Bright Lights, Big Prairie: The story of the Prairie Lights Film Festival

 

written by Ben Ehlers

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What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the phrase “Nebraska filmmakers?” Hopefully, most of you thought of Omaha native Alexander Payne. Others perhaps chuckled at the idea of those two words being placed in the same sentence. For Matthew Kister, Mark Popejoy and Ben Matukewicz of the Prairie Lights Film Festival, Nebraska filmmakers are a collective community of creative and resourceful artists who write, direct, and produce their film visions every day.

Balderdash, not in Nebraska! This state is full of hardworking citizens who don’t have time for such fanciful pursuits.

I thought you might say that. Quite frankly, for a long time that was the unfortunate truth. Until the last 20 years or so, there had not been a lot of support for filmmakers or filmmaking in Nebraska. This year the Omaha Film Festival celebrated its 14th year, it is the elder statesman of Nebraska film festivals. However, the Omaha festival does not focus on only Nebraskan filmmakers. Enter the Prairie Lights Film Festival. The Prairie Lights Film Festival—now in its seventh year—celebrates films created in Nebraska or by Nebraskans.

“The Nebraska independent film scene is active but unorganized,” said Prairie Lights Social Media Director Ben Matukewicz. “The presence and culture are there, but you have to dig to find it.” The main goal of the festival is to promote, grow, and showcase the wide variety of films made by Nebraskans and to encourage networking, vibrancy, and public support for an industry often overlooked in the state. Filmmakers are out there, they just need a place to connect with each other and audiences. In 2014-15, Matukewicz was working within his own sphere of that unorganized Nebraska film scene when Prairie Lights organizers approached him about a film he had recently produced, directed and acted in titled “Almost a Weekend”.

“As a filmmaker I was just trying to meet people and network,” explained Matukewicz. “What I realized right away was that this festival was not intimidating at all. It was really easy to get to know people, including the people in charge.” It is this approachable nature of the festival that helps break through those old Nebraska stereotypes about filmmaking. This non-competitive film festival accepts all entries (within reason) until the schedule is filled. This aspect of the festival has encouraged young filmmakers and first-time filmmakers alike. Attendance of the festival has steadily increased each year, and media coverage has greatly improved over the last two or three years. Continued growth is a yearly goal for the festival organizers.

The next step is to make the festival more accessible to non-filmmakers. Grand Island is a great community, and the Grand Theatre is a movie palace with a history stretching back to the golden age of film. “We look at Prairie Lights as a celebration of movies in the state of Nebraska,” continued Matukewicz. “We have after-parties and mixers for everyone who attends.” This openness creates many networking opportunities that some other festivals don’t offer. Not to mention it is a chance for those who submit films to see firsthand how traditional movie audiences and other filmmakers respond to their work.

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Long term goals of the festival are to attract more attention by those outside the Nebraska sphere. Some alumni have gone on to further success. The hope is that those success stories will spread and draw attention to the festival (and the state), opening doors for other Nebraska filmmakers and actors. Moreover, organizers want to encourage young filmmakers not be afraid to make their dreams a reality. Student filmmakers of today will be the ones taking the next steps to organize the independent film scene in Nebraska. Student filmmakers and youth with a general interest in film are strongly encouraged to attend and contribute films. The open and unintimidating atmosphere of the festival is the perfect environment for young filmmakers to collect feedback, encouragement and knowledge. This year, the festival will feature “Student Film Sunday”, a portion of the day that will be dedicated to only student film. “We want students to understand that this is an opportunity to get involved,” said Matukewicz. “If you put in the effort to create something, people will support you. It might not be perfect, but you’ll learn and grow.”

Great advice for a filmmaker and film festival organizers, “learn and grow”. The Prairie Light Film Festival will continue to do just that Oct. 11-13. Come to Grand Island and help us unearth this vibrant and diverse community and share its art with Nebraska and beyond. To learn more, purchase festival passes, or submit a film, visit the website at www.prairielightsfilmfest.com.