CARBONDALE -- As the 44th annual Big Muddy Film Festival gears up for another year of showcasing some of the finest independent filmmakers, one of Southern Illinois University Carbondale's iconic events will return to more familiar surroundings: A theater.
After the 2021 edition was limited to a virtual format due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year's festival, Feb. 24-27, will have showings at The Varsity Theater, 418 S. Illinois Ave., and University Museum on campus. One of the nation's oldest film festivals affiliated with a university and widely known for strong documentaries that highlight social issues will have 81 competitive films in animation, experimental, narrative and documentary categories, along with the John Michaels Award competition.
All of the events are free and open to the public. The university is committed to protecting the community, so visitors must follow current campus and state pandemic safety protocols and wear masks in shared indoor spaces.
While the festival will be four days, there will be plenty for audiences to see, said Sarah Lewison, an associate professor in radio, television and digital media, in the College of Arts and Media's School of Media Arts. With nine different programs of short films, besides the opening feature, there will be films that will appeal to everyone.
This year "concentrated on shorts and the interesting story relationships between those shorts," Lewison said. "We were very selective this year. Every film we placed in the festival is a film that we are excited about seeing again."
Accomplished media makers are jurors
The jurors include Valerie Soe, an award-winning Sam Francisco Bay-area media artist; Roya Ebtehaj, an interdisciplinary animator and media artist, and Dan Mirvish, a critically acclaimed director, screenwriter, producer and author who is co-founder of the annual Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. All have been evaluating films from their homes. Soe's and Ebtehaj's talks will be on Feb. 24 in Morris Library's John C. Guyon Auditorium. A public reception will be at 2 p.m.
Soe is a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University. Her experimental videos, installations and documentaries have been shown at festivals, museums and galleries around the world. Soe's presentation is at 1 p.m.
Ebtehaj is an inclusive postdoctoral fellow at Santa Clara State University's Department of Art and Art History, where she teaches digital media courses. Ebtehaj uses XR, 3D, animation, video, web, print, and installation, and her work has been shown internationally. Her presentation is at 3 p.m.
Mirvish's 2021 film, "18½", will be shown at 7 p.m. Feb. 24 at the Varsity Theater. The film is a "'70s Watergate thriller/dark comedy" that looks at the gap in President Nixon's missing audio tape. The political satire will be shown in Carbondale more than a month ahead of a scheduled premiere at the Manchester Film Festival in England. Organizers are also working with Mirvish on details for an online event.
Nine programs over three days
The festival will feature nine programs of shorts and competition films Feb. 25-27, all at the Varsity Theater. The programs are listed at bigmuddyfilmfestival.com. The "Best of the Festival," a screening of the award-winning films, is at 6 p.m. Feb. 27 at the Varsity Theater. The festival also has a Facebook page.
Along with the four categories, the festival will also feature films for the John Michaels Award, which focuses on stories that highlight struggles for social and environmental justice. The competition honors the late John Michaels, a cinema student in the 1980s who earned his Master of Fine Arts degree at SIU Carbondale and was involved in community organizing and activism before he died of brain cancer.
University Museum is a new venue
An addition this year is the "Moods of Modernity" film installation that will feature seven films available for viewing at University Museum on campus. The compilation in Saluki Gallery runs through March 12 during normal University Museum hours. In addition, memorabilia, including old Big Muddy Film Festival posters and programs, will be displayed.
"For anybody who follows film history, especially independent film history, there is a wealth of really interesting material, especially in the programs. In the early days of the festival, we brought in some of the most important experimental and documentary filmmakers in the world," Lewison said.
A film committee comprising students, faculty members and the community selected this year's lineup. Lewison emphasized that students, who will be presenting the programs, are enthusiastic.
"We've had a fantastic group of people who are working on the festival. We are really excited to host these films and to welcome guests to the Varsity Theater," Lewison said, noting the longtime film festival patrons tell stories of prior festival successes.
"We have that sense of enthusiasm. We are taking that energy and trying to tap into that current and bring it alive again," she said.