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Columbia festival Indie Grits offers Blake Brockington documentary amongst its lineup

The annual event attracts thousands and is more than movies

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Indie Grits, Columbia, South Carolina's cleverly titled film and arts festival, isn't named just for the ground-corn side dish (and delicacy, some say) that helps define Southern cuisine. The name also refers to the gritty nature of the films submitted for the competition.

"Indie Grits was originally conceived as a DIY Southern film festival," says Seth Gadsden, the festival's co-director and an artist himself. "The films are supposed to be experimental and have that gritty, DIY look to them."

In other words, not having much of a budget is not a barrier to entry. Perhaps that's why organizers received 400 entries this year.

The ninth annual festival in South Carolina's capital returns April 15-19. For film lovers, or anyone looking for a good time that includes a big helping of culture, the 90 minutes down I-77 from Charlotte is worth it.

A Charlotte Connection

One of the 74 films scheduled to be shown is BrocKINGton, produced by a group of students from Elon University. The subject is Blake Brockington, a transgender teen from Charlotte who was crowned homecoming king — and made national news for it — at East Mecklenburg High School last year.

The already poignant film became positively heartbreaking late last month when Brockington, bullied since childhood, reportedly took his life. In the film, he talks about being rejected by his family, acting out at school and cutting himself.

"BrocKINGton is the perfect example of an Indie Grits film," Gadsden says. "The subject matter is necessary, and it's a subject the filmmakers handle so well."

Maggie Sloane and Sergio Ingato were classmates of Charlotte's Mason Sklut, now 23, at Elon University. The three were assigned a semester-long project to create a documentary short.

"All we knew was that we wanted to make a piece about trans issues, but didn't know where to start," Ingato said. "We began researching online and came across an article about Blake. The story was one we could not resist."

The trio's hunch about Brockington, 18 when he died, was right.

"Blake is one of the most resilient, positive and creative young men I have ever met," said Ingato, before Brockington's death. "Blake has an unbreakable spirit and goes out of his way to help others in need, and stand up for what is right."

That unbreakable spirit seems evident in the short film. Brockington's recent death shocked the filmmakers and has turned this film into a loving tribute — and an urgent call for tolerance and acceptance.

"We believe BrocKINGton could be a good resource for students and show them the harmful effects of bullying," Ingato said. "Not everyone knows a transgender person, and this film will help open their eyes."

While the documentary short clocks in at just nine minutes, it took the Elon students about 60 hours to make it. It's already getting national and even international attention. The movie premiered at the Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival (aGLIFF), where it won Best Documentary Short. It's also played at the OUTrageous Film Festival in Santa Barbara. Later this year, it will be shown at the Sydney Transgender International Film Festival, Melbourne Queer Film Festival and the Mix Copenhagen: LesbianGayBiTrans Film Festival. Not bad for a class project.

More than Movies

Festival organizers plan to show some films that pack an emotional punch, but they also want visitors to have fun. And fun is virtually guaranteed. In fact, there's a virtual component to Indie Grits. "Indie Bits" is the festival-within-a-festival that celebrates the best of gaming. This is the second year that developers have been invited to submit their Web-based gaming apps for consideration. Gadsden says one of the most memorable games from last year's festival allowed the user to be (in a virtual world) a teacher who had to rescue students from a burning schoolhouse.

The gamer moves the teacher around the screen, in and out of the burning school. Each time the teacher emerges, she has more kids trailing behind her. She must keep those kids safe — while continuing to return to the school that's engulfed in flames.

The name of the game? "No Child Left Behind."

This year's wildest game might be the live, 3-D version of Pacman. GRITman, a maze with walls standing eight feet high, will be set up to allow people to become human Pacmen. Check it out at the festival's free opening party on April 15.

Everything at the festival is designed to be within easy reach. The games are right across from the movie venue. And the food, art and music venues are all within walking distance.

"There are lots of free events this year," says Gadsden. "And no ticket is more than $10." They're able to keep prices so low thanks to a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

For music lovers, there's Michael Parallax, who makes what's been described as Pop Spiritual Revival Tent Music; Hectorina's rock opera (they're from Charlotte!) at the opening night party; and Mechanical River and Infinitkiss at the closing party on April 19.

Visual arts get their due, too. Sixteen artists were selected to exhibit their work along Main Street. And there are two "puppet slams" (April 17 and 18 at 7 p.m.) that can get so crude that people walk out on it, Gadsden says. "These puppeteers will not hesitate to go there."

And for the first time, the festival has a theme: "Future Perfect."

This year is the 150th anniversary of Gen. Sherman's burning of Columbia. Gadsden says the occasion offered organizers the chance to look back on how Columbia has grown since Reconstruction – and what a city of the "New South" might look like now and in the future. (Does that sound familiar, Charlotteans?)

Gadsden says future perfect is, of course, a verb tense. But it's also a prompt for artists to explore how cities can shape a bright future. Things take a serious turn on Thursday, April 16 when a panel of experts will discuss the role of contemporary urban design in economic development.

"We're interested in getting city leaders in Columbia to include the arts in discussions about the city's future," Gadsden says. "If military and real estate are at the table, then artists need to be, too. Who's better at spatial thinking than an artist?"

But it was film that gave Indie Grits its start, and film remains the soul of the festival. This year, there's a Mini Cine, a pop-up cinema in a portable shipping container! The pop-up theater will be open throughout the festival to show two Future Perfect programs of video art on continuous loop.

Indie Grits offers arts, culture, food and fun — on a nearly continuous loop – for five days straight. The festival attracts more and more people each year — 12,000 came out for it in 2014. Like its namesake side dish, Indie Grits has become something of a Southern staple itself.

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