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Entering its fourth decade, the Nashville Independent Film Festival is getting a new life

By Angela Wibking

JUNE 7, 1999:  Turning 30 years old is a milestone for anyone. For the Nashville Independent Film Festival, turning 30 this year means that it now belongs to an elite group of long-running festivals--a list that includes Cannes (57 this year) but not Sundance (a mere 14), New York (age 37) but not Los Angeles (just 5). Still, despite its years, the Nashville festival is only beginning to achieve the national and international recognition that other, far younger events enjoy.

That's partly because until 1998 there was no Nashville Independent Film Festival; instead, there was the Sinking Creek Film and Video Festival. The predecessor to NIFF, Sinking Creek has a different sort of history than the younger film festivals: It wasn't founded by a group of film professionals or an organization, but by a single individual who had no ties to the movie industry at all.

Mary Jane Coleman, an attorney's wife in the East Tennessee town of Greeneville, first encountered independent film while serving on a grants committee of the Tennessee Arts Commission. It was love at first frame, and Coleman decided to find a way to encourage and promote independent filmmakers. To that end, she founded the Sinking Creek Film Celebration in 1969 and named it after a stream near her home.

For three years Sinking Creek was held at Tusculum College in Greeneville. Then, with Coleman still in charge, it moved to Nashville and the Vanderbilt University campus.

Marilyn Murphy--visual artist, chair of the Vanderbilt art department, and a member of the film festival board for a decade--recalls those early years. "The festival was for small experimental filmmakers in those days--there wasn't anything remotely resembling what we know as independent film today," she says. "Of course, I was particularly interested in film as an art medium, and the festival brought in lots of big animation names. I carted filmmakers around, took them out to hear music, and was a sort of an unofficial tour guide."

That kind of personal touch and the nurturing environment of the festival in general gained Sinking Creek high regard among the experimental filmmakers it championed--if not a very high profile with the public.

Throughout the 1970s and '80s, the festival remained under the artistic direction of Coleman, though it had various co-directors and business administrators, including former Nashville artist Meryl Truett. By the late 1980s, independent filmmaking was finding its way into mainstream America's vocabulary and, more importantly, beginning to register with filmgoers at the box office. Festivals celebrating independent films began popping up everywhere. Hollywood took notice, and major studios and cable television started shopping for product at the annual events.

But at Sinking Creek, audience numbers were--well, sinking. The board was understandably concerned with the festival's future and recognized the need for change. The most successful festivals in the country were offering more feature-length narrative films, more and bigger acting and directing names, more informative workshops. And most other festivals had a name that said something about the event, geographically or thematically.

"The name had always been a bit of a problem," Murphy says. "It sounded small and insignificant and didn't give any idea of where the festival was."

Not surprisingly, Coleman didn't see it that way. When the board prevailed on a new name and new direction for the festival, its founder bowed out of all involvement.

Michael Catalano was brought in as executive/artistic director in 1997 and oversaw that year's festival in November. It would be the last held under the name Sinking Creek, the last held on the Vanderbilt campus, and the last held in the fall. In June 1998, the Nashville Independent Film Festival was inaugurated at the Belcourt Theater. Stocked with more varied film offerings and workshops, along with a few star names, the 1998 festival was also better promoted by Catalano and his assistant Kelly Brownlee. At the end of the NIFF's five days, it had posted an astounding 94-percent increase in attendance over the previous year.

This year, the festival's relocation to the Regal Green Hills Commons 16 should edge it even closer to the major leagues. "We've moved from a student center to an old arthouse to a state-of-the-art theater," Catalano says. "Regal is donating the space, so it's a very pleasant move financially."

It's the kind of commercial association the original festival would have balked at, but it will almost certainly attract even bigger audiences to festival screenings. Regal uses its Green Hills screens as its main venue for high-profile independent and foreign films, so Nashville-area filmgoers have already been going there to see Life Is Beautiful and Shakespeare in Love. Drawing that filmgoer one step further--to attend an independent film festival--while also turning longtime festival fans into Regal customers makes the alliance a logical one. "It works for everyone," Catalano says.

This year's lineup of 175 works, selected from 600 entries, includes feature films like Desert Blue and Free Enterprise that star well-known actors--among them Christina Ricci, Sara Gilbert, John Heard, William Shatner, and Will & Grace star Eric McCormack--as well as The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III, the latest documentary from director Penelope Spheeris (Wayne's World). But this year it may be the local filmmakers who earn the loudest applause--and give the festival an identity it's been lacking.

"It makes sense for us to have the world premiere of [country singer] Mark Collie's film about Johnny Cash (I Still Miss Someone) and Gary Morris' A Gift to the Tretyakov," Catalano says. Other Nashville-born or country music-inspired works that will be screened include Marvin Baker and Ann Gillis' spoof of independent filmmaking Films That Suck; the country-music send-up Dill Scallion; and Coke Sams' musical satire Existo.

"I've seen the rough cuts of Existo," says Murphy, who has known Sams and others involved in the film for years. "It's so creative, and the music is great. I think it's really going to be a big deal."

Purists may argue that today's film festivals are more about making that big deal than about making films. Still, no one in the growing festival audiences--and in the multiplex cinemas where the festival hits end up--seems to be complaining.

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