above: The Keepers takes viewers behind the scenes at the Memphis Zoo.
If Elvis lives on today (the biggest “if” in Memphis apocrypha), January 2015 marked his eightieth birthday. The King is greying, even to the most optimistic of imaginations.
But there was a time when Elvis’ death defiance didn’t seem so far-fetched. A new film, which premieres November 10th at the Indie Memphis Film Festival, revisits the years when “Presley Lives!” myths were at their height. Orion tells the story of a masked man eerily like Elvis in voice and carriage, who made the rounds on Southern stages in the years following the King’s demise.
Directed by British filmmaker Jeanie Finlay, Orion is one example of the many stories Indie Memphis will present in its eighteenth year as a festival. Other films on the list include The Keepers , a locally produced look inside the Memphis Zoo and Tangerine , Sean Baker’s alternative Christmas story about a working girl and the pimp who broke her heart. These films typify the festival’s character: at once homegrown and international, a little weird, always original.
Memphis is a great city to make movies ( Moviemaker magazine named it one of its “10 Best Cities to Live and Work as a Moviemaker” in the country), so it follows that this should be a great town to see independent cinema. But as recently as this spring, the city’s flagship film festival seemed to be in uncertain health. The festival, which operates on an estimated $300,000 budget, lost money in 2013 and 2014. In March, Erik Jambor left his role as the festival’s executive director. Craig Brewer, of Hustle & Flow fame, did not seek another term as president of the festival, though he remains on the board of directors. In the interceding months, Indie Memphis has undergone considerable changes.
Previously packed into Halloween weekend, the festival has been reimagined as a week-long event taking place in early November. Weekday showings will take place at The Orpheum's new Halloran Centre for Performing Arts & Education, while weekend showings will remain in Overton Square. Ryan Watt, newly named executive director, says these changes will not only help the financial health of the festival; they will allow Memphians to see more of the films that pique their interest.
“A lot of the movies on the weeknights [during this year’s festival] will be movies that have a local tie-in,” says Watt. “If you are going to see The Keepers , for instance, you go see that on a Tuesday night, and there are no other movies competing with that. During the weekend you are freed up to see some of these great movies that are coming in from New York and other places.”
The new Indie Memphis will also attempt, through events spread out over the year, to assume the role of a kind of traveling arthouse cinema, an institution that Memphis still lacks. “This year,” says Watt, “we hosted or partnered to host events basically every other week, whether they were at different Malco locations or the events we have twice a month at Crosstown Arts. We have independent film that showcases both work by Memphians and work that otherwise doesn’t appear in the theater scene in Memphis.”
The festival will continue to curate local film premieres, such as it did this June with Morgan Jon Fox’s Feral , a mini-series about four young gay men coming of age in Memphis. It will also continue to stage educational events such as “Shoot & Splice,” a monthly filmmaking forum that offers free instruction in the technical side of the art.
Watt and other festival leaders also made sure that this year’s festival retails one of Indie Memphis’ best quirks: live music before every screening. At June’s Feral premiere, for instance, break-out singer-songwriter Julien Baker played selections from the series’ soundtrack, to which she contributed several songs. The event introduced Baker’s music to a sold-out theater. Says Watt, “We look for any way we can to integrate our festival with the local independent music scene. It helps those musicians get heard.”
When asked what else sets Indie Memphis apart, Watt replies: “We are known as a very filmmaker-friendly festival. We go out of our way to do whatever we can to help these filmmakers come into town, and we take really good care of them while they are here. That’s not necessarily the case at a lot of other regional festivals.”
This year’s event will act as a litmus test for some of the changes to the festival. If all goes as planned, Indie Memphis will continue to grow as both a year-round staple in the regional film scene and an annual event. “We try to go above and beyond,” says Watt.