Four nights packed with documentary-style films, community conversations, live music, local cuisine and real stories. Waco Independent Film Festival hosted its second annual Reel Stories: Inspiring Real Change Film Festival this past week and it prompted inspiring dialogues and movements to improve Waco.
This past July Waco Independent Film Festival — Formerly Deep in the Heart Film Festival — showcased 104 films packed into four days, whereas Reel Stories showed four films in the same amount of time. Operations Director of the film festival Louis Hunter said this slower-paced festival is deliberate and more intentional.
“What I learned is there is a good appetite in Waco for the appreciation of film,” Hunter said. “There is an audience for film and filmmaking in Waco. People are engaged and people really do respond to documentaries.”
And there was a good audience, every single night. The black wooden foldable chairs were full of couples, families, individuals; young and old; black, white and brown. The Waco community supported and rallied behind this event as I saw new and old faces each night.
“Join or Die”
The Hurd Welcome Center is being put to good use by hosting local events such as Reel Stories. On Tuesday, November 14, The Fudge Auditorium hosted the first night of the festival. Screening that evening was “Join or Die” a documentary about the importance of social capital based on Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone”. Putnam is an American political scientist and a public policy professor at Harvard. In his book, he stresses the importance of joining a club, for America depends on it.
Social capital is the network one builds among society, i.e. among your neighbors and coworkers. Without this networking Putnam sees American society falling apart. Without this social capital, people divide and don’t trust one another. The film presents research and the benefits of building your social capital. Putnam said if you join one club you increase your longevity of life. So, whether you join a book club, bowling league, local NAACP chapter, a community choir or band, you are changing your community for the better and you won’t find yourself bowling alone. The Reel Stories Film Festival encourages civic engagement “Join or Die” is fighting for the audience to be a part of and some of the audience did just that and kept attending the remainder of the festival.
“Join or Die” was directed by Rebecca and Pete Davis and is available on their website as a public screening.
“Deep in the Heart”
The second night of the festival was hosted at the Art Center Waco, 701 S 8th St on Thursday, November 16. To get into the Texas Spirit, the Art Center Waco’s walls echo the country melodies of David Harness. As the audience files in, they meet and greet one another at the tables showcasing meats, cheeses, fruits and pintxos from Segovia Wine Bar. The chatter grows quiet when the film begins, but it doesn’t stay quiet for long. “Deep in the Heart” makes the audience root, cheer, gasp and cry for the animals featured in the film.
From Bison learning how to run again on the Texas plains, to whitetail deer going horn to horn during mating season, following the journey of the ocelot mom and kitten, traveling deep beneath the Hill Country surface to discover the blind catfish and salamander, exploring Bracken Cave that is home to 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats and to the canyons of Big Bend National Park to see the black bear population revive, “Deep in the Heart” drops the audience right in the middle of the challenges Texas animals and habitats face due to climate change and Texas’ ever growing population.
In the next 30 years, Texas’ population of 30 million will grow to 50 million. Narrator of the film Matthew McConaughey boldly states that “their future is our choice.” It’s not the future of Texans, but Texas wildlife. Following the film was a Q&A with weekend anchor for Channel 25 Jarell Baker and the Interim Director of the Cameron Park Zoo Duane Hills. The film focused mainly on the conservation of Texas species, water supply and Texas Parks. Hills shared the work Cameron Park Zoo is doing specifically in these areas.
In partnership with Texas Parks and Wildlife and the Fort Worth Zoo, Cameron Park is helping breed the endangered Pecos fish species. Last year they released 100 of them back to their rightful river home. In regard to drought concerns, Hills said the zoo has to get creative with how they water the grounds, but never affecting the animals’ water supply. In the hot summer months, the zoo conserves water by turning off the playground splash pad and limiting watering the landscape outside of the habitats.
“I’m very proud of the work that’s happening at Cameron Park, there’s so many things happening,” Hills said.
Hills said to the audience the best way to support the zoo is by visiting. They are open year-round and starting November 24 through December 31, Cameron Park Zoo is hosting their annual Wild Lights Festival with holiday-themed lights along the zoo paths.
“Juneteenth: Faith & Freedom”
As the third night of the festival commences, there is a buzz of excitement in the audience. A sea of light blue polos takes the back rows. It’s the Waco Community Choir, and they’re resting up before their performance. While audience and choir members mix and mingle, they all have full plates of jerk chicken, fried plantains, beef patties and sweet & spicy meatballs from Tru Jamaica. Once everyone’s bellies are full, the program kicks off and it starts with the Waco Community Choir. A group of 21 individuals takes the audience to what I think Heaven will be like. Their beautiful voices and harmonies drop the jaws of every audience member and give hope even when times are difficult. It was the perfect set-up for the topic of the night — Juneteenth. Their music helped me see how the Black community has never given up fighting for their freedom and they do it with the Grace of God. Now this program wasn’t a church service — it was songs that prompted resilience, one of them titled “I’m Better Than That”. After their performance — which I wished was longer — the film started and for the next hour, I learned a lot about Juneteenth.
“Juneteenth: Faith & Freedom” is a documentary about Rasool Berry’s journey to learning about Juneteenth, the newly recognized federal holiday. But Juneteenth has been celebrated for years in the Black community and Berry seeks to find out when and how they celebrated and the political climate of the time.
Director Ya’Ke Smith and producer Mary Beth Minnis said in the Q&A portion after the film that they wanted the audience to learn about Juneteenth alongside the narrator and that they wanted to humanize slavery and the holiday. When Juneteenth occurred, someone’s mom, sister, brother and uncle gained freedom that day, but their battle with racism and prejudice was only just beginning. The year after the first Juneteenth 800 lynchings occurred across America some even were photographed and sold as postcards. In the film, the cast and crew visited a sugar plantation, Galveston, Opal Lee “The Grandmother of Juneteenth” and interviewed several pastors and historians.
“If you just stand there, and you sit in silence, you can hear the voices of the people, because their blood really does cry out from the ground,” Smith said. “For me, that was one of the most emotional moments I had making the film because I could feel the weight of what it meant to have your humanity — your spirituality — being mentally manipulated, being physically assaulted, you feel it when you go. Every time I looked at a tree there, I was just like, ‘I see a noose.’”
The film accomplished its purpose of educating the audience and humanizing slavery in a way that a textbook simply can’t and drives discussion and action. Smith and Minnis encouraged the audience to do additional research on Juneteenth and gave these two book recommendations: The “1619 Project” by Nikole Hannah-Jones and “On Juneteenth” by Annette Gordon-Reed. “Juneteenth: Faith & Freedom” is also available on PBS learning media and YouTube.
“Honoring Jules Bledsoe”
The final night of the film festival showcased Waco native, Julius “Jules” Bledsoe, an opera singer, Broadway star and actor. The last night operated in a different way than any of the other nights but of course, featured great local cuisine from Curry’s Gourmet Catering. Throughout the short film, there was dialogue from the moderators and live music of Bledsoe’s songs and arrangements by Sylvia Jones and Cezary Karwowski. Jones’ operatic voice soared with Karwowski’s melodious piano playing. They featured Bledsoe’s songs such as “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” and his famous performance of “Ol’ Man River” from his Broadway debut.
Bledsoe’s first performance in Waco was in 1916 at New Hope Baptist Church, which still stands today in East Waco. But this performance had a lot of weight to it. In 1915 the white supremacist film “Birth of a Nation” premiered, and the lynching of Jesse Washington occurred the same year as Bledsoe’s first concert. Bledsoe was a trailblazer in his career and always remembered to come back home even when he made it to Broadway in the production of “Showboat”.
The open dialogue throughout the film encouraged a movement to honor Bledsoe, whether it be a statue or an initiative in the arts such as a theater or performing arts center. The film, dialogue and live music inspired me to honor a Waco celebrity, one who faced many hardships such as racism in his career but still was incredibly successful and versatile. Bledsoe died young in 1943 from a cerebral hemorrhage and is buried in Waco at Greenwood Cemetery. His papers, photographs and sheet music are currently with the Texas Collection at Baylor University.
Inspiring the Next Steps
Each film gives the audience and you the reader a call to action. Whether you want to support local film festivals, join a club, visit your local zoo or learn more about America and Waco’s history, there is an avenue for change even if you didn’t attend the festival. There are upcoming opportunities and resources provided for you to learn or try something new. Waco Independent Film Festival is hosting the 8th annual event July 18–21, 2024. To stay updated on the festival, visit their website.