Wednesday, July 23, 2014 · 3:48 a.m.
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When faced with one of the highest death tolls of any U.S. city, violence interrupters from Chicago's CeaseFire organization stepped in to remind the neighborhoods of their own responsibilities in the movie "The Interrupters." (Screenshot: Staff)

For its first film festival, Chattanooga will play host to a Golden Globe nominee.

And a Sundance Film Festival-featured selection.

And an American Film Institute Fest winner for Best International Feature Film.

Next weekend, the Heritage House Arts and Civic Center will serve as the main tent for Gig City Film Festival, a one-day, five-film event that finally puts the Scenic City on the film festival map.

The venue’s door will open at 8 a.m., with the first film beginning at 9 a.m. on Saturday morning and the last film ending at approximately 10 p.m. 

“Chattanooga has every other arts festival under the sun, but we don’t have a film festival,” said Kris Jones, art department and locations assistant at the Heritage House. “Every major city in the U.S. that has any kind of arts community has a film festival. We are hoping this will be our breakthrough moment.”

Film No. 1

North to south
Though Jones and his colleague Chris Holley, director of the Heritage House, had long kicked around the dream of a film festival in Chattanooga, it wasn’t until a conference call last October that the idea moved past the concept phase.

Representatives from the Nashville Film Festival approached the two, along with members of the Department of Education, Arts and Culture, hoping to explore the possibility of a two-city collaboration.

NFF had recently received a grant from the Tennessee Film, Entertainment and Music Commission to expand its footprint across the state. For Chattanooga, this translated into an effort to leverage the older festival’s considerable expertise and organization to launch its own event.

“The commission and the NFF are interested in elevating the role of the film industry throughout the state for economic and social purposes,” said Ted Crockett, executive director of the NFF. “Chattanooga is the first city of our new program, Tennessee Film Tour. We plan to expand to Johnson City, Murfreesboro, Goodlettsville and others during the next year.”

The only catch was the time frame: The Gig City Film Festival would have to take place before the Music City’s event in April.

Film No. 2

Holley explained that NFF, which has operated continuously since its founding in 1969, was of crucial help in the event’s costly and extensive processes, such as compiling the short list of films and securing the rights to the final five.

In choosing a theme for Chattanooga’s first silver screen celebration, Holley and Jones worked with their colleagues to remain relevant to a topic with which the community is currently struggling. 

They took their cue from the city's Season of Nonviolence, an initiative running from Jan. 30 to April 4 that was promoted by a visit from Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Arun Gandhi, last fall and has grown to involve countless events, including the film festival. 

As Chattanooga grapples with the surge in gang violence, festival organizers sought to show the promise of change in even the most dire of circumstances. 

Gig City Film Festival’s program includes a mix of documentaries and feature films and a range of subjects from the Rwanda genocide to a Michigan Skinhead’s path to redemption—all presenting moments of hope in despair, of life in a climate of death.

On the screen
Slated as the first film of the day, "The Interrupters" chronicles the efforts of the activist group CeaseFire as its members attempt to literally interrupt gang violence in Chicago. 

The three activists the story most closely follows each have an intimate past relationship with the aggressive and brutal gang culture, whether through their own jail time or their families’ involvement in gangs. 

The documentary, a featured selection at Sundance, goes door to door with the violence interrupters and captures the anger and grief each killing leaves in its wake. 

Film No. 3

Audience members will then have a 25-minute break. The Heritage House staff plans to use the facility’s upstairs and downstairs to create separate screening areas, which will run on the same schedule showing the same films, giving viewers more leg room.

The second film, "Kinyarwanda," earned accolades at Sundance, AFI Fest and Heartland Film Festival. 

The drama is set during the Rwanda tribal genocide of 1994 and puts new life into the topic with elements of a love story and crises of family and faith: A Tutsi woman and a Hutu man cling to a dangerous love affair while a NATO soldier and a priest try to make sense of the slaughter around them.

The event will then break for lunch. 

The third film will be one that hits particularly close to home. 

"Bully" uses the suicides of 11-year-old Ty Smalley of Oklahoma and 17-year-old Tyler Long of Murray County, Ga., to explore the larger problem of bullying in U.S. schools, which affects 13 million American children every year.

Film No. 4

The documentary highlights stories from Georgia, Iowa, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas and draws on the experience of parents, teachers, school administrators and students in order to open up the conversation around a tangled conflict that emerges in children but involves the whole community.

Long’s parents, who recently joined the documentary’s filmmakers to accept the Critics Choice Award for Best Documentary Feature, will be on hand to speak after the screening. The panel discussion will also include school psychologists and resource officers.

Following the talk, the festival will break for dinner.

The two evening films will begin with a documentary tracking one man’s process of literally removing hatred from his being, "Erasing Hate." Bryon Widner was once a member of a Michigan Skinhead group. To build his hardcore reputation, Widner was not only violent, but also covered in tattoos advertising his dogma.

After realizing that his lifestyle didn’t provide the kind of example his wanted to give his children, he bowed out of the group with the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

An anonymous donation also made it possible for Widner to undergo pioneering—and extremely painful—laser surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center to remove the markers of his former life.

Film No. 5

Finally, after a 15-minute break, audiences will screen the critically acclaimed box office hit, the French film "The Intouchables."

The comedic drama is as humorous in its odd couple pairing of a quadriplegic aristocrat and a young man from the projects as it is beautiful in its unfolding of the trust that develops between the two.

The men grow close through the caregiving relationship and are forced out of their own defenses into a much fuller world, thanks to their very different companion.

“The wonderful thing about film is that it can convey an unlimited amount of ideas and emotions and use the entire array of everything there is in art,” Holley said. “Beyond any other form, it is the culmination of so many mediums.”

Tickets for Gig City Film Festival are $15 for all-day passes and $5 for individual movies.

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