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On Location with the 2023 Nashville Film Festival

by Rich and Laura Lynch

Well, that's a wrap! The 54th Nashville Film Festival (NFF) that took place September 28-October 4, 2023 was an extravaganza of movies and extras. This multi-day event featured more than 125 films plus a Creators Conference, panels, Q&As along with additional content that was a blend of in-person and online meetings. This year saw a noticeable emphasis on all things music - past, present and future - that appealed to the viewers in Music City. We also watched engaging works of art that depicted the ongoing and emerging impacts of both social media and the looming specter of artificial intelligence.


At the 54th Nashville Film Festival in Music City.

The Nashville Film Festival is one of the oldest running film-focused gatherings in the south. They cover all genres including animation, comedy, documentaries, drama, experimental, family and horror while partnering with numerous local cultural and ethnic groups. Shorts were also featured along with movies that spotlighted Nashville and the state of Tennessee. New directors and student works were also shown. Lots of topics were explored including LGBTQ. But, for us the major draw was the aforementioned music category that was well represented at the 54th Nashville Film Festival.

On Thursday, the place to be was the Belcourt Theater for Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive. Prior to the film there was a red carpet featuring up and coming creators but the star was Gloria. The 100-minute film followed Gaynor as she rebuilds her life by earning a degree in psychology while working on her first gospel project.


Bart Millard and Gloria Gaynor on the red carpet in Nashville.

Directed by Betsy Schechter the movie tells the story of Gloria's childhood, rise to stardom as a disco queen, heartbreaks and the challenges that she faced in finding support to make a religious record. Yet, as Gaynor's anthemic song declares "I Will Survive" is the journey of a person who has lived through plenty of highs and lows. Although it took years the Gospel album was completed and Testimony won Gloria her second Grammy!

Vintage footage and photos paired with interviews and in studio performances effectively told Gloria's candid and compelling story. Her message and the movie are an inspiration to others to pursue their dreams despite whatever adversities they may be facing. For Gloria much of her strength comes from her faith. As she said during the Q&A after the film "God is doing the impacting". The Q&A was moderated by Bart Millard of MercyMe who wrote a song for Testimony. It was a great way to conclude the night.


The Belcourt hosted opening and closing night viewings.

Over the weekend we enjoyed a diverse set of documentaries at the historic Franklin Theater. First up on Saturday was the joyful Call To The Mountains about a group of Japanese teenagers and how bluegrass music shaped their lives. Back in 1967, these youngsters formed a group called Bluegrass 45. In the early 1970's, they visited the states where they played at a number of major festivals. Inspired they would start their own bluegrass gatherings in Japan that lasted decades as did the band even though they all had day jobs.

Call To The Mountains truly captured how U.S. culture is assimilated in other countries. The story of Bluegrass 45 was warmly told through film clips, footage, interviews and live performances with a slice of life approach. Keeping with the theme of the impacts of American music was the next inspiring biography about Dusty & Stones.


There was a Sawyer Brown reunion in Franklin.

Dusty & Stones is the tale of two cousins Gazi "Dusty" Simelane and Linda "Stones" Msibi, a determined duo of struggling country singers from the tiny African Kingdom of Eswatini (known as Swaziland at the time of filming) who long for their big break - which amazingly comes with an unexpected invite to record their songs in Nashville and an opportunity to compete in Texas at a battle of the bands. Thus, Dusty & Stones embark on their long-awaited first pilgrimage to the ancestral heart of country music. Nashville was a dream come true but the pair soon found out that not everything in Texas is that large. The festival in a small town with a small turnout was a letdown but the two still put their best foot forward and carried themselves with grace through the multi-day event. They won an award which was big news back home. Upon their triumphant return they would continue to play country music between commitments to their families and occupations.

After the movie, there was a Q&A featuring the director (Jesse Rudoy) along with the two cousins all the way from Africa. When asked by MusicCityNashville.net "you indicated initial disappointment in the venue at the event but did your feelings change to be fonder of the proceedings after the ways things turned out?" They responded yes while adding that they were raised to look at the positive side of things thus they made the best of it. Now, here they were back in Nashville - the stars of their own film. It was revealed that later that night Dusty & Stones would be making their debut at the Grand Ole Opry. Hopefully, the documentary paired with the spotlight at the Opry will give these two well-deserving musicians another step up the ladder of success.

On Sunday we returned to the delightful downtown of Franklin, Tennessee for more music themed movies. It's Only Life After All was a deep dive into the folk-rock duo the Indigo Girls. Although the film was about their music with plenty of songs to accompany the narrative the two also shared their personal insights on their career. Thanks to Amy Ray there was a lot of home videos and raw footage to share along with intimate conversations with both Amy and Emily Sailers. Both addressed the challenges that they faced personally and professionally as lesbians which is perhaps why activism became an important part of their work. They also got involved in environmental causes which as they learned is often a social justice issue. For example, toxic wastes are likely to be left in minority communities rather than affluent neighborhoods and the just fight is not easy. For us the prevailing message of It's Only Life After All was accepting people for who they are and doing unto others as you would have them do on to you.


The film about Dusty and his partner won Best Music Documentary.

Get Me to the Stage On Time was a sell-out at the Franklin Theater as the film about the band Sawyer Brown was a big draw. Not surprising as this group has been attracting crowds for forty years. Their story was told by following a time line with interviews with former and current members spiked with concert clips along with videos. Many may first recall seeing Sawyer Brown on the TV program Star Search back in 1983 although a lot of their fans were not even born yet. Sawyer Brown won vocal group that season. That exposure led to success on the charts and out on the road.

However, critics along with traditional country radio did not care for their energized country meets rock style. Despite that Sawyer Brown's sound would define "90's Country". Like many bands they have had their ups and downs but their animated shows remained a constant. Get Me to the Stage On Time featured star power comments from the likes of Blake Shelton. Blake is not only an admirer but the producer of Sawyer Brown's soon to be released record Desperado Troubadours. Thus, the movie is current as of this post.


At the Call To The Mountains Q&A in Franklin.

Part of the fun of seeing a film during the Festival are the extras. The first on Sunday was the release of Sawyer Brown's new single "Under This Ole Hat" piped in right after the credits rolled. Then, the curtain rose and there was the band featuring all of their guitar players who were in Get Me to the Stage On Time. The acoustic version of Sawyer Brown chatted a bit about their career while playing a bunch of hits such as "Thank God For You", "The Dirt Road", "The Walk", "Some Girls Do" and more. They closed the surprise set with the title track from "Desperado Troubadours".

Sometimes the side road is the right road was one of a number of pearls that we picked up during the screening of Minnie Pearl: Facing The Laughter. Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon (October 25, 1912 - March 4, 1996) was best known for her stage character Minnie Pearl. Sarah was an American comedian who appeared at the Grand Ole Opry for more than 50 years (1940-1991) and on the television show Hee Haw. However, she was so much more to the people who knew her. SOCC was a trailblazer for women in the entertainment industry, a mentor to comedians along with musicians and she might have been one of the first to "brand" herself with that distinctive greeting and the hat with the price tag dangling from it. We learned that Sarah dreamed of becoming a dramatic actress. However, it was her travels around the states in search of stardom that gave her the idea for Ms. Pearl.


Untitled movie bloggers in Hillsboro.

Minnie Pearl: Facing The Laughter featured interviews with long time Opry members and chart toppers such as Garth Brooks to talk about Sarah's impact. Archival footage (which there is a lot of) along with radio chats with Minnie painted a picture of a women who was wise, witty yet also kind and compassionate. She avoided judging others - another fine pearl point among many. During the Q&A portion someone asked why now in regards to this documentary. The answer was that "it is time for Sarah to be introduced to a new generation" - as part of country music history and perhaps even woman's liberation. Either way she is in inspiration for anyone with a dream that sometimes takes a different turn yet in the long run it was the right path.

It's complicated aptly describes the relationship portrayed in the film Foe which is a science fiction psychological thriller. Directed by Garth Davis, from a screenplay he co-wrote with Iain Reid, based on Reid's 2018 novel of the same name. It stars Saoirse Ronan, Paul Mescal and Aaron Pierre. The premise is that the lives of a married couple are turned upside down when a stranger arrives at their isolated farm to inform them that the husband will be sent to a space station while the wife stays home with a robot replacement of him. Set in the grim future of 2065, where climate change has turned out to be a reality and the government has a "right" to interfere in this pair's already strained rapport in an effort to save the human race which for us was a relevant takeaway with meaningful social commentary.


The team from the engaging short - Jelly.

Pear a short also had some things to say. In Pear we found ourselves in a room of people trying to reconnect with themselves as it was implied that they had become so absorbed with social media that the real person inside had disappeared. Many of the films at NFF addressed deep topics, others were educational and there were plenty that were inspiring. It is amazing how much artistry is out there and at this time they have more platforms than just the big screen. The NFF revealed that there is good reason to pursue movie making as a career which is surely why many people attended this year's thrilling event in Nashville.

"Film, Music, & Culture" were the prevailing themes of NFF which was made possible by a long list of partners, sponsors and volunteers. In addition to enjoying a wide array of films the NFF had red carpets and interesting Q&As which gave viewers a greater insight into the creativity and hard work that goes into a movie whether it be a full-length feature or a short. There was a well-attended opening night party at the AB and the legendry music venue the Exit/In hosted a closing night event. Now, we can't wait to see what the 55th edition of the NFF holds when the curtains part once again in 2024.


The Franklin Theatre was the perfect host for multiple weekend showings.

Related Links: For more information on the NASHVILLE FILM FESTIVAL and the other organizations mentioned please visit the following links - Nashville Fil Festival | Gloria Gaynor | Sawyer Brown | Indigo Girls | Dusty and Stones | Bluegrass 45 | Minnie Pearl Movie | Belcourt Theater | Franklin Theatre | Regal Green Hills | Nashville Film Festival: Focusing on Rock Legends | Nashville Film Festival Presents Regional Perspectives


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