Film festival has a seat for everyone


“I scream sometimes. I know I shouldn’t but I do anyway. Breathing helps…and pancakes.” —“The Story of Luke”

You know how it feels when you are standing there, minding your own business, and a guy steps out of another time directly in front of you and throws up his history all over your shoes?

Maybe I am being too vague to create a clear image.

It started when I was learning the ropes at a film festival. There were several movies being shown at dozens of venues in downtown Wichita. Each theater had a group of volunteers, the venue manager, an announcer, a projectionist and a couple of ushers. I was one of those, an usher.

The assignment was pretty straightforward. Hand out two ballets to each movie attendee as they walk in, on which they should rate the movie between 1 and 5 stars. A white ballot for the short film. A full-color ballet for the feature film. At the end of the movie, collect the ballots.

I must have been deemed trustworthy because by my second film of the day, I also got to hold the clicker. A person walks in, I push a little button and the clicker records the attendance numbers. Good thing I can multi-task.

Back to the crème-de-la-crème of meetings. The man from another time (his clothing suggested 1966, his hair had a 1987 Dee Snider/Twisted Sister feel, his mind pinged between 2012 and the 17th century.) I won’t be too specific on his job, but it was on a volunteer level.

I was standing at the entryway to the theater, ballots in hand. Suddenly, there he was, an estimated 2 feet taller and 2 feet wider than me. He wore oversized clothes. Flowing oversized clothes. Rainbow colored, flowing, oversized clothes.

“My short film didn’t make the cut this year,” he opened with. “But it wasn’t ready, so it’s probably best.”

“Oh well, maybe next year then,” I replied.

“Yeah, I do four or five of these festivals a year.”

I nodded.

“I have a wizard’s robe…and a tall purple hat. I don’t wear it that often, it’s starting to fall apart.”

That one, I admit, got my attention.

“It was from a costume shop. I used to do the renaissance fair circuit. Kids would come up to me and say, “Hey, it’s Merlin!”

I may have smiled slightly, out of sheer confusion.

And then in his best English wizard accent, hand extended for emphasis: “I am not Merlin,” I tell them. “I am Melvin, Merlin’s half-brother. And he owes me five groat!”

He paused, for applause perhaps, which didn’t come. Instead he got a blank stare as I whispered a small prayer of rescue. Enter my co-usher Emily, the fastest answered prayer on record.

It’s all good though, because I learned something. The word groat.

I wasn’t taking a scientific poll, but I am fairly certain that in two days of ushering people in and out of documentaries, narratives, shorts and features, I saw every color, religion, race, creed, and stereotype possible. It was awesome.

At a movie called “Valley of Saints,” set in Kashmir, I sat in front of a polite teenage couple and directly behind an Indian family. The remaining seats were a clash of cultures, including a kid in a Wichita East High T-shirt taking notes by the slit of light through a stained glass window, an Amy Winehouse look-alike in 6-inch heels, and a man who was obviously dragged in by his wife to this subtitled foreign film.

At a documentary called “Detropia,” about the disappearing American auto industry and city of Detroit in general, a Swedish woman in the loudest jeweled gold scarf I’ve ever seen sat on the end of a row, chatting it up loudly with someone I assumed was her sister.

Across the aisle was a fidgety middle-aged man with a $200 haircut and Harry Potter glasses. A fellow usher came in a little late, grabbing one of the last chairs. He was originally from Detroit, he explained, so he knew he had to see this one.

I had worked with him the night before at the sold-out feature film, “The Story of Luke.” It was shown on the third-floor theater of the Scottish Rite Temple, a gorgeous ornate stone building downtown. This was the only one of the five Independently Stubborn Film Award contenders I saw, which I regret. If I could have seen them all, I would have.

This film seating was smooth considering the waves of people that flowed in—the last count I heard was 600, a capacity crowd. I also presented my first and only experience with a power-hungry volunteer. Mr. “We-have-more-seating-even-though-I just-told-you-people-there’s-no-more-seating.” I like to call him “Mr.-make-up-your- -mind.” Or Lance. Because he just looked like a Lance.

Lance took himself very seriously. Every time he returned from seating another person through voodoo theater powers, he would snap his fingers and grab another one that had just been directed to the balcony stairs. I gave up after awhile and directed myself to the balcony stairs.

These people, Lance included, and the thousands of others, made this event what it is. A fantastic melting pot of personalities, creativity, lifestyles and tastes. There’s something for everyone. Hippy wizards with highly conditioned hair and finger-snapping ushers welcome.


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