February 17, 2014 10:05:54 AM
As a child, Laura Leigh Hicks was afraid of storms. Now 17, she's past that. But the teenager from Steens used the memory as a springboard for creating a short animated film about a little worm who learned to be brave. Inspiration, after all, usually comes from a personal place. For other filmmakers, the first spark may be born in stark reality or surreal imagination, in news events or dreams, in frustration or hope. They all come together, those filmmakers' best efforts, Feb. 20-22 at the 17th annual Magnolia Independent Film Festival in Starkville.
The festival premiered in 1997, under the direction of Ron Tibbett of West Point. Born in Chicago, Tibbett had recently moved to Mississippi. After completing his second film, he searched for a state festival to submit it to, only to find none. He set out to start one.
"It was extremely important to him because he wanted to bring independent film to the area," said his widow, Dr. Charlotte Magnussen. She remembers Tibbett's drive, his desire to support filmmakers and nurture the art. Tibbett lost his life in an automobile accident in 2004, but The Mag, as it is affectionately known, is his legacy. His stylized likeness is part of the event's logo.
This year the festival boasts 22 independent shorts, documentaries and longer films as well as a workshop with award-winning producer/director Patricia Chica, and a special non-competition feature, James Franco's "As I Lay Dying."
Angella Baker of Starkville worked with the early festivals.
"Ron was the one who got me in with the film festival; I volunteered for him for several years. He was just bigger than life, and I was hooked," said Baker, who works in the College of Business at Mississippi State University. She is a board member of the Starkville Area Arts Council, presenter of the festival. This year, she serves as director of The Mag. Magnussen is executive director.
"We have some very interesting films this year," said Baker about the independent films from the U.S. and Europe selected to be screened during four sessions at Hollywood Premier Cinemas in Starkville. They range in length from a few minutes to feature-length and showcase a variety of genres, styles and topics.
While most entries tell stories with actors, some are animated, like Hicks' "Truman." The homeschooled junior, the daughter of Keith and Alison Hicks, submitted her film for the student division. Her experimentation with graphic design began at about age 12; she later took high school design courses, delving into Adobe Illustrator and InDesign. Until recently, she even served as publications coordinator for the Mississippi Home Educators Association.
"'Truman' is the story of a little worm who lives in an apple in a tree with his family," she explained. (Her main character gets his name courtesy of Hick's 10-year-old brother.) "There's a terrible storm, and he has to try hard not to be afraid. I've always been scared of storms, and I thought this would be something that kids would benefit from."
The young filmmaker drew her story in Adobe Photoshop and then animated it in Adobe AfterEffects, turning out a film that runs just over four minutes.
The festival's student division is a recent addition, sponsored by the United Way of North Central Mississippi. Nikki Rives of Starkville is its director.
"We look for ways to partner with other organizations, and this was a way to join in encouraging young, creative talents to pursue their ideas and dreams," said Rives.
Humor to heartbreak
Films will be shown in sessions Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 7 p.m., plus a 1 p.m. Saturday afternoon session. Entries include projects from two prolific area filmmakers. "Kane," directed by Michael Williams of West Point, shows in the Thursday night lineup. "A Mutual Friend," by Glenn Payne of Blue Springs, opens the Saturday afternoon matinee. A complete schedule -- and intriguing descriptions -- can be found at magnoliafilmfest.com.
The fare includes "Meanwhile in Memphis," a music documentary that confirms the music never stopped in the Bluff City, even after Stax Records closed, Elvis died and the music industry left town. "Baby Chicken" is the story of a wooden man who befriends his breakfast and is then called upon to be a hero.
"Money 1955: The Emmitt Till Murder Trial" has one actor reenacting all the roles in the Mississippi trial, a true-crime story crafted from actual court transcripts. In "The Organizer," a woman living in a van has convinced her brother she lives in an apartment she cleans. When he shows up to visit overnight, she has to get him out before the apartment owner returns. And those are just a sampling.
Awards will be presented at the conclusion of Saturday night's session. Judges are Jack Barbera, Carolyn Parsons and Gabe Smith. A People's Choice Award will also be presented.
Award-winning filmmaker Patricia Chica is a selected entrant. She will also present a "Master Class on Self Distribution and Promotion of Independent Films" after Saturday afternoon's film session. The lecture filled with advice for indie filmmakers who want to up their films' exposure is free and open to the public.
Chica's latest film, "Ceramic Tango," will show in the Friday night session. It represents a promise made to Tibbett years ago.
"Back in 2000, my first short film, 'The Promise,' won Best Short Drama Award (at the festival), and I remember promising Ron Tibbett that I would always come back to The Mag with my future films," said Chica. "It is with great pleasure that I am keeping my promise. "
"As I Lay Dying"
Directed by Oscar-nominated actor James Franco from a screenplay by Franco and Matt Rager, this movie made Mississippi headlines when it was filmed in Canton in September 2012. The story set in the Magnolia State is based on the classic 1930 novel by William Faulkner. Marcus Vowell of Starkville had a bit part. Williams of West Point worked on the technical crew. MSU alumnus Matthew Morgan was casting director. Bringing it to The Magnolia Film Festival was a coup for Baker.
"When the opportunity came for me to direct the festival, I knew I wanted to get it. It was quite an adventure; it took about five months, but I was thrilled," said the organizer, who worked with Millennium Entertainment to bring the finished movie to a local audience.
The scene Vowell was in did not make it into the final cut, but he's pleased the film will be shown.
"I'm really glad that, number one, James Franco decided to shoot his film here in Mississippi; he could have gotten away with doing it in Georgia, or somewhere like that. And I'm glad festivals around the state are getting behind it. The way it's shot and the way it looks, you lose something if you don't see it on a big screen. "
How to go
Cost is $10 per film session, or $20 for Saturday's two sessions. A $25 all-festival pass is also available at the Hollywood Premier Cinemas, off Stark Road in Starkville. For more information, go to magnoliafilmfest.com or contact Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Mag represents the aspirations and hard work of independent filmmakers of every age, background and vision. They hail from Michigan, Minnesota, Tennessee, Spain, France, Belgium -- and just up the road. Just like founder Ron Tibbett planned it.
"Having known Ron, it just means a lot to be able to do this," said Baker. "I hope he's going to be proud."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.