February 14, 2008

78 films to dazzle Big Muddy Film Festival audiences

by Pete Rosenbery

Pink Hair

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Some of the nation's best independent films have been showcased during the first 29 years of the Big Muddy Film Festival at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

As the student-run film festival celebrates its 30th anniversary starting later this month, another extraordinary lineup of documentary films is among the festival's record 78 juried films. The 11-day festival is Feb. 21 through March 2 at various venues on campus, in Carbondale and around Southern Illinois. A record number of competition films prompted organizers to begin the festival — one of the oldest film festivals affiliated with a university — a day earlier than initially planned.

A total of 29 documentaries highlight this year's competition. The festival also features 26 narrative films, 13 experimental films and 10 animations films. A complete listing of competition films is at http://www.bigmuddyfilm.com/30th-2008/films.htm.

Retired Department of Cinema and Photography assistant professor Michael D. Covell founded the festival in 1979; about 50 films were considered. The festival's scope and international presence continues to grow — pre-screening committees reviewed more than 300 competition submissions from more than 20 countries.

The film festival gives Southern Illinois "a unique window on the world of independent film," said Gary P. Kolb, interim dean of the College Mass Communication and Media Arts. The student-run festival, which has a faculty coordinator, is a unique feature in the United States, he said.

"It remains one of our best drawing cards in recruiting students and faculty to come to the Department of Cinema and Photography at SIUC," Kolb said. "We are very proud of the success the festival has attained and its future looks bright."

The festival retains its premiere status and continuing growth due to the "energy and commitment of the faculty and especially the students involved with the festival," Kolb said. The festival also maintains its strong commitment "to socially relevant themes in several of its program showcases," and provides a way for the audience and filmmakers to "share common concerns about their world."

"More than anything, the festival is about people coming together for a cause they are passionate about," he said.

Hong Zhou, a visiting assistant professor in cinema and photography, is coordinating the event — a process that started in August and hasn't slowed down.

"It has been really exciting and rewarding to look at all the films and be able to be a part of it," said Zhou, who came to SIUC this fall from Toronto, where he was a cinematographer/videographer editor.

"You feel the pulse of what is going on in independent grassroots filmmaking around the country and world. You feel that you are in touch with them. It gives a good feeling and encouragement."

Internationally recognized film artists Usama Alshaibi, Jonathan Caouette and Naomi Uman are serving as jurors.

The documentaries "show various aspects of human lives and situations — postwar recuperation, urban poverty, health issues, immigration and accommodation, harmony and conflict," said graduate assistant Kwang Woo Noh, a doctoral student in the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts.

This year's committee focused on keeping Covell's original purpose and grassroots independence characteristics, along with expanding the international attention that Sally G. Shafto, last year's festival coordinator, was implementing, he said;

"Big Muddy has provided SIUC students and heartland residents with the opportunity to see the other side of the world and different voices. This year we still continue this tradition," he said.

Nineteen foreign films are in the competition; the films are from Argentina, Canada, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, Thailand, and the United Kingdom.

The festival committee is finalizing plans for a March 1 retirement reception honoring Covell, who retired in summer 2007 after teaching at SIUC for 32 years. Several Department of Cinema and Photography alumni will return for the reception at the Touch of Nature Environmental Center, said Deborah Tudor, associate professor and department chair

Covell is synonymous with the festival. He is teaching a cinematography workshop at SIUC this semester, Tudor said.

"When people around the country think of the Big Muddy Film Festival they think of Mike as well," she said. "It's part of Mike's legacy to the students. Mike worked for many years very selflessly and has given a lot of extra time to the festival. It means a lot to him and we are happy we could hold this event while the festival is running."

Tudor also stresses the students' role in the festival's continuing success.

"The students' enthusiasm is really what keeps this rolling from year-to-year since they are the volunteers who do the work," she said.

Eight independent documentary films are competing for the John Michaels Film Award, which honors the film that "best reflects today's political, social, environmental or human rights issues, and presents the most relevant and significant contribution to the discussion of today's issues," Zhou said.

Those films include:

  • "Cartoneros" — Argentina filmmaker Ernesto Livon-Grosman exposes how thousands of unemployed workers daily sort and classify garbage left by Buenos Aires residents.
  • "A Soldier's Peace" — Filmmakers Kristen and Marshall Thompson tell Marshall Thompson's story of trying a 500-mile peace walk through Utah upon his return from Iraq, where Thompson, who opposes the war, was a military journalist for the U.S. Army.
  • "Gulf War Syndrome" — Filmmaker Gary Null examines the effects of soldier's exposure to deadly chemicals while the government denies it.
  • "The Face of AIDS," — Filmmakers Doug Karr and Edward Boyce look at the impact on the lives of women living with HIV/AIDS in Malawi.

The diversity of subjects and themes in the films is a strong point, Zhou said. Several filmmakers focus on very personal issues, which is a growing trend, he said.

When a film is more personal, the filmmaker can provide a "more meaningful, more in-depth study," Zhou said.

"They are personal, but at the same time, they really show a broader relevance — whether there are social, political, economical or environmental implications," Zhou said. "These are personal films. They are very energetic and creative in their style and camera work."

Other documentary films include:

  • "99 to 1: Ovarian Cancer and Me" — Filmmaker Phoebe Brown's story after learning she developed ovarian cancer, a probability doctors believed was 99 percent unlikely.
  • "C Red Blue J" — An experimental documentary feature using director Christopher's Sollars' family to illustrate complications of division during the 2004 presidential election.
  • "Not Broken" — Armando Ibanez shares how people of different faiths – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or agnostic – utilized their faith in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to help themselves and other victims.
  • "Made in China" — Filmmaker John Helde looks at his father's childhood as a white American growing up in China in the 1930s, and tracks down his father's China-born peers to bring additional perspective.

Audience members will also get a chance to choose their personal favorites again this year for the Audience Choice Honors.

Non-competition film categories, Midnight Movies and Children's Movies, return this year and will be shown at various times. The films — in their rare original 35mm film prints — include "Easy Rider," "Chinatown," "Paprika," "The Journey of Natty Gann," and "Turtles Can Fly." The festival is also paying tribute to renowned directors Ingmar Bergman and Michalangelo Antonioni with their respective critically acclaimed films, "L'Avventura" and "Through a Looking Glass."

The specific show schedule and film location is at http://www.bigmuddyfilm.com/30th-2008/schedule.htm.

Tickets for shows at venues on campus — Student Center Auditorium, Wham's Davis Auditorium, and Parkinson Lab Auditorium — are $3 per person. Tickets for shows at Kerasotas University 8 Place Theater (1370 E. Main St., Carbondale), and the March 2 "Best of Fest," at Liberty Theater (1333 S. Walnut St., Murphysboro) are $5. Screenings at the Longbranch Coffeehouse (100 E. Jackson St., Carbondale) the Interfaith Center (913 S. Illinois Ave., Carbondale) and juror presentations at the SIUC Student Center Auditorium are free.

For more information, call 618/453-8301. Additional information on this year's festival is available at http://www.bigmuddyfilm.com/30th-2008/. The Web site features a complete history on the festival, including previous years' posters dating back to the first festival in the spring of 1979.


Big Muddy Film Festival entry — Filmmaker Phoebe Brown's introspective personal film, "99 to 1: Ovarian Cancer and Me," is one of the 29 documentaries highlighting the 30th annual Big Muddy Film Festival at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Brown's 19-minute documentary on learning she developed ovarian cancer — a probability doctors believed was 99 percent unlikely — is one of 78 films that will be shown during the 11-day festival, which runs Thursday, Feb. 21 through Sunday March 2. One of the oldest film festivals associated with a university, organizers received more than 300 competition submissions from more than 20 countries this year.

Photo provided