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Kansas International Film Festival Spotlights 17 Shorts And 3 Features By Kansas City Filmmakers

Erik Harken
A scene from 'Tell My Family I Love Them' by Shawnee Mission East High School and University of Kansas graduate Erik Harken, an entry in the Kansas International Film Festival.

This year, the Kansas International Film Festival is mourning the loss of a Kansas City staple.

"When the Tivoli closed, it really made us think about ... why film is important,” the festival's executive director, Stacy Rich, says of the Tivoli Cinemas, which closed earlier this year (it was recently revived at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art). "Independent film allows anyone to have a voice, right?"

This year’s festival, beginning Friday and continuing through November 14 at the Glenwood Arts Theater in Overland Park, screens 158 films from 29 countries but emphasizes submissions by Kansas City-area filmmakers. Twenty films — 17 shorts and three features — by local filmmakers are part of this year’s lineup.

Here are some standouts:

"The Land"
7:40 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 8.

Credit Mary and Stephen Pruitt
A scene from 'The Land,' a feature film by Kansas City's team of Mary and Stephen Pruitt.

In the middle of the Great Recession, John and Mary Lou Martin are fighting to hold onto their Kansas farm. As they risk losing the only life they’ve ever known, they must reckon with their legacy and their love for each other.

"The Land" is the third feature film from the husband-and-wife filmmaking team of Mary and Stephen Pruitt. Their previous collaborations, "Works in Progress" and "The Tree," also take place and were filmed in Kansas.

"Filmmakers in general probably have a tendency to make films about either their life experiences or the experience of those that they encounter in the midst of their life experiences," Mary Pruitt says. "And that's really what's thrown us into this more rural mindset is because we do talk to the people on location. When we are shooting, we have just found ourselves being truly inspired by some of the setbacks that people have to face and how they persevere."

When he's not making movies, Stephen Pruitt is the Endowed Chair of Business Economics and Finance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. "The Land" is more relevant than it was when the couple started writing it in 2017, he says, because of tariffs and other problems farmers currently face.

"So it's really become very, very real-world right now," he says.

"Tell My Family I Love Them"
2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 9

"Tell My Family I Love Them" is the story of a self-absorbed high school athlete named Thomas. After a tragedy, he is forced to reevaluate his relationships with his friends and family.

The 14-minute film was inspired by the death of writer-director Erik Harken’s older brother, who died in a car accident in 2014 when Harken was a student at Shawnee Mission East High School. Harken wrote the screenplay and shot the film in 2018 while a student at the University of Kansas. It premiered at the Tivoli in January.

Though "Tell My Family I Love Them" has already screened in Kansas City, Harken says he's excited for it to be seen by other area filmmakers.

"A lot of the films in the Kansas International Film Festival are made by people from Kansas," he says. "And it'll be cool to be there at the exact same time as all those people."

"The Ordinance Project"
7:35 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 13.

Credit Austin Williams / The Ordinance Project
The Ordinance Project
Lea Hopkins is among the Kansas City activists whose oral histories are part of 'The Ordinance Project.'

Historian Austin Williams’ documentary, which premiered at last year's Out Here Now Film Festival, chronicles a contentious and critical moment in Kansas City civil rights: In 1990, after a three-year effort, the city council voted on legislation that would outlaw discrimination against gay and bisexual residents and people with HIV/AIDS in the areas of housing, employment and public accommodation.

"What we're seeing happening in Kansas right now with nondiscrimination ordinances, and the fact that, you know, this film that takes place over 25 years ago — it's so relevant today, specifically in Kansas where it's showing. I'm really excited about it," Williams says.

He says Kansas City was one of the first cities in the country to pass nondiscrimination legislation that included people with HIV/AIDS as well as others in the gay community — transgender residents were not included in the 1993 ordinance. Williams says it’s a part of local history that’s often overlooked, if it’s acknowledged at all.

"This is a very local story," he says, adding, "I think it's got national appeal."

"A New Deal for Public Art in the Free State"
7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 14

Credit The Schweikher House Preservation Trust
In a scene from 'A New Deal for Public Art in the Free State,' Martyl Suzanne Schweig Langsdorf, the artist who created the 'Wheat Workers' mural in the Russell, Kansas, post office, paints with her daughter.

Artists Graham Carroll and Kara Heitz collaborated on this documentary short about an overlooked part of the New Deal in Kansas. The United States Treasury Department commissioned more than 1,600 pieces of public art for post offices around the country; 29 murals were installed in 26 Kansas post offices, and many of them can still be seen today.

Heitz and Carroll traveled around the state to film the murals and the people who knew their history.

"We always kind of ran the risk of falling into the same trap that the artists did. The artists were sometimes perceived as out-of-towners or Yankees who were kind of coming in and making these murals that depict the town's history or something, whether or not they knew anything about it," Carroll says. "Kara and I were both thankful that we had the opportunity to actually to make the film with people of Kansas and then also to screen it with the people of Kansas."

"Devil’s Food Cake"
7 :30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 14

Credit Kansas International Film Festival
A scene from 'Devil's Food Cake' by Kansas filmmaker Andrew Pritzker.

"Devil's Food Cake" tells the story of an Ozark diner waitress who's convinced her late-night customer is more sinister than he appears. Writer-director Andrew Pritzker is a Kansas City transplant from Philadelphia. His previous short, "E.P.G.," won the Audience Choice Award at KIFF in 2017.

"Devil's Food Cake" is among a handful of horror films in this year's lineup. Pritzker says he likes the emotional freedom of making scary movies.

"I come from a comedy background, but horror and thrillers, they're not that different because we're trying to get a reaction from the audience or trying to engage the audience," Pritzker says. "What I really enjoy is hearing people gasp or moan or, you know, be captivated by what's on screen."

19th Kansas International Film Festival, November 8-14 at the Glenwood Arts Theater, 3707 West 95th Street, Overland Park, Kansas 66206. Tickets for individual screenings can be purchased on the Glenwood Arts website or at the box office.

Follow KCUR contributor Courtney Bierman on Twitter @courtbierman.

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