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Heartland Film Fest brings IU grads back

By Rorye O'Conner and Rorye O'Connor

They went to Las Vegas and Hollywood, but they're coming back.\nSeveral IU grads and Indiana natives will return to the Hoosier state to participate in the 15th annual Heartland Film Festival, which opens Thursday in Indianapolis. \nThe Heartland Film Festival is a weeklong event that celebrates the theme of "Truly Moving Pictures," according to a press release from Heartland. Almost 40 films will be shown in three theaters in Indianapolis, and many of the films are in contention for awards such as the Truly Moving Picture Award, Audience Choice Awards and the Crystal Heart Awards.\nThe films are judged by several different boards, Jeffrey L. Sparks, president and CEO of Heartland Film Festival, said in an e-mail.\nA screening committee reviews all entries and then selects the most well-made films that also fulfill Heartland's mission. The committee's picks are then reviewed by the Heartland staff, Sparks said. Three former Crystal Heart Award winners form the jury that makes the final decision for the year's winners.\nThe Crystal Heart Award is given to a group of independent filmmakers for excellence in filmmaking and meeting the festival's mission statement. Heartland's mission, according to, is "to recognize and honor filmmakers whose work explores the human journey by artistically expressing hope and respect for the positive values of life." \nThis year the Crystal Heart Awards Gala will be emceed by Extra TV's Las Vegas reporter Carlos Diaz, who is an Indianapolis native and 1993 IU grad.\n"It's really one of the biggest honors of my career," Diaz said. "It's one thing to interview stars, but Indiana is where (I was) raised, and to be asked to come back and host this amazing event, I am humbled beyond words."\nDiaz said he thought it was important for people to attend the Heartland Film Festival because the Midwest has a voice that needs to be heard. He said that while many large Hollywood films are valued for their expensive special effects, "the one special effect that the Heartland Film Festival has is on your emotions." \nDiaz is not the only IU grad and Indiana native returning from the West Coast to celebrate the film festival. "Little Big Top" -- one of the films in the running for the Audience Award -- was written, directed and produced by Indiana natives and featured actors from Indiana who attended IU. \nWard Roberts, the writer and director of the film, was born and raised in Peru, Ind., the setting of the film, which Roberts described as "dark, weird, funny, honest, personal and ultimately hopeful." It focuses on a former clown, Seymour Smiles, played by Sid Haig of "House of 1,000 Corpses" and "The Devil's Rejects." Seymour returns to his family's home in the small town of Peru with the intention of drinking himself to death, but he is drawn into helping the children at the Peru Amateur Circus by a supportive circle of friends.\n"His love for life is reawakened as he confronts the fears and misery that led him to the bottle in the first place," Roberts said.\nJessica Petelle-Slagle, the film's producer, is a Churubusco, Ind., native and also an IU grad. She said the film's themes include forgiveness and never giving up on yourself.\n"Seymour faces a lot of stumbling blocks and (initially) isn't a very nice person, and the audience goes along with him in his journey and believes in him," she said. \nHope is another one of the film's themes.\n"I think if you allow yourself to take chances and put yourself out there and you're surrounded by people that support you, it's a good life," he said. "Hope triumphs over fear."\nEvery frame of the film was shot in Roberts' hometown, and it features the real-life Peru Amateur Circus. \nRoberts, who was a member of the Peru Amateur Circus in middle school, explained it is a permanent three-ring circus in downtown Peru that trains people 21 and younger.\nIn the 1800s, Peru was the circus headquarters of the United States, and the amateur circus is "a story unto itself," Roberts said. He explained that all the major circuses of the United States used to spend the winter in Peru, and several generations of circus performers and employees ended up living in the Indiana city. \nThough Petelle-Slagle spends much of her time in Los Angeles, she is a founding member of the Indiana Media Industry Network, "an organization set up by Indiana media professionals to lobby for tax incentives for film and commercial production" in Indiana, she said.\nPetelle-Slagle is also the co-president of the IU Alumni Association's Hoosiers in Hollywood group, a networking group created to help IU grads working in the film industry. \n"There are so many IU grads here in L.A.," she said, "and I want to connect them." \nWhile all of these IU grads have moved to other states, they say they still feel the effect IU has had on their lives.\n"IU has the classes and the people where you can find kindred spirits," said Roberts, who got his team together while part of IU's Individualized Major Program for directing, producing and acting. \nDiaz said although IU is one of the most best universities in America, students are at a disadvantage because the University isn't in a big city. \n"When you go to IU, you have to make a conscious effort to get out there and take advantage of what's in Bloomington," he said.\nThe team of IU grads from "Little Big Top" will be in Bloomington on Friday because the team's other film, "Joshua," a horror film, is being shown by the Ryder Film Series at the Fine Arts Building. There will be a question-and-answer session after the showing of the film. \nFor more information on the Heartland Film Festival, visit For more information on the Ryder Film Series, visit

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