Interview: Indie Memphis Artistic Director Miriam Bale on How a Festival of Great Taste is Showing Off Its Local Flavor

During a summer in which all anyone could do was watch, Miriam Bale was looking for opportunities. The artistic director of Indie Memphis has always looked at other festivals to see what they do well and what they could be doing better, never so much as this year when the coronavirus has upended what festivals look like, and her interest was piqued reading about the Toronto Film Festival’s retrospective screening of David Cronenberg’s “Crash” at a drive-in because where better to see the adaptation of J.M. Ballard’s autoerotica tale than in the comfort of your car.

“I just thought, ‘Okay, if we’re doing a drive in, we have to play ‘Crash,’” says Bale, who has a habit of improving upon good ideas with an original spin. “So we have ‘Crash’ play on Saturday night and it’s preceded by another perverse, very smart, strange film called ‘I Blame Society,’ so that’s the double bill to beat. I’m really curious who’s going to show up to that double feature.”

As it turns out, Gillian Horvat, the director of “I Blame Society” will be traveling across the country to be there – a real coup when so few filmmakers have been able to attend their premieres in person these days and enjoy the response to their films, but the black comedy, along with the majority of Indie Memphis lineup, can also be watched from home, giving audiences everywhere in the U.S. the opportunity to experience what has become one of the most impressively curated regional festivals in the country under the watch of Bale and executive director Ryan Watt.

Like pairing “Crash” with “I Blame Society,” the festival’s lineup is constructed in a number of ways to attract audiences who know what they want and give them something they don’t know just yet that they do. With an intrepid set of programmers thinking just as outside the box as the filmmakers whose work they bring in when it comes to considerations of format and length – evident from the fest’s opening night of Lynne Sachs’ description-defying “Film About a Father Who,” the festival has usually been in the position of introducing local audiences to hits from other festivals to play alongside locally grown gems, this year being no different in opening up the Malco Drive-In for spotlight screenings of “One Night in Miami” and “Minari” to accompany Jason Lockridge’s private investigator drama “Smith” and “Shoe: A Memphis Music Legacy,” about the influential underground studio.

However, with the whole world watching — or at least able to online, the lineup has come alive in the different way this year where Memphis audiences can discover Emma Seligman’s dazzling comedy “Shiva Baby” and recent New York Film Fest Currents opener Ephram Azili’s “The Inheritance” and there is a greater opportunity for films from the Hometowner section, featuring Trimiko Melancon’s doc “What Do You Have to Lose?” contemplating the history of America through race and Anwar Jamison’s charming adventure “Coming to Africa,” to travel further, allowing those who aren’t able to make the pilgrimage to Tennessee to see the exciting things brewing in the film community there.

Indie Memphis has played no small part in building a foundation for a new film haven to flourish, with the arrival of the Black Creators Forum along with Bale in 2018 fortifying a pipeline for underrepresented artists to develop their work with a symposium convened in the days ahead of the festival in addition to their year-around support and the more recent unveiling of the Movie Club, which has kept audiences connected with talks conducted by Bale with the likes of Barry Jenkins, Susan Seidelman and Amy Seimetz to make the experience at home a little more special, preventing the arthouse and repertory films that have been made available to stream from being lost at sea.

In a fall festival season where new films have been threatened with exactly that fate when word of mouth and the communal experience has largely been taken away, Indie Memphis has put together a buzzworthy program, making it particularly easy for newcomers to get a taste with a $25 virtual pass among many options to enjoy the selection, and on the eve of the fest, Bale graciously took some time to talk about some of this year’s selections, rethinking what the festival could be when a significant part of it would be shifted online and speaking to the times we’re in.

I’d be excited to talk to you under any circumstances, but particularly in this sweet spot between the Black Creators Forum and the start of Indie Memphis. What was the past weekend like, putting on an event like the Black Creators Forum online?

It was really amazing. We were nervous about doing something online that had been such an in-person experience. In the past two years, it had been two days of conferences including lunch and breakfast [with] really intense bonding and connecting and networking, so we were not sure if we’d be able to pull off that same energy in a virtual sphere, but we tried a lot of different methods and I think we were able to do that plus more. We had more intentional connections rather than just rely on the luck of running into someone in the lobby and we had breakout rooms. People just really got to know each other in a really deep and useful way. We also had a lot of international participation that obviously we haven’t been able to have before. We’ve had people come from other places in the world, but we were able to have so many more people from Africa, from Europe, from Korea, so it was really exciting.

Have you found that going online has opened up some doors even as it may have closed others?

Yeah, that’s what we found. At first, we didn’t even have time to analyze it, we were just scrambling. What we decided early on was that we weren’t going to cancel [the festival]. We saw a lot of festivals canceling over the summer before that, so we thought we would exist in whatever form that we could. Then we pivoted in a lot of ways and tried new things, so we’ll have drive-in screenings, in-person lawn screenings, and then a very strong virtual presence. What we’ve found over these last six to seven months is that we’re able to reach people instantaneously and connect to people that we haven’t been able to. There are definitely some advantages.

Thematically, do you think you ended up with the types of films you might’ve been planning to program before all this went down?

Things usually evolve based on what’s submitted and this year, I did have a theme in mind, more so than other years [because] the one constant that I knew was that the festival would still exist on our same days, October 21st to the 29th, which is a few days before the election. This lockdown has been tumultuous emotionally for everyone, so you want to offer something that’s a comfort and a balm, but at the same time, I knew that there would be this anxiety about the election, so I wanted to have films that were about politics — not just about electoral politics, but were films that were about ways that people can engage with politics in different ways. And I was aware this has been a year of incredible isolation as well as anxiety, so we’re wanting to have films and events that make people feel connected because that’s after all what a film festival does normally. To think of ways to do that, either safely in person or virtually, has been a challenge, but a fun challenge. Instead of having a cocktail party, we’re having a pet party.

There are a number of fun events on the schedule and some incredible films. I know it’s like picking children and I’m totally putting you on the spot, but do you have any favorites?

It is hard to choose, but I am really excited about some of our premieres. We have the U.S. premiere of a film called “Cane Fire.” This is one of these films that I mentioned that engages with politics, but in really interesting ways and a little bit off center, with the history of Kauai and gentrification and the way indigenous and Asian Hawaiians have been cast as extras in the story of their life. It also uses Hollywood productions and personal documentary to talk about labor history. There’s also a world premiere called “The Hub” that is made by a Memphis filmmaker named Lawrence Matthews that’s a hybrid narrative/documentary about low wage workers, particularly Black men and uses the fictional elements to really capture the struggle but also the small joys of the day-to-day rather than just asking people’s point of view of it. I really recommend it.

Then there’s so many, I mean, I picked them — I like them all. [laughs] We’re doing a screening of “The Giverny Document (Single Channel)” by Ja’Tovia Gary, and we’ll be doing a talk with her live on opening night with our first live virtual Q&A this Wednesday at 7 pm [EST]. I just loved that film that also played at True/False when I had my first chance to see it, and as much as we have wonderful submissions now, because I think people are getting what it is that we do and they understand what an Indie Memphis film is, [going to other festivals] is such a good way to program, in person to gauge the audience and [the way] you’re feeling after you leave it the way it stays with you, which films float to the top.

It’s got to be exciting that there is an Indie Memphis film now — that you have that identity and you can see from the lineup where there’s a real diversity of films, not only in terms of cultural representations, but of different shapes and modes of filmmaking where you can tell there’s a real curation behind them. Are you at the place you want to be as far as what this festival can offer a platform to?

Absolutely. That came up at the Black Creators Forum [where] I just realized I couldn’t imagine programming any other festival because we have such freedom to do what we’re doing specifically. I like what we’re doing. I think that that great heterogenous, catholic with a small C approach to doing different kinds of film, but all with the same sense of intelligence, artistry, but a little bit subtlety, that’s all there. We have a whole section Departures, which was here before I got here, and I love that it’s more experimental documentaries, but we also have very traditional documentaries. I feel, in the documentary world, you often see a split at festivals [in terms of] ways of engaging with very traditional documentaries or more experimental documentaries, but I like them both and find real value in both approaches, so I like the freedom to be able to [present both]. We’ve also built this real interest in the little subversive comedies — “I Blame Society” is a great example. So I am exactly where I want to be, and it’s been wonderful to watch that grow.

And at the Black Creators Forum, for instance, we have people who’ve been invited to the forum and then they’ve made connections with other people and have continued to do form relationships and work together in different ways. We have shorts filmmakers who’ve made features and our Indie Memphis screenwriting fellow told us she had been living in Oxford, Mississippi and had come up to for the Black Creators Forum, met a lot of people, got really involved in film and now she lives in Memphis and is working on several projects. That’s super rewarding. And Damon Davis, our [latest Black Creators Forum] resident, wrote his new project specifically for our residency because it needs to be filmed in Memphis. He wrote it with it in mind, he submitted it, didn’t get accepted [at first], worked on it some more and got accepted. We’re in year three since I’ve been there, so seeing those connections and those relationships and that strong foundation start to build makes it really exciting to see where we’ll be in three years or 10 years.

Indie Memphis runs from October 21-29. 

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