Nashville Film Festival Puts a Spotlight on Region’s Diversity

If there’s a common theme weaved throughout the 2018 Nashville Film Festival, it’s a strong sense of diversity. With submissions from more than 135 countries and female filmmakers making up more than 40% of the film bracket, in addition to several films led by African-Americans and those who defy gender norms, filmmakers from wide-ranging backgrounds are turning to the Nashville Film Festival as an outlet to share their voices.

“The storytelling has gotten deeper,” artistic director Brian Owens says of the 2018 festival, which runs May 10-19 at Regal Hollywood Stadium 27. “These films really address the now, all the way through the program. There really seems to be an urgency that wasn’t there before. It’s a reflection of the times.”

This sense of urgency is mirrored in the festival’s numerous documentaries, a category in which the presence of women is prominent across a variety of socially conscious films. “Dark Money” is one example, in which creator Kimberly Reed unveils the corruption in the state representative race in her home state of Montana. Dava Whisenant’s “Bathtubs Over Broadway,” starring Martin Short, David Letterman and Florence Henderson, and “Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland” are both noteworthy pieces, along with “Crime + Punishment” as it explores the corruption in the New York Police Department and the death of Eric Garner.

“Women are creating content equal to the amount that men are and I think the program needs to reflect that,” Owens says.

The features section also represents a range of voices, with more than half of the 14 films selected created by women and people of varying ethnicities. Owens cites “Angels Wear White,” a Chinese film written and directed by Vivian Qu that tells the story of a young illegal immigrant who witnesses the sexual assault of two young girls by a government official, as one of the most intriguing pieces filmgoers will see.

“I love the fact that it’s this very feminist story, but also told as a very thrilling, interesting and morally ponderous mystery,” he says.

The diversity of these films is a direct reflection of the diverse cultures that make up the Nashville filmgoing audience. The city itself is home to large Indian, Chinese and Korean populations, in addition to housing the largest community of Kurdish people in the country.

“One of the things I think that people outside of Nashville don’t necessarily know is how incredibly diverse this city is … and they all crave cinema. There’s an audience for everything,” Owens says, calling the Kurdish film “On Her Shoulders” “one of the most moving pieces of cinema people see this year. It’s nice throwing an event that brings members of all those communities together so that they can tell their stories and how they related in different ways to a film.”

“There are a ton of creative opportunities in Nashville. We have all these different ethnic populations that have come into this wonderful melting pot that’s full of tons of creative people,” adds Nashville Film Festival CEO Ted Crockett. “We try to program things that will create interest and introduce people to either an idea that is new to them, to a culture that they’re unaware of, or just art.”

Owens also describes the Nashville audience as a strong indicator for filmmakers who present here as to what may be successful in other markets, using the example of James Keach’s documentary “Glen Campbell … I’ll Be Me,” that premiered at the festival in 2014 and went on to score an Oscar nomination and become CNN’s most-watched film of the year, as evidence of Nashville’s ability to identify impactful pictures.

“[The] audience is diverse in so many ways that I think it means that you can reach a broader audience as well. If they become passionate about something, then it’s proof to the maker, to the distributor, that it should be a hit on their hands. That’s the type of audience we have,” Owens says.

One of the biggest challenges that comes with planning a film festival in Nashville is competing against the high volume of entertainment options the city has to offer. One way the festival carves its own niche is by keeping a close eye on stories that reflect the people of the region. Though the Nashville film audience tends to appreciate all types of cinema, the 2018 festival is bookended with pictures tailored for the area, with the music documentary “Steven Tyler: Out on a Limb” making its world premiere on opening night, while “Hillbilly,” a documentary studying the stereotypes associated with the Appalachian region, premieres on the final day.

“Each year, we keep getting more and more people coming in from out of town because Nashville keeps growing as an attractive city for tourism,” Owens says. “There’s this belief that we’re not an arthouse town, but we are.”

For Crockett, one area of growth the festival could expand upon is its splatform for filmmakers to make deals. It continues to generate these opportunities for creatives by adding the event the Pitch that allows 10 film, book or screenplay writers to pitch their content to a panel of entertainment industry professionals in hopes of scoring a deal, expanding the Creator’s Conference to 24 sessions and creating the Actor’s Challenge that pairs actors with up-and-coming filmmakers in Nashville.

“As word spreads that we’re making deals here, more people will enter, which will up our quality and increase the number of chances that we will make deals,” Crockett says.

As the festival and its audience continues to evolve, Owens points to Nashville’s diversity, accessibility and sense of community as the factors that make the festival so alluring for filmmakers across the globe.

“We really try to create a sense of community and make sure that that community includes the filmmakers, the filmgoers and our members,” he says. “If we let them know that they’re part of a community, then they’re going to want to come back.”

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