HEARTLAND FILM FEST 2019: It’s a Wrap – Laura Emerick reports

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INDIANAPOLIS — For Sama, a documentary about life under siege in war-torn Syria, won two of the top prizes at the 28th annual Heartland Film Festival, which concluded its 11-day run here Oct. 20.

Co-directed by Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts, For Sama received the Documentary Feature Grand Prize of $15,000 and the Richard D. Propes Social Impact Documentary Feature Award of $2,000. “When we were making the film, we were told over and over that no one cares about Syria,” said Watts in his acceptance remarks at the festival’s awards ceremony Oct. 19. “But this movie shows what binds us together as human beings.”

Filmed over five years around Aleppo, Syria, For Sama depicts war from a female perspective as al-Kateab documents the Syrian government’s attempts to crush a populist uprising against the oppressive regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Against a backdrop of constant warfare, al-Kateab falls in love, marries and gives birth to her first child, all the while chronicling the horrific attacks on her city. (For Sama continues to roll out on the festival circuit, but it also will play theatrically in select U.S. cities and will be broadcast Nov. 19 on PBS’ Frontline.)

The other documentary finalists, which each received a $1,000 cash prize, consisted of 17 Blocks (dir. Davy Rothbart), Ernie & Joe (dir. Jenifer McShane), Jump Shot (dir. Jacob Hamilton) and Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements (dir. Irene Taylor Brodsky).

Written and directed by Bora Kim, the South Korean film House of Hummingbird won the Narrative Feature Grand Prize of $15,000. It follows an alienated teen as she tries to find her place among her peers and in Korea’s conservative society. Kim couldn’t attend the festival but she sent a greeting via a video transmission.

The other narrative feature finalists, all receiving $1,000, were Colewell (dir. Tom Quinn), The Garden Left Behind (dir. Flavio Alves), Greener Grass (dir. Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe) and Guest Artist (dir. Timothy Busfield).

The Garden Left Behind, which depicts a trans-gender person attempting to negotiate her medical transition while trying to survive as an undocumented immigrant in New York City, also won the $2,000 Richard D. Propes Social Impact Narrative Feature Award. (The Propes Award is named after the Indianapolis-based film critic, a double amputee due to spina bifida, and social-justice activist who has traveled more than 6,000 miles in his wheelchair to raise funds for humanistic causes.) In his acceptance remarks, director Flavio Alves said, “This award belongs to the trans community, for allowing us to amplify their voices with a positive representation of them on film.”

The festival’s third major prize, the Jimmy Stewart Legacy Award with a cash gift of $5,000, is named after the Oscar-winning actor, war hero and national icon; it honors the “triumph of the human spirit … and courage in the face of adversity.” (The award is overseen by the Stewart family, and is exclusive to Heartland.) It went to the documentary Fire on the Hill, director Brett Fallentine’s tribute to the black cowboys of Compton, in south-central Los Angeles, whose culture dates to the 19th century. “To be here in the Midwest, we’re so pleased to see that our lives relate to yours,” said Ghuan Featherstone, one of the cowboys featured in the film. “The world needs to change, and we can be the agent for that change.”

Matt Ratner’s comedy Standing Up, Falling Down about a struggling comedian (Ben Schwartz), who strikes up an unlikely friendship with an eccentric dermatologist (Billy Crystal), was another double honoree, receiving the $1,000 Humor & Humanity Award and also the FIPRESCI Best Directorial Debut for USA Narrative. Founded in 1930, FIPRESCI, an international federation of film critics devoted to “the promotion and development of film culture,” returned to Heartland for its second year. “It means so much to see the film so well-received by all demographic groups,” Ratner said at the awards ceremony. “Heartland proves there’s an audience for films about something, films that deal with life’s real struggles.”

Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodovar’s -style drama about a director (played by frequent Almodovar muse Antonio Banderas) reflecting on past regrets, was named Best International Feature Film Oscar Contender, with a $2,000 prize. “Pedro Almodovar has given us so much in terms of international cinema,” said Hannah Fisher, the festival’s international film programmer, accepting the award on the director’s behalf. Pain and Glory was one of 20 potential Oscar foreign-film contenders, including The Cave (Syria/Denmark) and Honeyland (Republic of Macedonia), screened this year at Heartland.

The MisEducation of Bindu, a coming-of-age comedy about a South Asian teen trying to negotiate the rituals of high-school life, won the $2,000 Indiana Spotlight Grand Prize. Directed and co-written by Prarthana Mohan, the film received a boost from Hometown Heroes, a campaign launched by indie mavens Mark and Jay Duplass to discover America’s next generation of independent filmmakers (the Duplass brothers also are executive producers of Bindu, along with Indy native Edward Timpe, Mohan’s husband and her creative partner). Bindu was filmed in Indianapolis, including the city’s historic Broad Ripple High School, which closed in 2018. “To be from Indiana and win an award from an Indiana festival — it’s awesome,” said Timpe at the ceremony.

The Holocaust-themed documentary We Shall Not Die Now, directed by 19-year-old Indy native Ashton Gleckman, received the $2,000 Indiana Spotlight Audience Choice Award. In his acceptance remarks, Gleckman recalled how seeing an exhibit about Anne Frank at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, when he was just 7 years old, set him off on a path to learn more about the Holocaust and to honor its victims and survivors. A few years later, Gleckman watched Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary Shoah (1985), about the aftermath of the Holocaust. “It haunted me for weeks and still does to this day,” he said. “It really opened my eyes to what’s possible and launched me on the journey of making the film.”
Gleckman traveled to Poland and shot footage at several concentration camps, and interviewed 25 Holocaust survivors in Europe and the United States. We Shall Not Die Now, which received its world premiere at the Heartland Film Festival, will be available on streaming platforms beginning Dec. 5

Writer-director Nora Fingscheidt’s System Crasher, Germany’s official submission for the foreign film Oscar, received $2,000 as the Best Premiere Narrative Feature, Director Julie Sokolow’s Barefoot: The Mark Baumer Story, about one man’s march, sans shoes, across America to raise awareness about climate change, won $2,000 as the Best Premiere Documentary Feature.

Audience Choice Awards in four categories (narrative feature, documentary feature, special presentation and Indiana Spotlight) will be named later this week, after polling concludes, along with the newly established Indiana Film Journalists Award for Best Presentation.

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Laura Emerick

Laura Emerick is the digital content editor for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Formerly she was the arts editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, where she served as the primary editor of film critic Roger Ebert. She is a graduate of Indiana University with a B.A. in journalism and environmental Science. Among her passions are opera and Latin music, which she continues to cover as a freelance writer. Her all-time favorite movie is "Vertigo" (1958), with "The Leopard" (1963) and "The Sweet Smell of Success" (1957) following close behind.