Cameras roll in Meridian for Rails to Reels Film Festival

Bill Graham / The Meridian Star

Roger Smith, left, manager of the Temple Theatre in Meridian, and Thomas Burton look forward to this year's Rail to Real Film Festival. Burton is the festival's organizer. The festival begins at 5:30 p.m. on Friday and runs until late into the evening, and then it takes up again at 9:30 a.m. Saturday. Awards are scheduled for about 10 p.m. Saturday.

Beginning Thursday night, the city of Meridian may take on some characteristics of a film set.

This year’s Rails to Reels Film Festival features a “FLASH Film Festival” in which two directors, Michael Williams, from West Point, and Miles Doleac, from Hattiesburg, are slated to work with crews for 48 hours as they produce two short films to be shown Saturday night before the festival's awards ceremony at the Temple Theatre.

That means some intensified, and some potentially very visible, film-making will take place in town over this period. Thomas Burton, the Rails to Reels Film Festival organizer, characterized the two directors as well-suited to the task.

“They’re relentless, and they’re fun to be around,” Burton said.

Meridian actor Elliott Street has played a key role in crafting the FLASH Film Festival and will host it, Burton said.

The directors have already sketched out plans and chosen cast members, Burton said, but people who want to be production assistants during the process can come to the Temple Theatre ballroom for a 7 p.m. Thursday meeting. He advised people to arrive at least a half-hour or so early.

“They can be put on a team, and they can learn the process first-hand,” Burton said. “They probably would help put props on a set, help with lights, make sure that things get moved properly from location to location...”

He said the process would help people interested in filmmaking snatch a close-up of the process.

“Really they’re getting a taste of what it takes to make a movie,” Burton said. “We’re just trying to inspire young people, and people who are interested.”

As for the main festival, Burton said more films focus on Meridian than in past years, and he noted the experimental nature of the storytelling for just about all the pieces. Very few, he said, follow the traditional exposition-to-conflict-to-resolution formula.

“I think they’re off the script,” he said of the films. “They’re all unique … Most of these are thumbprints of the director.”

The festival begins at 5:30 p.m. Friday and runs until late into the evening, and then it takes up again at 9:30 a.m. Saturday. Awards are scheduled for about 10 p.m. Saturday.

The offerings contain a combination of documentaries and tales spun from filmmakers’ deepest imaginations. Burton said, too, that a number of films are exploring people who live in Meridian but may not be readily known. He mentioned Chelsea Carter’s “I, Lovett” and Dale Tice’s “Little City — Big Voices” as tapping some of those personalities.

Carter, from Meridian, said the subject of her film, Wilson Lovett, carved out a career as a designer who had great success in California, among other places. He currently lives in Meridian, where Carter said he was born and raised. Carter filmed him telling his story, and she also directed about a dozen people to act out scenes for the film.

“When you look at him and you come across him, he’s a smaller man,” she said. “But he has this huge story, and he pushes other people to help him succeed. He helped highlight other people, but he never had anyone in his corner to highlight him.”

Jill Johnson’s film also focuses on a powerful designer from Meridian — and she said her contact with that designer, Barclay Fryery, helped to spark her own creativity. Johnson interviewed Fryery at his home in Meridian, where he was enduring cancer. He died in May.

“This creativity that he has was so powerful that it keeps channeling into those of us who want to carry on his legacy,” Johnson said.

Johnson, a freelance writer in Westport, Connecticut, made her film about Fryery after creating a book about him called “Cancer Looks Good on You” as he lived his last days in Meridian. The film is called “Designing from Above.”

Fryery soared as an interior designer after living much of his life in Connecticut, and Johnson worked to capture — or at least to touch — that creativity in her film. Johnson said Fryery’s work has been featured in “Elle Decor,” “House Beautiful” and a variety of other outlets.

Johnson said she tried to convey in her film a kind of deep-rooted optimism — a hard-won sort of optimism—that she felt emanating from Fryery.

“Having grown up gay in the deep south he faced a lot of obstacles as a kid,” Johnson said. “He really craved acceptance from people in Meridian.”

Burton said the festival's filmmakers tended to be involved in many phases of the process. Andy Galloway, who made the film “The Eviction,” was motivated by a homeless encampment in Dallas, Texas and spent hours beneath a bridge developing connections with the people he filmed.

“The more I was down there, the more I could be trusted,” he said. “I could only shoot from 2 to 4:30 p.m. That was the best time for light.”

For Galloway, documentary work focuses on people striving to find a voice.

“Most of my works as a documentary filmmaker are about the forgotten man and the guy who’s trying to fight the system,” Galloway said.

As Burton talked about the films, he also noted the complex narrative — storylines, he said, that are sometimes packed into very short pieces. The film “Run For It,” by Meridian resident Daniel C. Ethridge, finishes at just a hair more than four minutes, but it explores the life of a track star with a cousin who finds himself plunged into gambling.

Citing Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, Ethridge said he likes a tightly woven, intensity-laced film.

“We want everybody to be sort of out of breath from being involved in the movies,” he said.

And then there are the endings. Burton noted a number of finishes that don’t create a traditional sort of resolution — such as a film called “Almost Mine,” by Frank Ladner.

The film’s idea, Ladner explained, was sparked by questions his son asked him that led up to, in kind of crescendo-like fashion, a knock-knock joke. The man in the film, Ladner said, is “dealing with problems, with questions about whether his love will remember him.” And so he keeps asking that question, of whether she will remember him, and finally he receives a kind of answer.

Ladner, from Poplarville, said the film contrasts dramatically with the mockumentary style of his past work.

“I’ve totally abandoned the process I’m comfortable with,” he said.

And there are more, dozens more, films that may not fit in these pages — at least this time around — but that will find an audience starting at 5:30 p.m. on Friday.

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