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The 32nd Heartland International Film Festival

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

By Oliver Webb

The 32nd Heartland International Film Festival took place between 5th – 15th October in Indianapolis, Indiana. The mesmerising festival gives audiences and filmmakers the opportunity to connect and the chance to experience the power and spectacle of film. Showing in cinemas and around the booming arthouse cinemas of Indianapolis, the festival’s venues for this year included Living Room Theaters, Newfields, The Kan-Kan Cinema & Restaurant, Landmark Glendale 12 and Emagine Noblesville. The 32nd festival kicked off with The Lionheart, a powerful documentary which honours the legacy of Indy 500 champion, Dan Wheldon.

First launched in 1991, the festival has attracted countless filmmakers and visiting guests including Indianapolis native, Brendan Fraser and Robert Downey Jr. This year saw actor Matthew Modine present his latest films, Downwind and Hard Miles. The main theme of Heartland’s 32nd addition was YOU CAN’T LOOK AWAY and with the 120+ feature films and screenings there were endless possibilities to choose from. Of course, with 120+ films, selecting which films to watch is an ever-daunting task.

Living Room Theaters, Indianapolis

In the Narrative Feature category, Rebecca Martin Fagerholm, Ellie Foumbi and Joanna Gleason were on the judge panel, with Diego Vicentini’s Simón scooping the Narrative Feature Grand Prize. Simón is a harrowing exploration of a Venezuelan refugee living in Miami, as he navigates his new world and past trauma of his protests against the barbaric Venezuelan government. The selection of narrative features has been remarkable, with films such as Damian Harris’ Brave the Dark, Mark L. Bristol’s star-studded Chocolate Lizards, Johanna Putnam’s exceptional directorial debut feature, Shudderbugs and a special presentation of the feature film Hard Miles.

One of the outstanding films from this year’s festival was Sheridan O’Donnell’s hauntingly beautiful feature debut Little Brother, a captivating tale of the strained relationship between brothers Jake and Pete. Jake is assigned the task of driving his brother home to Seattle for another family intervention after Pete’s suicide attempt. The film features award-worthy performances from the two leads portrayed by Daniel Diemer and Philip Ettinger and also features a brilliantly compact performance from J.K. Simmons as their overbearing father. The story of brotherhood, grief and suicide survival are beautifully played out as the two journey from state to state en route to their hometown. In one of the scene’s most powerful sequences we see Jake and Pete bonding during a drinking session. As Jake knocks back another can, he grows more vulnerable, opening up to his older brother about how he is still reeling from the trauma after Pete’s first suicide attempt. With their father’s history of alcoholism, which is subtly addressed throughout the film, it is especially poignant that the two brother’s can only discuss their feelings through alcohol. O’Donnell’s film is not only one of the most heartbreaking and outstanding films from the festival, but also one of the most moving films of the year. With an impressive debut under his belt, it will be interesting to see what O’Donnell follows up with next.

Another gripping film from the festival was Will Gilbey’s Jericho Ridge. Shot on location in Kosovo, though set in small-town America, Jericho Ridge follows wounded cop Tabby Temple (excellently portrayed by Nikki Amuka-Bird) as she is confined to the remote Sheriff’s Office, under fire from local bandits. The majority of the action takes place within the compact space of the Sheriff’s Office and the film is boosted by DP Ruairí O’Brien’s incredible camerawork. One of the year’s most applauded performances sees Colman Domingo as civil rights activist Bayard Rustin in George C. Wolfe’s remarkable film, Rustin. The biographical drama expertly details Rustin’s life, with a sharp screenplay by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black.

Another of the leading award categories was the Documentary Feature Grand Prize with Violet Feng, Angela Northington and Dava Whisenant as this year’s judge panel. The 32nd festival has seen some excellent documentary features, from Black Barbie, Art & Soul: A Portrait of Nancy Noel, to the moving portrait of the Reel’s family in Silver Dollar Road and their decades of fighting injustice and greedy land developers. We Dare to Dream took home the main prize, a brilliant documentary about the refugee Olympic team at 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Based on the ProPublica (and The New Yorker) article Kicked Off The Land by Lizzie Presser, Raoul Peck’s Silver Dollar Road explores the generational waterfront property belonging to the Reels family and their struggles with fighting to keep the land. The Reels family trace their history back to slavery when their ancestors settled on the land to live their freedom. With the descendants all inheriting their share of the land, one family member decided to sell his share to a development company. Ever since, many legal battles have ensued to rightfully claim back their own land. Silver Dollar Road is a brilliant and necessary piece about exploitation, systematic racism and prejudice.

Silver Dollar Road. Photo credit: Wayne Lawrence Photography. Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Karen Carpenter: Starving for Perfection was another strong contender for the documentary prize. Randy Martin’s documentary provides new insight into Karen Carpenter’s life and battles with anorexia. Featuring previously unreleased recordings and interviews, including a close dialogue with one of Carpenter’s closest friends, Olivia Newton-John, Starving for Perfection is a powerful and moving piece. One of the most uplifting pieces was Christine Yoo’s 26.2 To Life, an inspirational look at San Quentin’s 1000 mile club.

Karen Carpenter: Starving for Perfection post Q&A with director Randy Martin and screenwriter, Randy Schmidt

The other award categories included Best Narrative Feature Premiere, which saw Andrew Hyatt’s Sight win the award. Best Documentary Feature Premiere went to Beth Lane’s Unbroken. Pioneering Spirit Award was awarded to the incomparable Matthew Modine. The Indiana Spotlight Award was rewarded to Liminal: Indiana in the Anthropocene. Horror Award was awarded to Et Tu. American Fiction scooped the Humor & Humanity Award, while Radical took home the Richard D. Propes Social Impact Narrative Feature Award. The Jimmy Stewart Legacy Award was awarded to Hard Miles and The Space Race won the Richard D. Propes Social Impact Documentary Feature Award.

The festival closed with Alexander Payne’s highly anticipated feature film The Holdovers, which sees Payne reunite with Sideways leading star, Paul Giamatti. Giamatti plays Paul Hunman, a history teacher at a prep school in '70s New England, who begrudgingly spends Christmas on campus with a student with no family plans. Payne is back to his true form with this masterfully comedic tragedy.

While mostly known throughout the US festival circuit, the festival is increasing significantly in popularity across the globe and within the next few years it would not be surprising to see more global filmmakers in attendance. The team at Heartland work tenaciously behind the scenes to make the festival possible for everyone to enjoy, for filmmakers and cinemagoers alike. Screenings and Q&As are hosted throughout the duration of the festival, giving attendees a chance to hear from the filmmakers about the filmmaking process and the 32nd Festival saw a wide variety of filmmakers in attendance. Alongside the film events, there are a number of events and activities, giving filmmakers and film buffs the chance to discuss everything film. It’s no surprise that Heartland International Film Festival was selected as one of MovieMaker Magazine’s Top 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World for 2023.

For more information about the festival visit:

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