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Miriam Bale: Indie Memphis 2020

This year Indie Memphis Film Festival held a combination of virtual and outdoor screenings meaning we got to view most of the film programme all the way from London! The programme included a vibrant mix of genres championing newcomers to the film industry and felt a welcome space for films of a more political nature uplifting voices which often aren't given a platform.

We had the honour of getting to ask the festival's artistic director Miriam Bale about this year's approach to Indie Memphis but first, here are our highlights of the festival...

Pier Kids (2019) directed by Elegance Bratton: Influenced by Marlon Riggs' work, particularly Tongues Untied and relating to his own experience of becoming homeless after coming out to his parents, Bratton's documentary focuses on a community of homeless Black queer and trans youth whom meet at Manhattan's Christopher Street Pier. The pier has become a sacred space to connect although as the film shows, this community are increasingly being moved on due to gentrification and a police presence. Pier Kids comprises stories of survival allowing the participants to speak for themselves in a world that has tried to silence them to the margins. There's no doubt a bleakness and brutality to the experiences these individuals have gone through but there's also power in their resilience, creativity and ability to build chosen families.

The Giverny Document (Single Channel) (2019) directed by Ja'Tovia Gary: Gary's "cinematic poem" is an extraordinary piece of art. Between Harlem and Giverny (where Claude Monet spent the final 40 years of his life), the safety and autonomy of Black women is explored with interviews, archives and animation among other forms of visual language, and in turn Gary's film feels as though it is a language all of its own in the best way film often can. During in an interview with artnet this year, Gary said "I can give you answers, but to me that doesn’t mean anything. I want to activate you. I’m trying to move the molecules in the room." The Giverny Document (Single Channel) sure does do that.

Cane Fire (2020) directed by Anthony Banua-Simon: The history of Hawai'i for those of us beyond its shores has been imagined and diluted through the eyes of colonial and imperial forces. Banua-Simon counters this with an account of the Island of Kaua'i by interrogating its depictions in film, interviewing his family members and indigenous activists. This documentary ultimately is about the exploitation of Kaua'i's land and people as well as their resistance in its many forms. Cane Fire is a vital record and one of the few films that centres the people of Kaua'i in their own story. (Now available to view online at Hawai'i International Film Festival until 29 November).

Unapologetic (2016) directed by Ashley O'shay: This film feels the most pertinent to 2020 despite being filmed five years earlier. The documentary follows abolitionist activists Jana and Bella in Chicago. We get to see a full picture of an activist's life: we see Jana and Bella in protest, in education, in conversation with their community strengthening community bonds, we see them lead and speak (or in Bella's case, in poetic flow) to crowds, we see them celebrating with friends and family, we see them creating, and we see how tired they are from fighting against police brutality, corrupt local government and incarceration. "This community of women are warriors" - Bella Bahhs. This film will ignite a fire within you if it's not already burning bright.

Shiva Baby (2020) directed by Emma Seligman: A hilarious debut feature from Seligman capturing the anxieties of a young person trying to meet everyone's expectations. College graduate Danielle (Rachel Sennott) rushes from her sugar daddy's (whom she's connected with through an app) apartment to meet her parents at a distant relative's shiva. Unexpectedly her ex-girlfriend (Molly Gordon) and sugar daddy (Danny Deferrari) are both at the shiva and later arrives his wife (Dianna Agron) and baby daughter. A relatable existential crisis unfolds in a slick 77 minutes and for once a film depicting queer relations doesn't have a bleak ending...


Amy Watts: When did you get involved with Indie Memphis and what attracted you to it?

Miriam Bale: I got involved with Indie Memphis as a juror in 2017. I had heard it was one of the only independent films with significant Black audiences, and it was! Later that year they were hiring a new programmer and I put my hat in. I was drawn to the city of Memphis, to the ambitious programming, and to the very nice and capable team.

AW: What does the festival mean to the local community in Memphis and what does it personally mean to you?

MB: Ah wow, I can’t really answer for the local community because that community is so diverse. I don’t just mean diverse by demographics (though that too). In short, Indie Memphis plays an essential role for emerging filmmakers and for art house film fans in Memphis. The festival to me means a little utopia in the film industry, where things are how they could be elsewhere.

AW: What do you hope audiences gain from this year's lineup of films?

MB: I usually don’t pick films with a theme in mind. This year was a little different, though. The one consistency about this year was that we were having a major election on November 3, just after the festival. I knew that politics, anxiety, and frustration would be a part of everyone’s emotional make up in October, so I wanted to address that. So many of our films are about politics in some way, about electoral politics but not solely. They’re about activism, labor history, gentrification, so much… Sometimes they’re about creative responses one can take to frustration with politics. Two very different creative responses are The Giverny Document (Single Channel) and American Thief.

There was no specific goal with these films about politics, just education and engagement in many forms. The other important thing is I don’t think any of these films are didactic about politics, nor propaganda. A lot of films are a form of propaganda, whether it’s about something I agree with or something I don’t. I want to push against that with the films we show.

AW: If you had to choose one film or event of this year's festival that you were most excited about - what would it be?

MB: I think I was most excited about our pet party. We decided to have a party to meet all of our comfort animals (some of whom keep interrupting our meetings and Q&As) instead of a cocktail party. This was something that was very reflective of this lockdown era and also only possible during a virtual fest. Someone brought a llama. It was great.

AW: This is a bit of a big question...Indie Memphis doesn't have a programme featuring a majority of white filmmakers or male filmmakers like a lot of other festivals do and likewise the team behind the festival is not all white and male. Do you think we're at a turning point in the film industry and specifically within the world of film festivals where BIPOC filmmakers and programmers are going to be showcased and given the opportunities they should have always been given or do you think we have a long way to go before that? What needs to happen beyond representation? Is it a case of we need to build up new organisations within the film industry such as distribution companies, award bodies and film festivals?

MB: I love this question! I love that you notice this. It’s a hard thing to get across. We’re not a Black film festival, but we support Black filmmakers from all over the Diaspora and The Continent (shout out especially to our brothers and sisters in Ghana and Brazil this year). We are not a women’s festival, but we have only women programmers. Our main goals are, like you noted, 1) to have a specific vision that encompasses daring, imaginative, fun, and intelligent independent filmmaking, and 2) to be a space where white men don’t dominate as they do most other festival spaces.

As far as where we are now? If we’re at a turning point in the industry? I don’t know. I wish I were more confident. I feel very lucky, like we’ve been in a little ideal bubble in Memphis. A lot of this is due to the guidance of our executive director Ryan Watt. Now he’s a white guy, so that may seem strange! But I think Ryan is the model ally. How does he do that? By raising money, offering faith, supporting, being happy to learn every day, and then getting out of the way.

Unfortunately when I step outside of our little bubble, I find there are white people in charge who express interest in diversity and inclusion, yet want to hold onto power. They bring in BIPOC advisors or contractors, sometimes staff, but often in tokenistic roles. Those tokenistic roles do more harm than good, especially to the people in those roles and to their communities. It’s isolating, creates competition, makes people “represent” their people, when no one can nor should do that.

One thing I realized is that at a Indie Memphis we don’t have panels about “diversity.” We have panels about specific issues and ideas, with mainly BIPOC people speaking on these. So I’d like to think the film industry is making progress and real change, but in some ways it’s the “diversity industry” that is the final hurdle.

AW: The pandemic has disrupted the film industry and unfortunately is a very real threat to the longevity of many cinemas. What would you like to come out of this disruption?

MB: Another great question! And again something I can’t claim to know. I think we’re all just figuring it out now. I would like the return to cinemas and events to be more meaningful, and I think that’s going to have to be the case. None of us will take it for granted anymore, I hope. My goodness I miss feeling the vibe in an audience, sharing laughter, even hearing silence at the end of the film.

But we’ve been able to connect more internationally in a virtual sphere, which has always been our goal and one that seemed hard to reach with the extremely limited budget we have. I realize now we just weren’t thinking creatively enough about it, nor are utilizing tools already at our disposal.

Another thing I noticed is that we can take more risks with programming an online festival. So many people were watching and enjoying experimental shorts and features this year, much more than ever before! I’m not exactly sure why this is. Maybe there’s less pressure when people are watching on their own instead of in a theater. They don’t have that feeling of: “Are other people in this audience getting it in a way that I am not?” Whatever it is, it’s so exciting as a programmer.

AW: Fun final question - if you could only watch the work of 5 filmmakers for the rest of your life, who would they be?

MB: First of all, I love this question but also want to point out the faultiness of the premise. If I want to choose filmmakers with a vast body of work to sustain me, I would have to choose white men! Very few women and Black directors, for instance, have been able to make more than one or two films. So after that important context, I would choose Howard Hawks, Elaine May, Nicholas Ray, Michael Powell, and Jacques Rivette.

She got me there... Go to Indie Memphis' website for details of this year's full line-up and check out the films' individual websites to find out where you can view them next!


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