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INDIANAPOLIS — With more than 209 features, including 10 world premieres, the 28th annual Heartland International Film Festival was “bigger and bolder than ever.”

Greg Sorvig, Heartland’s director of film programming, reminded audiences of the festival’s bounty of offerings, advising them ahead of one screening that “the burden is upon you to see as many as films possible.” That assessment was in keeping with the festival’s motto: “A bold cinematic space.”

The festival, running Oct. 10-20 at several Indianapolis venues, including two AMC multiplexes on the city’s northeast side, offered $60,000 in cash prizes in more than 10 categories (see related story).

To stand out among the many regional film festivals nationwide, Heartland has created its own special niche by focusing on movies that convey the transformative power of cinema. Witness its mission statement: “The films we select and exhibit — whether they inspire and uplift, educate and inform, or shift audiences’ perspectives on the world — all have one thing in common: they are story-driven films that do more than entertain.”

That certainly was the case for several of the festival’s major winners: House of Hummingbird (Narrative Feature Grand Prize), a South Korean tale of teenage angst set against a backdrop of societal uncertainty; For Sama (Documentary Feature Grand Prize and Richard D. Propes Social Impact Documentary Feature Award), which chronicles life under siege in war-torn Syria; The Garden Left Behind (Richard D. Propes Social Impact Narrative Feature Award), about an undocumented immigrant undergoing gender transition, and Fire on the Hill (Jimmy Stewart Legacy Award), a documentary feature celebrating the historic black cowboy culture of south-central Los Angeles. Three of these prize winners were either directed by women or have a female focus: House of Hummingbird, For Sama and The Garden Left Behind.

Already a supporter of the #DirectedbyWomen movement (launched in 2015 at Indiana University Cinema), Heartland in January joined the 5050×2020 Pledge, a campaign introduced at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, to work toward gender parity in the film industry, with a goal of achieving female directorial representation of 50 percent by 2020. Among the films contending for Heartland’s top prizes this year, 50 percent were directed by women, with 43 percent in the over-all lineup. In addition, 63 percent of this year’s cash prizes at Heartland went to female-directed films. “We are proud of Heartland Film for taking important steps to prioritize parity within their festival programming,” said Lela Meadow-Conner, executive director of the Film Festival Alliance in a statement.

Shot over five years, the documentary For Sama chronicles the Syrian war from a female perspective. It was filmed at a series of besieged hospitals in Aleppo, Syria, by journalist Waad al-Khateab, aided by her physician husband (and dedicated to her first-born daughter, named Sama). “What you see in the film ended three years ago, but the war is still going on,” said Edward Watts, who co-directed For Sama with al-Khateab, at a Q&A session after a Heartand screening. “More than 500 children have been killed since April. Russians forces are killing civilians in a way not seen since World War II,” he said. “It’s not a civil war. It’s really five armies fighting for turf — Russian, Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah and the Syrian government.”

Still from FOR SAMA

Watts called Waad al-Khateab, who was granted asylum in England, where she has resettled with her husband and two children, “a naturally gifted filmmaker as well as a courageous and inspirational human being.” Al-Khateab and Watts have launched a campaign called Action for Sama (actionforsama.com) to provide aid to Syrians affected by targeted attacks on hospitals. “We have something at stake in their struggle,” Watts said. “We need this message to show that love, courage and humanity can triumph in the face of darkness.”

Equally inspiring is director Flavio Alves’ feature film debut, The Garden Left Behind, about an undocumented Mexican immigrant (Carlie Guevara, a trans actor) undergoing gender transition while trying to eke out an existence with grandmother Eliana (Miriam Cruz), who’s also undocumented. At a post-screening Q&A session, Alves reminded the audience that 2018 was the worst year ever for crimes against the trans-gender community, “with most crimes committed against trans women of color.”

Born in Brazil, Alves regards The Garden Left Behind as an extremely personal project, which he and his crew nurtured over six years. “As a gay man and a former undocumented immigrant, it was important to me to bring this issue to the forefront,” he said. Alves co-wrote the script with actor John Rotondo, after conducting extensive research and interviews in the trans community. ”The saga of Antonio/Tina [played by Guevara] is just one of the many stories we heard,” Alves said. “Tina could be someone sitting on the bus next to you.”

All the trans roles were played by actual trans actors, which Alves thinks might have been a first. “The trans community, which is justly concerned over stereotyped representations in movies and TV, kept asking, ‘what can you do for us?’ In that regard, it was important to be as authentic as possible,” he said. “It was also important to represent as many voices as possible.”

Shot on location in New York City, the film also features Hollywood stalwarts Edward Asner and Michael Masden in supporting roles. Asner replaced Matthew Broderick, who had to drop out due to scheduling issues. “Ed saw the script and really wanted to play the part,” Alves said, even though it was written with a younger actor in mind. “Nothing’s more beautiful than an actor asking to be in your film.”

Though Alves is proud that he directed The Garden Left Behind, he said he hopes the next feature film to address this subject “will be made by an actual trans filmmaker.”

While maintaining its socially conscious focus, Heartland did not ignore big-ticket attractions, with its opening-night selection one of this fall’s most anticipated releases: the upcoming Mr. Rogers biopic A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Marielle Heller (as the follow-up to her Oscar-nominated Can You Ever Forgive Me?). Also screened were several films touted as possible Oscar contenders, including Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain & Glory, Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency (Grand Jury Prize winner at Sundance), Feras Fayyad’s documentary The Cave (about female doctors working in an underground Syrian hospital), Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Golden Palm nominee at Cannes) and the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.


Also receiving Oscar buzz is Guest Artist, starring and written by two-time Emmy winner and Tony triple nominee Jeff Daniels in the first project of his Grand River Productions (headed by Daniels, Timothy Busfield and Melissa Gilbert). The film, largely a two-hander about a budding theater artist meeting his longtime hero, has already picked up several festival awards, including top honors at the Beloit, Dumbo (Brooklyn), Hollywood Reel, IndieFest, Myrtle Beach and Sacramento film events. Sound editor Michael Ferdie, who appeared for a Q&A session after a Heartland screening, said Guest Artist is based on an incident involving Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson and Daniels at the actor’s Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, Mich., “when he showed up at the train station without the play [Wilson] had been commissioned to write]. Guest Artist was shot over just seven days, Ferdie said, “so we had to prepare for a really tight shooting schedule.”

Other highlights from the Heartland:

Michael Apted
Filmmaker tributes: Legendary British director Michael Apted appeared to accept the festival’s Pioneering Spirit Award (for lifetime achievement), and sat for a Q&A session after a screening of 63 Up, the latest installment of his Up documentary series, which has chronicled in seven-year increments the lives of 14 British citizens since the age of 7. Apted, who’s closing in on 80, has hinted that 63 Up might be the last chapter in this series, noting in recent interviews that “whether we make another one, if we’re all above ground, it’s all fluid.”

Also receiving a Pioneering Spirit Award was Oscar- and nine-time Emmy winner Cloris Leachman, now 93, who accepted her honor via a video transmission. One of Leachman’s most recent films, When We Last Spoke, directed by Joanne Hock, and starring Corbin Bernsen and Melissa Gilbert in a family drama based on Marci Henna’s Fireside, Texas, books, followed her award presentation.

Hometown hero: Indianapolis native Brendan Fraser returned to his birthplace for a retrospective of his most popular films, including Gods & Monsters (1997), The Mummy (1999) and The Quiet American (2002). Ahead of a screening, where he received two standing ovations, Fraser told the crowd, “This is where I was born, but my family didn’t stay too long. We moved around a lot. It was like, my mom said, ‘oops, it’s time to go to the hospital,’ and then we were gone,” said the actor, who now lives in New York. “It’s nice to be back.”

Anniversary salutes: Several classic films received showcase screenings, including The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Set-Up (1949), Some Like It Hot (1959), Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Up (2009). But the anniversary honoree that probably meant the most to Hoosier audiences was Breaking Away (1979), filmed in nearby Bloomington, Ind., home of Indiana University’s main campus. Starring Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid and Daniel Stern in breakthrough roles, it centers on four friends trying to overcome town vs. gown barriers by entering IU’s beloved Little 500 bike race. (Nominated for four Oscars, Breaking Away won the best original screenplay prize.) While introducing the film, Christopher, who plays the main “townie,” got a big surprise. In the audience was the real Dave Blase, who inspired Christopher’s character in Breaking Away. “I’m speechless,” said Christopher as he welcomed Blase to the stage.

Cultural Journey: Germany: Three years ago, Heartland introduced a new international showcase saluting the cinema, culture and cuisine of a particular country. After tributes to India in 2017 and Mexico in 2018, this year Germany was in the spotlight, with eight feature films screened, including the U.S. premiere of director Nora Fingscheidt’s System Crasher, which also won the festival’s Best Premiere Narrative Award, with a prize of $2,000. Balloon, Michael Herbig’s feature about two families trying to escape from East Germany, with the Stasi secret police in pursuit, won the Audience Choice Award in the Cultural Journey field.

A Truly Moving Picture Award: Throughout the year, in keeping with its core mission, Heartland bestows this honor on a rolling basis to films nominated directly by studios and producers for consideration. Winners so far in 2019 has been: The Biggest Little Farm, Blinded by the Light, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, The Farewell, The Kid Who Would Be King, Little Woods, The Peanut-Butter Falcon, Toy Story 4, Yesterday, and most recently, By the Grace of God, which was screened at this year’s festival.


Audience Choice Awards:

Audience choice awards were announced in several categories after the festival concluded. The winners are:

Overall Audience Choice Award and Audience Choice: Special Presentation
Just Mercy, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton

Audience Choice: Narrative Feature ($1,000 cash prize)
Feast of the Seven Fishes, directed by Robert Tinnell

Audience Choice: Documentary Feature ($1,000 cash prize)
Jump Shot, directed by Jacob Hamilton

Audience Choice: Awards Season Spotlight
Maiden, directed by Alex Holmes

Audience Choice: Best International Feature Film Oscar Contenders
When Tomatoes Met Wagner (Greece), directed by Marianna Economou

Audience Choice: Cultural Journey/Germany
Balloon, directed by Michael Herbig

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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.