When it comes to indie filmmaking, there’s no place like home

Sundance Film Festival returns to the Sunflower State

February 4, 2022 3:33 am

Liberty Hall on Massachusetts Street in Lawrence was the site of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival Satellite Screens. (Brett Crandall/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Brett Crandall is an actor, writer, producer, puppeteer and LGBTQIA+ activist based in Garden City.

The film industry has been no more immune to the COVID-19 pandemic and its logistical curveballs than any other industry. Premieres and productions were postponed, distribution models have shifted, and audiences are reluctant to return in full force.

Independent film fans have found a silver lining in online streaming, but to produce and to actually show movies on the silver screen, as intended, is harder than ever, unless you happen to live in … Kansas?

Mama.film, a Kansas-based film collective, partnered with the Sundance Institute to present the 2022 Sundance Film Festival Satellite Screens for the second year. After a 2021 “drive-in” model produced in Wichita, mama.film met the challenge of finding a local arthouse to meet Sundance’s updated screening requirements by securing Liberty Hall in Lawrence as the festival’s host site shows Jan. 28-30. Six other cities hosted local in-person events for simultaneous world premieres, but after the Sundance Institute’s cancellation of its annual in-person festival in Park City, Utah, Lawrence became the only non-coastal Satellite Screen. 

Lela Meadow-Conner, mama.film founder and executive director, talked about the value of the movie-going experience that’s missed when streaming from home.

The audience takes their seats before the world premiere of Sundance selection “Every Day in Kaimuki.” (Brett Crandall/Kansas Reflector)

“There’s the genuine excitement, not only to be the first to see these films, but seeing them on the big screen,” she said. “The audience gasping at the same time, laughing at the same time; the feeling you only get when things are larger than life.”

Kansas, home of cinematic heroes like Dorothy Gale and Clark Kent (Superman), is setting itself up to be a cultural hub for storytellers. Creatives, unable to perform or shoot because of the pandemic, perhaps wanting to be closer to loved ones in uncertain times, have been drawn away from coastal hubs like Los Angeles and New York.

Elle Schneider, an independent filmmaker, spoke about being “pleasantly surprised when Lawrence was announced as a Sundance Satellite Screen.”

Schneider has championed Lawrence’s history as an expert on the Centron Corp, an Oscar-nominated film studio that nestled for forty years in Lawrence.

“A lot of film production has come to this area,” she said.

I hopefully asked Schneider about a potential, homegrown front of creators.

“A lot of artists moved here to chill out and have a liberal place in the middle of the country,” she said. “Because it has a university it means a huge part of the population skews young. That brings new trends, new music, new thought coming through that you wouldn’t expect from a little town in the Midwest.”

An L.A.-savvy, native New Yorker and self-described “interloper” in Lawrence, Schneider spoke confidently about filmmakers she had worked with in the Kansas City and Lawrence area.

“In our era of all these technological innovations … the silver lining of the pandemic being we’ve learned so much about how to connect through technology, through different geographical places,” she said. “I think (this) area has had a lot of interesting productions over the past few years as people who are from here start trying to make films in this area.”

Schneider was an associate producer on director and KC-local Morgan Dameron’s “Different Flowers,” released in 2017.

“Arts go where artists can live. Housing crises in New York and Los Angeles make it nearly impossible to experiment or make art on your own terms,” she said. “…  Technology helps artists be able to live outside of those areas in a place where they can afford to make their art and make art their profession. You’re going to see booms, and I think Lawrence is one of the towns that is ripe for that.”

Schneider emphasized that films can foster social change by simply being accessible.

“There’s also something to bringing Sundance films, many of which are international, to towns that are slightly-less international. … There’s more cultural exchange that happens there,” she said. “If you picked some place like Los Angeles, where you already have so many options … a melting pot culturally, anyway, the films don’t necessarily make as much social change. Someone discovering a Sundance film is going to see something that they’ve never seen before.”

There are some really amazing filmmakers in Lawrence, really doing interesting films without feeling like they have to go to this metropolis, knowing that there isn’t one rigorous path that you have to follow to be an artist.

– Elle Schneider

The local audience was certainly pleased with the selections, exiting the theater eager to discuss their cathartic laughs and sorrows. Two locals enjoyed the film “Marte Um” and its focus on a lower-middle-class family in Brazil, while another Lawrence film buff was grateful for the festival’s international selections.

Schneider felt confident the town’s artistic scene will continue to grow.

“There are some really amazing filmmakers in Lawrence, really doing interesting films without feeling like they have to go to this metropolis, knowing that there isn’t one rigorous path that you have to follow to be an artist,” she said. “Having your voice heard is really important, especially when you have (KU) Film School here and that next generation. It’s important for them to see new stuff. And at KU, you have the luck of having Oscar-winning film professors, like Kevin Willmott — just him being here and teaching shows you don’t have to change who you are, go to the big city, and play the game. You can stay where you live, with the people you like collaborating with, and be successful.”

A sense of relief and artistic camaraderie, one I swore I would only ever find in New York, overcame me as Schneider articulated the importance of, “Knowing that there isn’t one rigorous path that you have to follow to be an artist.”

When I returned home to western Kansas in 2019, after 10 years in New York City working (then not working) as an actor and writer, I never anticipated simply driving myself from my rural town to get dolled up for world premieres of films that arthouses in the Greenwich Village would show. It was a risk moving to Kansas while still pursuing my creative endeavors.

However, even after a hectic two years, my spirits are raised imagining the new and returning Kansan artists gathering at mama.film’s KS+ Film Convergence this April at the Free State Festival in Lawrence, all pining and mining for the centuries of rich stories lived here just aching to be told.

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Brett Crandall
Brett Crandall

Brett Crandall is an actor, writer, producer, puppeteer and LGBTQIA+ activist based in Garden City. A graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts-NY, he tours regularly with his puppetry practice, Brett Crandall Studios, with a focus on all-ages, queer-inclusive stories. He is a proud member of the Reflector's arts writing cohort.