28th Kansas City FilmFest International: Uplifting stories, tough issues and a dash of fun

Still from Men Like You

It’s time to get your tickets for the 28th Kansas City FilmFest International, which runs April 11-14, at the AMC Ward Parkway 14. The four-day, juried festival offers more than 100 films from all over the world in five categories: Narrative Feature, Documentary Feature, Narrative Short, Documentary Short and Heartland Student Short. 

Among the five jurors for KCFFI is professor/journalist/filmmaker Stacey Woelfel, whose criteria for a strong documentary, not dissimilar to a narrative film checklist, boils down to character and story. “I want to see the characters go on a journey,” says Woelfel. “It can be physical, metaphorical, intellectual. The craft should be good enough that it doesn’t get in the way of the storytelling.”  

Still from White Buffalo

Documentary Shorts and Features 

Some of the documentary shorts and features being featured at this year’s KCFFI are the following:  

“An Open Door – Temple Grandin.” John Barnhardt’s portrait of Dr. Temple Grandin, a renowned champion for humane treatment of livestock, autism rights and inclusive neurodiversity, is a testament to how disability can be redesigned to develop and empower, rather than limit, personal growth. 

“Breaking Form.” Alexandra Nikolchev tells the career of groundbreaking choreographer Jane Comfort. Attributing an early observation of Merce Cunningham to her passion for dance’s possibilities, Comfort eventually found herself studying with Cunningham and finding her own professional footing in 1970s New York. “We weren’t doing dancy-dance,” says Comfort. “We were doing movement theatre.” 

“Black Sugar Red Blood.” Luigi Toscano’s exhaustive efforts to help Anna Strishkowa, an 81-year-old microbiologist living in Kyiv, trace her identity as an Auschwitz survivor whose adoptive parents removed the tattoo number 69929 (documented in a Soviet film from 1945), from her arm. Their efforts are tested by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Toscano’s own doubts of the number’s accuracy. 

“Garland Jeffreys: The King of In Between.” Claire Jeffreys celebrates the legendary singer/songwriter, who is also her husband. The Brooklyn-born Garland Jeffreys’ career encompasses folk, soul and rock, and his songwriting is lauded by Bruce Springsteen, Graham Parker, Vernon Reid and Alejandro Escovedo, all of whom appear in the film. Likewise does Laurie Anderson, whose husband, the late Lou Reed, was an ardent fan and supporter of Jeffreys. The documentary is a bittersweet testament to what the director calls Jeffreys’ “stubbornness of spirit.”  

“I’m So Glad: Kansas City and the Roots of Black Gospel Music.” Paul Weske assembles authors, musicians and evangelical leaders to build a living history of Kansas City’s unique gospel voice for which Western University (1881-1943) and the African Methodist Episcopal Church provided the connecting tissue. The power of the music, according to Bishop Cortez Vaughn, will “make you give your life to Christ and you have no idea what just happened.” 

“Renter Revolt: Housing and Human Rights in America’s Heartland.” Isabel Evans’ TIME Magazine-produced documentary short evolved from a friendship with Tara Raghuveer, one of the founders of KC Tenants, the 2019-formed non-profit tenant’s union. Evans parallels the group’s successful eviction protests at COVID’s height with interviews with landlords’ reactions that, predictably, pale in substance with the complaints against them. “We were eager to work with TIME,” says Evans, “because of their emphasis on covering housing and its importance to the national political conversation.  

“Vibrations: Dharma Punks.” Director Benjamin Steger and co-producer Lisa Thrasher travel to the punk scene in Indonesia. Tracing the movement’s rise to the 1998 resignation of totalitarian leader Suharto and his New Order regime, Steger speaks with performers all playing with a DIY spirit and adopting the attitude of dharma (harmony) in approaching their music. 

White Buffalo Presents: Voices of the West.” Director/cinematographer Cam Mackey salutes the Native American contributions to American cowboy culture. Country music singer Ian Munsick, who grew up in Wyoming, co-produced the film, and speaks to his friends from the Crow and Blackfeet reservations in Montana and speaks to representatives from Tohono O’Odham Nation. 

The Last Butterflies

Narrative Shorts

The selection of the narrative shorts and features includes the following: 

“The Idea of You.” Michael Showalter’s May/December comedy gets its festival slot in advance of its Amazon Prime appearance next month. 

“Last of the Butterflies.” Patrick Rea delivers a thoughtful portrait of ecological apocalypse in one of three entries the director submitted to this year’s festival. Rea, who shot the film mostly in Mound City, Kansas, hopes the growing talent pool in Kansas City will “sustain a great filmmaking community.” 

“Letters Home.” Writer/director Scott Roberts takes us back to late ‘90s Platte City, where he grew up, for an endearing look at family and identity. 

“The Martini Shot.” Steven Wallis’ jauntily meta production casts Mathew Modine as a director (part John Huston/part Orson Welles) trying to havoc-proof his last movie while exchanging barbs with his caustic doctor (John Cleese). Derek Jacobi also stars.

“Men Like You.” Todd Norris’ musical short veers from black-and-white to splashy ‘80s color in this tale of abuse and collective rage. Using sound to his advantage, Norris turns a producer’s barrage of insults into a cacophony of the dancers’ inner fears voiced aloud. 

“Midwest Skidmark.” Director Phillip Arthur Dixon and writer Max Heering bring the party to the screen with a comedic haphazardness on subjects as disparate as donuts and culturally inclusive terms.  

Still from Out of the Plains

“Out of the Plains” Director Eric Atwood, who recently passed away, dedicated this tale of revenge and redemption instigated by a shooting on the highway outside a small town in Kansas to Ivón Martinez, who died earlier this year and whose character, Eva, is the anguished pawn of the film’s story.  

“The Red Suitcase.” Cyrus Neshvad gives a compact and harrowing glimpse into the arranged marriage of a young girl and her attempts to elude her waiting groom at the airport. The Luxembourg-shot film closes with an ending that evokes all the wonder and potential left to chance as a bus passes a sign, read backwards: “Your Gateway.” 

“Valley of Exile.” Anna Fahr examines two sisters fleeing war-torn Damascus and how they adjust to life in a settlement camp in Lebanon. The politics of what constitutes temporary housing and the refugee women’s response to that action are heartbreaking.  

For more information on films and showtimes, visit kcfilmfest.org. 

Mel Neet

Mel Neet is a writer who lives in Kansas City. She has had residencies with Kansas City's Charlotte Street Foundation and with Escape to Create in Seaside, Fla. Her byline has appeared in “Pitch Weekly,” “The Kansas City Star” and “Brooklyn Rail.”

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