Inside the 2018 Tulsa American Film Festival
At the Tulsa American Film Festival (TAFF), you’ll see movies you won’t get to anywhere else.
In its 4th year, screening at Tulsa’s Circle Cinema and other venues, TAFF is expanding its scope as it continues to fulfill its purpose of providing a platform for burgeoning Oklahoma filmmakers.
TAFF also continues to do what film festivals do best: offer panels, Q&As, special events, industry guests, awards, and after-parties that connect filmmakers with audiences.
“There’s a rich film history [in Tulsa],” TAFF founder and director Ben Arredondo said. “I feel my mission with the festival is to continue to make film history for Tulsa. That’s why I’m working with people who are living here, working here, staying here, rather than depending on outsiders.”
That ethos has led to an infusion of “new blood” at TAFF, from filmmakers to staff to volunteers. Arrendondo is energized by this “changing of the guard” with people who “know what Tulsa’s all about.”
It’s also led to a lineup that’s more diverse. Having showcased Native American filmmakers during its first three years, TAFF now also includes more Latino, LGBTQ, and African-American features and shorts, plus a return of student short films.
“It would be great to see Tulsans from different types of communities come together to see different types of stories,” Arredondo said. “To see real and true independent film.”
“Film festivals elevate the art of filmmaking,” said documentarian Markie Hancock, who returns to TAFF this year (“What We Know About Eddie”). “Festivals raise our level of conversation and nourish our culture.”
“You’re surrounded by film lovers,” OKC filmmaker Mickey Reece added. (He also returns to TAFF this year with his film, “Strike, Dear Mistress, and Cure His Heart.”) “That, in some ways, feels like the equivalent of watching a movie with all of your friends.”
For TAFF’s two major events, Turner Classic Movies and FilmStruck producers Scott McGee and Gary Freedman will introduce the documentary “Hal” (about pioneering 1970s filmmaker Hal Ashby) at the Woody Guthrie Center, as well as an outdoor classic screening of the 1931 Best Picture winner, “Cimarron,” about the Oklahoma land rush. That will be held, for free, in the Kendall Whittier Parking Lot on the corner of Lewis and Admiral, adjacent to Circle Cinema.
In addition, McGee and Freedman will host an episode of their Facebook Live program, “TCM Backlot Q&A,” taking questions from festival audience members. They’ll also be present at the Studio 75 classic film-themed afterparty on Friday night.
Local student filmmakers will be featured in two major blocks: the “Future of Okie Film” Students Shorts Program, and a public reading performance of the top three finalists in a short film screenplay student contest. Those readings are directed by TU film and screenwriting professor, Michael Wright.
Breaking through the gatekeepers at Sundance and SXSW is daunting, so Arrendondo is proud that TAFF “provides a venue for young, emerging filmmakers to continue to grow, to continue to create. Distributors aren’t going to pick up films here, but we are entertainment for Tulsans and networking for filmmakers, where new connections and collaborations can happen.”
Shaz Bennett, writer/director of “Alaska Is a Drag” (who’s worked on the Ava DuVernay TV series “Queen Sugar” and now Amazon’s “Bosch”) says, “Watching great films that haven’t been released yet, and listening to the artists talk about how their films came about…there’s a vibrancy [that] shows us the future.”
As TAFF grows and evolves, Arrendondo remains sanguine. “I’m still very encouraged by the community support that we have. Gilcrease, Woody Guthrie Center, Circle Cinema, and others. The established institutions here see the value of what we’re doing with the festival.”
The Tulsa American Film Festival runs Oct. 10-14. All events are ticketed, unless noted on the schedule as free. For tickets and more information: tulsaamericanfilmfest.com
All Access Pass $50 | VIP Pass $75 | Individual screenings $10 | All events are ticketed unless noted as free
Wed., Oct. 10
Tulsa Film Mixer + Panel Series: Finding Your Documentary Story
5:30 p.m., Circle Cinema | FREE
Festival Director Ben Arredondo will moderate a conversation with a panel featuring documentary filmmaker Roberts Garrett, TU Film Studies assistant professor Michaela O’Brien, and Ok, So… Story Slam co-founder Michelle Bias.
Opening Feature & Short
7–8:30 p.m., Circle Cinema
Out of the Shadows: Postpartum
Directed by Brooke Allen | Documentary short | Okie ties
Shedding light on a potentially deadly illness, Jennifer shares her struggle with postpartum depression.
Guardian of Angels
Directed by Ensar Altay | Documentary feature
“One of the reasons I chose this film is because it made me cry like five times.” That’s how TAFF director Ben Arrendondo pinged my radar about the festival’s opening night documentary, which will be its U.S. premiere. That kind of apparent hyperbole is usually impossible to live up to, leaving a film hopelessly overhyped. But it’s not. Not this one. Not “Guardian of Angels.” For some viewers, a five-cry count will be on the low end.
The titular guardian is a single middle-aged Angeleno. His angels? The 80 foster children he’s cared for over three decades. Not just any foster children, mind you, but the most vulnerable: abused and abandoned, often disabled (sometimes severely) and, on occasion, terminally ill.
His most provocative trait, however—given today’s political climate—may be that he’s an immigrant. A Muslim immigrant.
But Mohamed Bzeek is anything but provocative. Just the opposite, in fact. Sweet, jolly, and tender, Bzeek is a saint in the city of angels. Filmmaker Ensar Altay’s documentary matches his subject’s humility, too, taking a low-key but frank approach.
The first twenty minutes are devoid of narration, interviews, commentary, or a broader context. We simply spend time with Bzeek and his current foster child, Samantha, a 6-year-old girl with an abnormally small brain. We live with them, experiencing their daily routine.
Altay expands beyond that, eventually, but aside from one brief, subtle suggestion of political commentary (by Altay, not Bzeek), this is a moving—at times overwhelming—portrait of a man who’s not trying to lionize himself or be a hero for some political narrative. He lives for these kids, his kids, alone.
By the end (and long before it), one thing becomes abundantly clear: Mohamed Bzeek may be Muslim, but you’ll never see anyone more Christ-like.
Blue Smoke: A Folk History of Oklahoma’s First and Finest Beer
7:30–8:30 p.m., Circle Cinema
Directed by Greg Singleton | Documentary short
Immigrants working in Oklahoma’s coal mines brought many traditions to Pittsburgh County at the turn of the century. One tradition resulted in a very famous and notorious beer. This event will also include short previews of the upcoming documentary features, “The 100 Mile Run” and “Nomad Cowboys.”
Opening Night Party
9 p.m.–12 a.m., Heirloom Rustic Ales | FREE
Thurs., Oct. 11
Short Film Program 1: A Little Bit of Everything
7–9:00p.m., Circle Cinema
The Scary Ham
Directed by Sue Mroz | Narrative short
Two middle-aged sisters reconnect while they sort through 50 years of family memories and contend with their late father’s beloved ham.
Martini Bombini O’Feeney Moonay
Directed by Gerard Mooney | Narrative short | Okie ties
An eight-year-old boy builds his own hydrogen-powered racecar in this hand-drawn animated short.
Melt: A Smoking Story
Directed by Jules Renault | Documentary short
Two Parisians and a Texas pitmaster come together over their love of barbecue.
Directed by Wes DeHart | Narrative short | Okie ties
A grandmother attempts to kill her annoying grandson.
Directed by Ruby Lanet | Narrative short
Thirteen-year-old Shea deals with the small but consuming pains of adolescence by writing diary letters to Sylvia Plath.
Yous Got Somethin’, Right There
Directed by John Nunn | Narrative short
Two friends try to have a nice meal.
Directed by Allen Phillips | Narrative short
Heartbroken and high from huffing gasoline, a psychotic truck driver plots revenge.
Directed by Max Federman | Narrative short | Okie ties
Two cavalry deserters in 1897 Oklahoma Territory flee the pursuit of a Pinkerton only to find something much worse waiting for them.
Directed by Troy Lustick | Narrative short
A Machiavellian plot unfolds, set against the American obsession with football.
Directed by Drew Allen, Alex Allen, and Hunter Cates | Narrative short | Okie ties
After being continually bullied at school, Raymond attempts to take matters into his own hands.
Outdoor classic film screening of “Cimarron”
7–9 p.m., Kendall Whittier Parking Lot | FREE
This 1931 film directed by Wesley Ruggles and starring Richard Dix and Irene Dunne is one of the few Westerns to win Best Picture at the Oscars. Scott McGee of Turner Classic Movies will introduce the film.
Narrative Feature & Documentary Short
8–10 p.m., Circle Cinema
Jesse Lott: Art and Activism
Directed by Cressandra Thibodeaux | Documentary short
This look at internationally-recognized artist Jesse Lott’s activism and mentors was shot by 28 at-risk teens during documentary classes taught by Thibedeaux.
Directed by Laron M. Chapman | Narrative feature | Okie ties
A black youth adopted into a white, suburban family has a crisis of ethnic identity.
TAFF + Kendall Whittier After Five After-Party
9 p.m.–midnight, Kendall Whittier Parking Lot | FREE
Following the screening of “Cimarron,” Kendall Whittier Main Street will host this party with live music from Casii Stephan.
Fri., Oct. 12
5:30–6:30 p.m., Circle Cinema | FREE
Mingle with filmmakers and learn about Oklahoma’s film incentives in this discussion led by the Oklahoma Film + Music Office
Short Film Program 2: Different Forms of Inspiration
7–8:30 p.m., Circle Cinema
Walk By Faith
Directed by Andrew Laurich | Documentary short | Okie ties
The story of how hunting helped one man see again.
Directed by Nik Kleverov | Narrative short
A young man turns to auctioneering to help with his severe stutter.
Directed by David de Rozas | Documentary short
A senior reverend seeks to preserve his legacy while facing his neighborhood’s demographic shifts.
Thy Kingdom Come
Directed by Eugene Richards | Documentary feature | Okie ties
The lives of a cancer patient, a Klansman, a mourning mother, an elderly woman, and a priest intersect in a small, middle-American town.
Q&A: Ask TCM
7:30 p.m., Circle Cinema | FREE
Ask Turner Classic Movies Producers Gary Freedman and Scott McGee all of your classic movie and TCM questions. This discussion will be filmed to air on the TCM Backlot Facebook page.
Narrative Feature & Short
8–9:30 p.m., Circle Cinema
How to Run Away from Home (and Other Useful Tips for the Road)
Directed by Braven Stone and Benjamin Hayes | Narrative short
A young runaway shares what he has learned during his travels across the southeast.
Strike, Dear Mistress, and Cure His Heart
Directed by Mickey Reece | Narrative feature | Okie ties
“What he’s doing on a microbudget,” says TAFF’s Ben Arrendondo, of OKC filmmaker Mickey Reece. “I am in awe.”
TAFF audiences who saw last year’s “Mickey Reece’s Alien”—an existential rumination on existence via a bold re-imagination of Elvis and Priscilla Presley’s marriage—know exactly what Arrendondo is in awe about.
With “Strike, Dear Mistress, and Cure His Heart,” Reece doubles-down on his unquenchable ambition.
He’s created another world that is instantly mesmerizing, not only in its quasi-Lynchian cryptic absurdity but also in its quirky yet precise language. Like a bizarre “This Is Us” / “Twin Peaks” lovechild basking in self-conscious gothic lyricism, “Strike, Dear Mistress”—about an estranged mother-daughter reunion where anger and regret explode in metaphysical melodrama—is unconventional but not experimental.
That distinction is vital, because every frame is carefully crafted with purpose and intent. You may be mystified while also hypnotized, but it’s clear that Reece knows exactly what he’s up to even when you may not. “I hope people either love it or hate it,” Reece says. “If it’s somewhere in-between, I didn’t do my job.”
Documentary Feature & Narrative Shorts
9–10:30 p.m., Circle Cinema
Zoe + Ari
Directed by Rachael Meyers | Narrative short
As Zoe and Ari pack their bags to travel to a wedding, Ari learns the truth about what Zoe’s family knows.
Directed by Bruch Becker | Narrative short
A chance meeting with a mysterious soldier changes the life trajectory of a troubled teen in a single day.
What We Know About Eddie
Directed by Markie Hancock | Documentary feature
A story of resilience and love despite the odds.
Friday Night After Party
9 p.m.–12 a.m., Studio 75 | FREE
Classic film-themed and with music from DJ Mark Kuykendall.
Sat., Oct. 13
Latino Film Program 1
12–1:30 p.m., Circle Cinema | FREE
All That We Carry
Directed by Erin Kokdil | Narrative short
A Guatemalan woman tries to make a new home in Oakland, but struggles to forget her painful past.
Directed by Gianluca Morganti | Narrative short
An undocumented immigrant works grueling hours in a restaurant kitchen to provide for his pregnant wife.
Directed by Ana Lydia Monaco | Narrative short
A woman is forced to choose between her culture or a future with the man she loves.
Directed by Felix Martez | Narrative short
A young factory manager is forced to choose between what is right and what is legal when a friend is deported following an ICE raid.
Directed by Melissa De Leon | Narrative short
Young mother Diana fears what comes in the night.
Directed by Kristofer Karlsson | Narrative short
Two young migrants attempt to cross a deadly stretch of desert near the U.S./Mexico border known as the “Devil’s Highway.”
Screenplay Readings & Luncheon
12:30 p.m., Whitty Books | FREE
Each year, TAFF holds short film screenplay readings. This year’s screenplays are “The Air Factory” by W.W. Webb, “Crystal Nation” by David Power, and “Wheat Field with Cypresses” by Joe Hayes. Lunch will be provided by Mazzio’s.
Latino Film Program 2
2–3:30 p.m., Gilcrease Museum | FREE
Directed by St. Clair Detrick-Jules | Documentary short
Nine young DACA recipients tell their wrenching tales about navigating live in Trump’s America.
Directed by Laura Somers | Narrative feature
A group of troubled teens break into the local mansion and spend the day pretending to be rich in order to forget their difficult lives.
2:30–4 p.m., Woody Guthrie Center
Directed by Amy Scott | Documentary feature
This documentary by Oklahoma native Amy Scott is a look into the life and career of the legendary director of “Harold & Maude,” “Bound for Glory,” and others, Hal Ashby.
The Future of Okie Film: Student Shorts
6:30–8 p.m., Circle Cinema | Okie ties
TAFF’s Ben Arrendondo is excited about this year’s Student Short Film Program, and it’s easy to see why. There’s more ambition than you might expect, and most entries exceed their low-to-no budget limitations in surprisingly creative ways.
The entire collection of ten shorts is produced by Oklahoma students, and it ranges from semi-autobiographical narratives to documentaries, to suspense and noir, and even the experimental. There’s more than just potential in these efforts; there’s actual artistry. What these young storytellers may lack in life experience they make up for in a cinematic sophistication beyond their years.
“I want them to not be discouraged about working in film,” Arrendondo said. “I hope that we can communicate that there’s a place to keep on doing it, here in Oklahoma.”
Directed by Spencer Patton | Narrative short
A young musician abandons his dreams to pursue other interests, only to find music has always been his purpose.
Directed by Anna Frieden | Documentary short
This film is a look into small town Oklahoma through personal recollections.
A Transmission from Oklahoma
Directed by Zach Hurley | Narrative short
A sort of quilt.
Directed by Lauren Bowman | Narrative short
This film juxtaposes the façade and the reality of a popular high-school girl.
Directed by Ethan Norvell | Narrative short
A woman seeks vengeance after being kidnapped.
Directed by Kara Singleton | Narrative short
A murder case is revisited ten years after the crime when an unlikely witness reveals new truths.
Directed by Halle Frieden | Narrative short
While looking into the disappearance of his friends, Phillip uncovers something odd about the local library.
Directed by Hayden Klein | Narrative short
An abusive relationship reaches a breaking point.
Directed by Tyler Tush | Narrative short
A film student attempts to make a film.
Directed by Matthew Hanish | Narrative short
A young man works to reconcile his past mistakes in hopes to reconnect with his family.
Narrative Feature & Short
7 p.m., Circle Cinema
Directed by Nicolas Jara | Narrative short
A gay Latino teen struggles with whether to keep his sexuality a secret or risk damaging his relationship with his family.
Alaska Is a Drag
Directed by Shaz Bennett | Narrative feature
Earnest and artful in equal measure, “Alaska is A Drag” is more fun than burdened, more personal than political, and defiant without being dismissive. It’s also gracefully rendered, with striking images and evocative flashback inserts that recall Jean-Marc Vallée’s recent HBO hits “Big Little Lies” and “Sharp Objects.”
Set in a remote Alaska fishing town, Leo is a young black gay man who aspires to be a drag queen superstar, with dreams of running off to Los Angeles with his twin sister and soul mate Tristen. Leo’s a fish that wants to get out of his conservative water, and a local drag contest may be the gateway.
Leo’s strong and athletic, too, and an amateur boxing plotline serves as a contrast that allows writer/director Shaz Bennett to, in her words, “dive deep into gender and the labels of masculine and feminine. Why is one considered stronger or more powerful?”
Bennett takes jabs at religion and macho culture in the process but only after they swing at Leo first, and there’s a more nuanced arc in Leo and Tristen’s conflicted relationship with their street preacher father.
TV stars pepper the supporting cast (Matt Dallas, Christopher O’Shea, Margaret Cho) along with some vets (Nia Peeples, Jason Scott Lee), from a director whose career is starting to take off. But it’s YouTube stars Martin L. Washington, Jr. and “Shameless” Maya Washington (who aren’t real-life siblings but sure have a bond like one) that make this sincere melodrama sparkle rather than be, well, a drag.
Saturday Night After Party
9 p.m.–12 a.m., The Beehive Lounge | FREE
Native Film Program 1
1–2:30 p.m., Gilcrease Museum | FREE
Directed by Randi LeClair | Narrative short
After two high school football stars are found dead, decades of racial tension boil over in a small town diner.
Directed by Maya Craig | Documentary short
A third generation rancher in California’s Central Valley recounts the disappearance of Tulare Lake and the demise of the Native American tribes who relied on it.
Our Tiospaye // Our Family
Directed by Meg Griffiths and Scott Faris | Documentary short
Three Teach for America educators with disparate perspectives discover a deeper purpose while living and working in South Dakota.
Uktena and Thunder
Directed by Joseph Herb | Narrative short
Two boys feed a small starving snake who then grows up to fight Thunder in this animated short.
The Violence of a Civilization Without Secrets
Directed by Adam Khalil | Documentary short
An urgent reflection on indigenous sovereignty, the undead violence of museum archives, and postmortem justice through the case of the “Kennewick Man.”
Directed by Boise Esquerra | Narrative short
A lonely and bitter cowboy is set at ease when he crosses paths with a promiscuous vagabond.
Directed by Douglas Cushnie | Narrative short
An Indigenous Californian woman in the early 1800s faces a battle to survive after being emancipated from the abusive Los Angeles mission where she was raised.
Native Film Program 2
2:30–4 p.m., Gilcrease Museum | FREE
Lakota in America
Directed by Malcolm Pullinger | Documentary short
On the Cheyenne River Reservation—one of the poorest communities in the country—Genevieve Iron Lightning, a Lakota teenager finds hope for her future.
Defending the Fire
Directed by David Aubrey | Narrative feature
“This is one I chose right away,” said Ben Arrendondo. "Defending the Fire" is a documentary about Native American veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces who “fought for a country that hasn’t treated them very well.”
There’s a common perception that Native pride and American patriotism are at odds with each other, a conflict between two cultures that’s inextricable from our country’s historical DNA. There is, not doubt, truth to that perception—but, as this film shows, it’s not a simple binary.
For some Natives, the two are one.
“Defending the Fire,” the second documentary from David Aubrey about a specific strand Native American life, is a portrait of Native Americans who’ve served proudly in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.
Interviewing vets of every conflict from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan—including actor Wes Studi, who also narrates—“Defending the Fire” not only shares their stories and honors their service, but it illuminates how that service is their way of carrying on one of many tribes’ most noble traditions: being a warrior.
That identity is rooted in legends like Crazy Horse, an ethos defined by courage and sacrifice, of protecting their people and their sacred land.
Through their military service, these Natives uphold and continue this heritage. And through “Defending the Fire,” divisions between Native and Anglo Americans fall away, replaced by a newfound respect that can inspire, heal, and unite.
Short Film Program 3: Family & Friends
7:30–9:30 p.m., Circle Cinema
Directed by Grant Moore | Narrative short
After accidentally freezing the family dog to death, Oscar attempts to make good with his soon-to-be stepson by driving the family pet’s ashes across the country.
Story of Self
Directed by Set Hernandez Rongkilyo | Documentary short
What does it mean to choose when there is only one choice? What does it mean to have a story when you’re undocumented?
Do We Belong?
Directed by Sofian Khan | Documentary short
An Indian immigrant in Kansas is shot and killed in a senseless hate crime, leaving his wife to grapple with the questions of whether America is truly her home.
Willow Creek Road
Directed by Francesca Mirabella | Narrative short
Ruth is a lonely Montana ranch hand.
Directed by Cirle | Narrative short
When a teenager gets a seemingly depressed man to open up, she discovers he’s on his way to commit a horrible act.
Pat and Joe
Directed by Ethan Capello | Narrative short
A man misses his wife.
Directed by Amanda Renee Knox | Narrative short
While on routine patrol in Inglewood, a disturbance forces a black cop to make a decision that could change her life.
Directed by Ryan Hart | Narrative short
An ailing vagabond moves on down the road.
Directed by Kyle Bergersen | Narrative short
A man accidentally transports back in time and tries to seduce the younger version of his wife. However, his younger self stands in the way.
Rock Paper Scissors
Directed by Brian Lawes | Narrative short | Okie ties
A boy and girl must exchange numbers at an intersection before the light turns green.
TAFF Awards Show
6 p.m., Circle Cinema | FREE
Festival organizers announce winners in several awards categories and present the Bill Blair Awards for Contribution to Film in Tulsa.