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Low-budget films, accidental heroes and xenofeminism

Capital City Film Festival collaborates with local initiativesworking to disrupt traditional art scenes


A Hollywood director returns to his hometown to premiere the first feature film made by his independent production company. The next day, a local artist gets a second chance to actualize her vision for a concert series that marks her years of activism. The stage is set for the Capital City Film Festival to break barriers in the film industry while heralding new voices in Lansing’s arts and culture scene.

“Conversations always need to change. You can’t get stale on conversations that dive deeply into how we interact with people in our lives,” said Jason Gabriel, film festival co-director and a member of the selection committee.

The nonprofit started nine years ago as a four-day festival coordinated largely under the direction of co-founders Dom Cochran and Gabriel. The two have worked together for years managing the Lansing Public Media Center, where they have witnessed the magic of providing resources to local creatives. In the festival’s second year, they added a Michigan State University graduate, Payal Ravani, as a co-director. With the help of volunteers and community partners, they have maintained a steady rhythm marching into the future of Lansing’s art scene.

The Capital City Film Festival is the largest film and music fest in Michigan, Cochran said. Coordinators upgraded the schedule to accommodate over 150 films, 100 musical acts and 11 participating venues.

The two-week festival kicks off Thursday with a red-carpet party at 7 p.m. at Impression 5. For $10, guests can gather for drinks and appetizers. Then at 9 p.m., the Michigan premiere of “Guest Artist” screens next door at the Riverwalk Theatre.

“Guest Artist” is directed by East Lansing-born actor Timothy Busfield, who has directed several television series, including episodes of “Without A Trace,” “This is Us” and “Thirtysomething” co-produced by his wife, Melissa Gilbert, an actress known for her work in “Little House on the Prairie” and “Family of Strangers”; and stars Jeff Daniels, known for “Pleasantville,” “Martian” and owning The Purple Rose Theatre Company. Daniels originally wrote “Guest Artist” in 2006 for his theater company in Chelsea. The film includes the original Purple Rose cast and was primarily shot at a train depot in the small town. “Guest Artist” was made for around $350,000 with a 35-person team, including cast and crew. This is the trio’s first film created under their production company, called Grand River Productions

“As an executive producer, I found myself extremely overwhelmed with the amount of people we had and budget we were spending,” Busfield said. “I learned that we didn’t need all of that.

When you are an artist and you want to make a film, please don’t be overwhelmed by the process—It’s actually very simple. Grab a couple cameras, grab a couple mics, grab a couple actors and go.”

Grand River Productions was born out of the trio’s desire to collaborate without “too many cooks in the kitchen,” Gilbert said. The team wanted their first project to take place in Michigan to help elevate the careers of local professional actors and crew.

As a kid, Busfield would make 8mm short films starring his brother in the backyard of his childhood home on Sabron Drive. He says making this indie felt “pretty similar” alongside Gilbert and longtime friend Daniels.

Festival organizers Gabriel and Cochran are looking forward to the “meta experience” of having the screening in Busfield’s hometown.

Gabriel reviewed close to 400 movies this year. He said the schedule will offer blocks of light-hearted family films, dark comedies, heavy documentaries and more.

“Overarching themes in the films submitted were race, surviving abuse, parenting, immigration and titles with women’s names, either based on the names of female leads or as a character’s object of affection,” Gabriel said.

Festival coordinators have tapped into local and national resources to present films from a range of perspectives. Through partnerships with the American Film Institute and Michigan State University’s Women of Color Initiative, there will be a showcase of rare gems and box-office contenders directed by women. On the schedule, film titles with an asterisk indicate the film has been handpicked by the initiative.

One such film is “Freedom Fields,” which will have its U.S. premiere Tuesday at the Fledge.  Directed by Libyan filmmaker Naziha Arebi, the film follows her five-year journey to reconnect with her homeland after the Arab Spring and ISIS occupation. As an adult, Arebi visited Libya for the first time in 2011, when the Libyan revolution was at its height. She documented the key roles women played in leading protests and running for office. A year later, Arebi discovered the Libyan women’s football team, a 10-year-old organization consisting of both women and girls that had just gotten clearance from the Libyan Football Association to play in a match for the first time.

“The story behind the story of this film is they can’t even make a trailer for it due to security concerns for one of the main women in the film,” Cochran said. “So terrible situation obviously, but also indicative of why we need films like this to educate everybody.”

The three women featured in the film are perhaps the most vocal on the team against the Libyan Football Association and ISIS. Much to the women’s own risk, they become “accidental heroes” by fighting against the patriarchal barriers preventing them from doing what they love, Cochran said.

The film festival has made several new partnerships this year, including the Game Design & Development program at Michigan State University and another beloved DIY gathering, Stoopfest,— a two-day music and comedy festival taking place on the east side that overlaps with the film festival. The two organizations pooled their resources, with the film festival presenting Stoopfest’s line-up including headlining act, Open Mike Eagle, at the Avenue April 20. The L.A.-based rapper recently got critical acclaim for his last album, “Brick Body Kids Still Daydream.” His half-hour show, “The New Negroes with Baron Vaughn and Open Mike Eagle,” is set to air April 19 on BET.

To align with this year’s motto, “Your Festival. Your Formula,” CCFF coordinators gave creative control to locals to ensure events relevant to Lansing’s artistic community. A large portion of this energy stems from adding Crystal “DJ Etta” Gaus, a local event promoter, DJ and activist.

“I think if people think historically about who likes to party, it’s the black LGBTQ,” Gause said. “So, what we’re doing is looking at who the marginalized are and what they are doing to show that you actually can help keep that going and keep it safe.”

Last year, CCFF wanted to create an information hub for festival-goers, while still providing them with entertainment. The concept resulted in transforming the Robin Theatre into a site for multi-media experimentation, including virtual reality headsets, games and a DJ set by Gause, who is 25. For her set, which consisted of only female artists, she decorated the stage based on the concept of what “a black cyber feminist looks like in the 21st century.” Gause’s productions are autobiographical and reflect her efforts to find the intersections between activism and dance parties.

The event went OK, but Gause felt it did not get the attention it deserved. After the show, she approached Cochran and Gabriel offering her help for the 2019 rendition.

The result is House of More, a 10-day festival within the festival dedicated to creating distinct moments for female, black and queer talent. Gause explained that the ideals behind the aesthetics of House of More come from the “Xenofeminist Manifesto.” The manifesto’s website says its text extrapolates 20th century cyber feminism to construct a reality “in which the realization of gender justice and feminist emancipation contribute to a universalist politics” that cuts across “race, ability, economic standing and geographical position.”

Kicking off the experimental multi-media series Friday is a musician collective from Cincinnati, OH called BLVCK ICE—pronounced black ice.

“I’m originally from Cincinnati,” Gause said. “On Instagram, I was seeing that they were a small group of black queer folks putting on these low to no budget parties.

“Giving us visuals, lights and booking all these black queer artists. They were giving them a space and it’s hard to find that kind of authenticity at parties.”

BLVCK ICE creates LGBTQ+ safe spaces, providing everything from dance hall to trap music, enveloped in traditional ball culture with an afro-futuristic twist. In the past, the collective has had line-ups featuring contemporary rap rebels Bbymutha, Rico Nasty and Taphari as well as nationally acclaimed underground DJs, Asmara and Venus X.

House of More will also present Detroit-based talent, including the indie-pop trio, River Spirit, and interdisciplinary artist Nikoleta Vatiqi.

River Spirit— which comprises of Vanessa Reynolds (vocals and guitar), Dan Steadman (guitar, percussion and vocals) and Paul Wilcox (drums)— is a band of self-taught musicians exploring the balance of beauty and darkness.

“For a long time, I personally didn’t feel super confident in playing music,” Reynolds said. “My anxiety is still something that never leaves me, but I feel through playing with other people and getting their feedback, I feel more like I belong.”

Reynolds channeled the battle of overcoming feelings of inferiority and hopelessness in the group’s recent LP, titled “Me I Fall.” The whimsical outfit will be sharing the Robin Theatre with Mel*N, an electro-synth pop act from Grand Rapids April 19 at 7 p.m.

Another new addition to this year’s House of More is an interactive art installation. Vatiqi is a film student at the College of Creative Studies in downtown Detroit. The artist draws inspiration from antiquated technology and conflicting messages she received while growing up in a traditional Albanian household.

“I was told that if I show my body, I’m a whore or a slut,” Vatiqi said. “So, through my art work, I am healing with that and also showing people who may also be struggling to be comfortable with who they are.”

Vatiqi created a new installation specifically for the festival called “Seduction as a Form of Art.” The piece consists of a life size bedroom set including a bed, nightstand and lights with a “welcoming blue” wash. Across from the bed will be a small TV with a looping clip from an adult film.

“I want people to see women in pornography as a normal thing and not to be put off by it. It should be a beautiful and empowering thing,” Vatiqi said.

The installation will be on display at the Robin Theatre for the entirety of the festival.

Gause is also leading the coordination of the festival’s official after party on April 20 at “The Wing,” also known as the Annex Revival Project. The event is called Vitality and takes place in a “cyber futuristic, feminist fantasy,” Gause said. The evening will be scored by DJ Ruckus and his collective, Man vs. Wild. Early bird ticket sales end Friday and general admission tickets will go for $10. 

Before the festival, Gause became well-known in Lansing’s east side for running Jade House. It was a house venue with a reputation of booking “Frankie Cosmos” and “Porches” before they got big. In 2016, after a year of running the venue, Gause told herself more than once she “was never going to throw another show again.”

Gause started thinking of hosting parties again shortly after experiencing the Ferguson riots first-hand and exploring the DIY music scenes of Detroit and Berlin, Germany. Gause has continued looking for opportunities to provide “space for safe experimentation and joy” for her city. She said the past four years have been a crash course on learning what it takes to produce events with a team and adapting her “backyard shows” into a business model.

“Lansing is like 50% black,” Gause said. “We are always at the fore with black talent in Lansing, but we don’t have enough classes and workshops. We could use more community support.”

Through her partnership with the festival, she hopes to demonstrate to Lansing art patrons the need to support the initiatives of local, young artists of color trying to connect with their community.

“Lansing needs to want more for themselves, but we have to give it to them too,” Gause said.


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