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Family, Missing And Otherwise, Is A Theme Among 174 Movies At Kansas City FilmFest

Ross family
This yearbook photo of Jesse Ross, a teenager who disappeared in 2006, has been widely used as his missing person's photo.

Kansas City filmmaker Brian Rose spent six years working on his new movie, even after he realized there would be no answers to the problem he was trying to solve.

His feature-length documentary, "When I Last Saw Jesse," details the events surrounding the 2006 disappearance of Belton teenager Jesse Ross and what's happened in the years since. It's among the 174 entries in this week's Kansas City FilmFest International.

"I went into this with a lot of gusto: I'm going to find evidence, I'm going to sort this thing out, Errol Morris-style, 'The Thin Blue Line,'" Rose says. "And as I was going deeper and deeper, I was finding that wow, I'm not going to find an answer to this."

Ross, who was a student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, traveled with classmates to Chicago to participate in a model United Nations conference. Footage shows him entering the Four Points Sheraton alone on the night of November 21, 2006. Beyond that is a mystery.

As he watched initial news reports, Rose had felt an immediate connection to the case. The two young men were only a year apart in age, and Rose, who also grew up in the Kansas City metro, had just been in Chicago a few days before Ross disappeared.

"I came home safe, and Jesse didn't. Why is that?" he asks.

Credit Brian Rose
Kansas City filmmaker Brian Rose spent six years creating a film about Jesse Ross.

Rose has written and directed six films over the past 15 years; this is his third in the Kansas City Film Fest. He also works full time at Kansas City's Wide Awake Films in the River Market.

"I went into this expecting to make kind of a straightforward story about that night and I figured there would be a pretty reasonable explanation," Rose says.

Family and investigators have focused on four different possibilities, according to the film: that Ross was murdered; that he walked away from his life on his own; that he purposely or accidentally disappeared into the Chicago River.

The documentary is shot in black and white and includes interviews with the university representative who acted as trip chaperone, other students, investigators, and Ross' family.

As years passed and he realized no answers would materialize, Rose says, he shifted the angle to be more about the family's experience of not knowing what happened to their child.

In that way, Rose's documentary fits right in with many other films in the festival.

"This year reflected a lot of exploration of family relationships," says Veronica Elliott Loncar, the festival's executive director. "Families in many different forms, and desire for improved relationships and gratitude."

Films included this year have come from all over the United States as well as Germany, Russia, Denmark, France, China and Mexico. Loncar says local star Nathan Darrow ("House of Cards") appears in one, as do other nationally known actors without a Kansas City connection like Katie Holmes ("Logan Lucky"), Talia Shire ("Rocky") and Karen Gillan ("Avengers: End Game").

This year, as in years past, more than 800 short and feature-length films were submitted to the festival; they were screened by 22 volunteers and festival organizers, who watched each one and selected 174, plus 17 in a student category.

Much lighter in content than Rose's, but still about family, is Savannah Rodgers' four-minute short called "Queen for a Day," where a woman walks in on her husband applying make-up in a dress and wig.

Credit Jennifer Burbridge
'Queen for a Day' was written and directed by Olathe native Savannah Rodgers, who is now working in Los Angeles.

Rodgers grew up in Olathe and graduated from the University of Kansas in 2017.

Now an OutSet Fellow at Outfest, an organization in Los Angeles that promotes and protects the LGBTQ community on screen, Rodgers says she wanted to make a film about someone who would like to feel part of that community but doesn't yet.

"The film really spotlights having a supportive partner who helps you follow your dreams and your gender expression in the ways that you want. I think it's a happy film," she says.

"Queen for a Day" premiered at Oxford Film Festival in Mississippi, and has shown at the Cleveland International Film Festival and Julien Dubuque International Film Festival.

"Going back to KC film fest is always a real treat," Rodgers says. "It's an opportunity for the locals to get together and celebrate each other. It's always about the people, supporting each other’s films and forming relationship out of that."

Rose, meanwhile, is looking for an entirely different kind of support as he strives to keep Ross' face and story circulating.

He hopes, he says, to "awaken viewers to the fact that this is still a world where a person can vanish. We don’t really think that that’s possible in today's age with cell phones and security cameras and everything, but it can still happen and we shouldn’t place too much faith in these systems."

Kansas City FilmFest International, 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 10, through 5 p.m. Sunday, April 14, at Cinemark Palace, 526 Nichols Road, Kansas City, Missouri 64112.

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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