Iowa is best known for early political caucuses, Old Settlers Picnics, the fictional River City of Meredith Wilson’s musical Music Man, Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams, and although not quite as famous, the corncam website. Yes, corncam. At www.IowaFarmer.com/corncam/corn.html you can literally sit back and watch the corn grow, with updates every fifteen minutes. But Iowa’s fields of opportunities are both vast and varied for mediamakers of all types.
In 1917, celebrated African American pioneer, novelist, and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux wrote, published, and filmed his novel, The Homesteader, in Sioux City, having moved there after losing his land in South Dakota, due to a drought. Lincoln, Nebraska, filmmakers George and Noble Johnson wanted to film Micheaux’s novel but refused to let him direct it. So, like many present-day writers with dreams of directing, Micheaux rejected their offer and instead expanded his Western Book and Supply Company to the Micheaux Film and Book Company, with offices in Sioux City and Chicago. He directed the film, financing the venture by selling stock in the company to white farmers and small businesses around Sioux City. Eight reels long, it is probably the first full-length feature film written, produced, and directed by an African American. Over his thirty-year career as a writer/director/producer, Micheaux became one of the leading creators of films about, by, and marketed to African Americans. These films, made outside of the Hollywood system, were known as “race films,” but today, scholars and film enthusiasts refer to them as “separate cinema.” Although not held in Iowa, the annual Oscar Micheaux Festival in Gregory, South Dakota, celebrates the work of this important filmmaker, whose career began in Iowa.
This six-year-old organization draws members from across the state—writers who meet eight to ten times a year for support, workshops, and readings of work-in-progress. Last autumn, they teamed up with the Iowa Motion Picture Association to produce three five-minute film scripts by ISA members which were then shot in one day, then edited and viewed in one day—January 8, 2003. In a recent interview Dave DeBord, current president and founding membersh described the organization, its members and founding.
DD: There were probably five or six of us writers who knew each other from various other writing organizations. An awful lot of writing groups come and go. We saw a need for one that would fit scriptwriters two ways: one for theater writers, the other for writers of screenplays. Which is why we named it Scriptwriters Alliance. We have a wide range of people involved, Max Collins [Road to Perdition] for example. We have people just starting and everybody in between.
We [offer] workshops and seminars. We’ve had a Hollywood agent in to speak to us. We also put together six original one-act plays at Living History Farm [spring 2002]. We said [to the membership] write something that can be done in a barn—PG, low number of characters. We got it down to six [one-acts] and put up a performance. You don’t have to be in Hollywood to write scripts.
The People in the Pictures
Based on the work of Iowa agricultural photographer Pete Wettach, The People in the Pictures is a one-hour documentary about farm life in Iowa from the 1920’s through the 1960’s—a way of life vanishing with the family farm, much like the mom-and-pop stores of large cities that vanished with gentrification and the introduction of chain stores. The documentary is an evocative blend of conversation, commentary, and music, still photos and interviews which springboard from a collection of Wettach’s work, compiled by Leslie Loveless, called A Bountiful Harvest.
An editor at the University of Iowa Institute for Rural and Environmental Health, Loveless was cleaning out her new office in 1998 when she came across a box of photos with the name “A.M. (‘Pete’) Wettach, Agricultural Photographer, Mount Pleasant, Iowa,” on the back. “[She] absolutely fell in love with them,” says Laurel Bower, who produced The People in the Pictures.
KS: How did The People in the Pictures evolve?
LB: Leslie Loveless got things rolling. Because of her, really, the pictures are seen by people. When she saw the name on the back [of the box], she called Mount Pleasant and found his son, Bob. He said, ‘if you like the pictures, I have thousands more.’ [Actually, somewhere between fifty and one hundred thousand.] She went to Mount Pleasant with Mary Bennett, an archivist from the Iowa Historical Society, and they went into Bob Wettach’s basement, where there were boxes and boxes of pictures. Bob Wettach pretty much donated all the pictures to the Historical Society in Iowa City so people can see them and get prints.
When I saw them, I knew this was a perfect way to do something on agriculture in the state. I worked on this for six months.
Sometimes I drove by myself to the communities because I figured I’d run into someone who knew them [the people in the photos] . . . and a lot of times I went to where, you know, older men kind of met for coffee. My grandpa used to do that. So I knew it would be a good place to find them when they’re comfortable and they’d start telling stories.
The People in the Pictures was produced by Iowa Public Television Network (IPTV) and first aired during their autumn 2002 pledge drive. The station, which originated in 1967, is open to partnerships and seeks strong locally based projects that they can take statewide.
Hardacre Film Festival
The brain-child of union set dresser Troy Peters (Twister, Bridges of Madison County, and 8 Mile), who lives in Tipton, Iowa, and some friends, the Hardacre Film Festival began with true Iowa pioneer spirit, “mainly because nobody else was doing it,” says Stuart Werling, one of the festival’s founders and an attorney in Tipton.
The Hardacre Theater, an art deco theater in the small town northeast of Iowa City, has been in continuous operation since 1917. The owner, a high school classmate of Werling’s donates the theater to festival for one the weekend each year.
SW: [A few years ago] when California was having its energy crisis . . . and President Bush was pushing [corn-based] ethanol, Governor Grey Davis of California, the Democrat, said “We’re not buying Midwest ethanol because we don’t like it,” there was this big to-do [here]. And a couple of the [local] radio stations picked up on the affront from the governor of California and said, “Let’s boycott Hollywood. Don’t go to Hollywood movies! Go to the Hardacre Film Festival and watch the independents instead.” We got front-page coverage all over the place.
KS: Does the Hardacre Festival have a theme?
SW: We tend to get a theme through serendipity. Last year it was international [films from Israel, France, Poland] . . . we had ninety submissions. The year before, it was animation. But we’ll accept all films. We really want to emphasize the work of Iowa artists, as actors, but better yet as writers and directors. We really try to recruit them and are not doing as well as we want. We’re disappointed in our ability to get Iowa product.
[Story] is the one thing that draws us to independent film, ‘cause it ain’t about the money honey, cause there isn’t any money. It’s just about the story. “Cause they got a story they want to tell. We see some wonderful stories . . . and that’s what we like.
KS: Are you getting in your licks as an intellectual property attorney?
SW: No. Intellectual property rights are not something that is discussed in small town Iowa.
A combination full bar/live theater/art house cinema located in Des Moines.
Contact J. Serpento at (515) 244-1231 or K. Busbee at 221-2517 for more info.
Iowa Motion Picture Association
This organization sponsors an Annual Film Award Program and workshop. The awards feature forty-four categories, including two for student projects. The next one event will be on April 19, 2003, at the Hotel Savory, Des Moines.
Iowa Film Office
This state-run office began in 1984 as part of the Iowa Department of Economic Development. According to Steve Schott, a film consultant currently working there, “There are probably over a hundred companies that make their living in the film, television, and audio business here.” Its website has a downloadable production guide that lists appropriate facilities in the state. It’s a great place to go for information and resources.
Thaw Film Festival
An experimental film and video festival which takes place April 10-12 and exhibits new work by emerging media artists.