do like to hear it. And when Southern-based film festivals like Indie Memphis come around, showing us our music (as in Nothing Can Hurt Me, the story of ’70s cult band Big Star,) our cultural touchstones (Antenna, a reflection on the influential Memphis punk club), and people (Very Extremely Dangerous, a tough look at dying rock outlaw Jerry McGill), we certainly like to see it.

Very Extremely Dangerous - Promo from screenworksfilmandtv on Vimeo.

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