Kansas City FilmFest focuses lens on local artists

KANSAS CITY, MO — Kicking off Wednesday at Cinemark Palace on the Plaza in Kansas City, MO, the 22nd annual Kansas City FilmFest will feature more than 100 local, regional, national and international films through Sunday. I caught wind of this festival while in town for Kansas City Ballet’s 60th anniversary performances, and was delighted to see that it’s not just the live arts which are thriving in this city.

Indeed, a plucky community of local artists and unique film incentives have created a veritable filmmaking mecca in America’s heartland. The KC Film Office is a driving force in the city, tasked with recruiting filmmakers to take advantage of what KC has to offer, and bolstering the city’s working artists to do the same.

“We don’t need to be Los Angeles; we don’t need to be New York; we don’t need to be Chicago,” said Kansas City Film Commissioner Stephanie Scupham. “The more our own creatives are creating here, the bigger and better we get, the higher the quality is, and the more we work together and are seen on the screen — this creates more opportunities for tourism. And the film industry is starting to pay attention to us.”

Scupham serves as a liaison to filmmakers through the KC Film Office, a division of Visit KC (a non-profit economic development organization dedicated to tourism in the city). The KC FilmFest runs independently from the Film Office, however both organizations are bilaterally focused on elevating and promoting local artists and films.

Belong to Us premieres Thursday, directed and produced by local filmmaker Patrick Rea. Rea shot the film entirely in the region and used a primarily KC-based team (local artists are also eligible for the film incentive). He grew up in the small town of Schuyler, Nebraska, getting his start at Channel 99, a television station at his high school. Rea attended film school at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, KS, and never left the area. After college, he worked in Lawrence at the local television station, making films on the side. “I eventually moved to Kansas City, and kept making stuff… I dropped my part-time job in 2010 and haven’t looked back,” he said.

Still from “Belong to Us,” premiering Thursday at the Kansas City FilmFest | courtesy of KC FilmFest

Rea’s reputation is in the horror/suspense genre, but Belong to Us is a flick for everyone. “It’s a little bit of a change of pace for me, but I’m a family man,” he said in an interview at Thou Mayest as his infant daughter slept beside him. “It shows a different side of me,” he said.

Screenwriter Amber Rapp approached Rea about directing Belong to Us, and he was drawn to its clever script. He admitted he was also a bit scared by the challenge of working with children and animals, and saw an opportunity to push outside his comfort zone. “For me as a director, it helped me to diversify a little bit, and make myself more marketable as a director,” he said.

One of the central characters is Duke, a dog rescued from a dog-fighting ring by Paige (Brooklyn Funk). Paige, a pre-teen, initially keeps Duke a secret from her single dad Travis (Ryan O’Nan). Duke turns out to be a force for good in their strained relationship, but “the movie’s not really about the dog,” he said. “It’s more about how the family is brought together by having [him].”

Following Thursday’s screening of Belong to Us at 6 p.m., jump over to Jon Brick’s Uncommon Allies. This documentary feature tells the story of Rosilyn Temple, the founder of KC Mothers in Charge. Temple’s son was murdered in 2011, and she has since has dedicated her life to the residents of Kansas City, visiting nearly every homicide scene to console victims’ loved ones and act as a liaison between the police and grieving families.

“My mom had seen Rosilyn on the news, and called her to ask how she could volunteer to help,” said Brick, who joined me after Rea at Thou Mayest. “My mom was trying to help her get her non-profit set up, and asked if my brother and I, as a favor, would make a promotional video for Mothers in Charge.”

In telling Rosilyn’s story, Brick started to realize that Uncommon Allies was also telling the story of how the police department is trying to improve trust in the community through transparency. “The police in Kansas City are doing things differently than most any other city in the country,” he said. “They have a really different approach to interacting with people. There’s a huge difference in the mentality. The film really became about police/community relations.”

Still from “Uncommon Allies,” screening Thursday at the Kansas City FilmFest | courtesy of KC FilmFest

A big part of that difference between KC and other cities is Rosilyn Temple, although Brick said the current police chief had begun to increase transparency prior to the formation of Mothers in Charge. “She’s just as much an asset to the police as the police are to her,” he said. “There’s no one, really, anywhere that facilitates the period between when the cops tell the families that their kids have been murdered. There’s no job description for that.”

Uncommon Allies received high praise at last year’s premiere, and has also been selected for the 2018 Newport Beach Film Festival. But it seems, above all, an ideal example of KC FlimFest’s priorities: highlight exemplary work created for, about, and by Kansas Citians. Born and raised in Kansas City, Brick returned permanently after 13 years in California and another abroad. “It’s affordable and less stressful. It’s just easier,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine going back out to L.A. It’s a totally different mentality.” With a home base here, Brick collaborates frequently with clients on the coasts. When they visit, “it’s like a culture shock,” he said. “But when they’re here, they’re like, ‘This city’s great!'”

Scupham concurred. “The challenge is getting them here,” she said. “But once they’re here, they love it.”

The 22nd Kansas City FilmFest takes place April 11-15 at the Cinemark Palace on the Plaza, 526 Nichols Rd., Kansas City. Individual tickets are $10, with festival passes available for $80, available at kcfilmfest.org.