A Sidewalk selfie from last year’s Festival

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Early American author Jack London said that and it’s one of my favorite quotes about finding the inspiration to write. We writers can sit around waiting to get hit over the head with inspiration, we have to seek it everywhere.

I often find inspiration in movies — from feature films, to shorts, to documentaries — and that’s why every August you’ll find me at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham.

If you have your tickets for this weekend’s festival you’re probably feeling overwhelmed by all the choices you see on the schedule. Don’t fret. I’ve got you covered.

Corey Craft, one of my colleagues at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, is a features programmer for the festival. Corey has written about film since 2009, teaches a history of film class at ASFA, and has a degree in telecommunications and film with an emphasis in critical studies from the University of Alabama. So before I made my list of must-see movies, I always talk to him first.

Here’s what he had to say…

This is the 20th Sidewalk Film Festival. Will there be anything different about this year’s festival to mark this milestone?

We always try to pack the lineup with great films, but for year 20, I think all of us programmers would agree we’ve selected a special group. We have as always more than 250 short and feature-length films in our weekend of screenings, and our usual terrific parties, panel discussions and special events, but obviously we’re marking the occasion with a whole lot of birthday cake.

Tell me more about the opening night film. Why did you all feel this would be a good pick to kick off the weekend? 

Our opening night film, “White Tide: The Legend of Culebra,” is a real stranger-than-fiction documentary filled with genuine laughs and suspense. The film is an entertaining ride from start to finish, telling a true-crime story that’s too ridiculous to be anything but true, about a family man who loses it all during the Great Recession, and risks everything on a tall-tale get-rick-quick scheme involving a rumored buried treasure of $2 million worth of cocaine, somewhere on a distant tropical island. Naturally, this guy doesn’t know the first thing about drug trafficking, or what to do with that much cocaine even if he found it — so

What are five of your favorite films that you would tell See Jane Write readers they must see? What makes these films special? 

In no order, these are a few of my absolute favorite films in the lineup:

“Madeline’s Madeline” is a wild ride of an experimental drama that deals with, among other things, representation in art, how we define ourselves free from the pressures of others, and the slippery ethics of trying to tell someone else’s story. It’s about troubled teenager Madeline, played stunningly by newcomer Helena Howard, who tries to free herself from the oppression of her overbearing mother and finds solace in her experimental theatre troupe — though when the latest production presumes to tell her story, Madeline goes to some uncomfortable lengths to regain control of her narrative. It’s the third film from writer-director Josephine Decker, and it’s like nothing I’ve seen in years; it truly feels like it rewrites the rules of what film storytelling can be.

I love “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” an experimental Alabama-set documentary that plays like a kaleidoscope of footage from the Black Belt area. The filmmaker, RaMell Ross, worked as a photography professor in the area for some time and assembled much of his footage into this endlessly striking non-narrative look at a region and its people that are much maligned and misunderstood. If nothing else, it’s a spotlight on the beauty of the region and the everyday triumphs of its people.

Director Robert Greene’s documentary “Bisbee ‘17” is a real stunner. In 1917, the town of Bisbee, Arizona, a mining town near the Mexican border, was rocked by a miners’ strike. Concerned the town would lose its livelihood and go the way of many other western boomtowns, the police force and concerned citizens rounded up the striking miners — a mostly immigrant population — and forcibly deported them to the middle of the desert. In 2017, the town gathers to stage recreations of this dark moment in their past, putting themselves in the shoes of their ancestors (and those their ancestors removed from their homes). At a moment in the nation where workers’ rights feel as if they’re slipping from our fingers and indiscriminately heartless deportations of undocumented immigrants have become the devastating new normal, “Bisbee ‘17” is a boldly political jolt, a reminder that such struggles are woven into the fabric of this country, and a clarion call for empathy.

I’ll mention a couple more documentaries that I love: “América,” a beautiful and compassionate film about sibling Mexican circus performers who struggle to care for their ailing elderly grandmother; and “People’s Republic of Desire,” a bleak look at the digital alienation wrought by China’s sudden boom of Internet webcam celebrities, who can gain astounding wealth simply by performing basic routines in front of their laptops for legions of adoring patrons. Those are basically polar opposites of one another, the former warm and empathetic, the latter frigid and nearly dystopian. But both are terrific.

Are there any films by female directors that are standouts this year?

I already mentioned “Madeline’s Madeline,” but we have some other great ones: “Wrestle,” another Alabama documentary about a wrestling team from a failing Huntsville high school and their struggles and triumphs during the course of a season; “Mapplethorpe,” a biopic of the transgressive photographer Robert Mapplethorpe; “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” a drama set at a gay conversion camp starring Chloe Grace Moretz; “Never Goin’ Back,” a raunchy gross-out comedy about two teen girls who just want to take a trip to the beach; and “Holiday,” a deeply disturbing portrait of excess and misogynistic violence about a gangster’s girlfriend on a luxury beach vacation. (A most profound content warning for depictions of violence and sexual assault in “Holiday”; if you have a particularly strong stomach, I think you’ll find it worthwhile and provocative.)

Are there any films you feel will appeal particularly to writers?

As it happens, another of my favorite films in the lineup is “Wild Nights With Emily” — a comedy about the life of Emily Dickinson, here played by Molly Shannon, and her secret romantic relationship with her sister-in-law. It’s quite entertaining, and not just for writers or those familiar with Dickinson’s poetry — though if you are, I bet it would help.

Tell us more about “Hearts Beat Loud.” What makes this film a great way to close the festival? 

“Hearts Beat Loud” is such a wonderful crowdpleaser, a movie about a single dad (Nick Offerman) whose daughter (Kiersey Clemons) is about to leave for school on the other side of the country. But before she does, he insists they turn their regular jam sessions into an actual band — and with his daughter’s songwriting talents, they find unexpected success. It’s a lovely, sincere movie — it also stars, among others, Toni Collette and Ted Danson (who plays a bartender!) — and most importantly, for a music film, the music is actually great!

Are you going to Sidewalk Film Festival this weekend? Which movies do you plan to see?