Hell’s Half Mile celebrates Bay City’s soul

Hell's Half Mile celebrates Bay City's soul
By Greg Horner, Promotions Manager.

For the last weekend of September downtown Bay City hosted four days of movies, music and partying in-between.  At the 10th annual Hell’s Half Mile Film and Music Festival, a community came together to celebrate the work of artists from across the country.

“It’s exciting to bring this kind of thing to Bay City,” said Don Hessell, a program manager for the festival.

“Typically you can’t get a lot of independent films here you have to go to Detroit and Ann Arbor, and to have it here in your own backyard makes it special.”

Hell’s Half Mile gets its name from Bay City’s own  history when loggers, gamblers and outlaws would gather in downtown to blow off steam with drinking and debauchery. A lot has changed since the early 1800s but that rebel spirit can still be felt at HHM.

“We’re just trying to find great movies[that are] not going to be shown at the googolplex or whatever theater,” said Jay Glysz, a fellow program manager.

On the film side, 15 program managers screened over 100 movies in order to fill 27 slots. The selection this year included documentaries, surreal shorts and neo-noir features to name a few.

“We’re planning right from when the festival ends until the next year and all of us have day jobs,” said HHM organizer Alan LaFave. “It’s difficult sometimes to fit everything in but that’s why we do it all year long.”

The festival is run entirely by volunteers and all the profits are put into next year’s festival.

“We do a call for submissions from filmmakers all around the world; we also seek out films from other festivals that we attend,” said LaFave. “Everybody gets the same consideration whether they’re submitting through a website or we see them at a festival.”

Initially LaFave and Glysz had to travel to bigger festivals, such as Tribeca and Sundance, to find films for the event; but as HHM has grown more and more filmmakers are submitting their projects themselves.

“As filmmakers come here they’re [then] going to New York or they’re going back to California and they’re telling all their friends what a great festival this is,” said Glysz. “It’s grown very organically.”

That’s how Aaron Wertheimer heard about Hell’s Half Mile. Wertheimer, who’s working the film circuit with his first feature length comedy, “Wedgerino,” was told to check out Hell’s Half Mile by fellow filmmakers.

“It’s awesome. It’s so well organized and the whole community is involved, which is really cool,” said Wertheimer.

“I really like the smaller town ones, because in the ‘big city’ it’s easy to get lost.  It’s very hard to break through, there’s so many films playing constantly and here you actually feel like it’s an event.”

HHM is known for finding a diverse selection of films, but every year the music takes a bigger role. With musicians from Grand Rapids to Brooklyn and all over the musical spectrum, organizers made sure they had something for everybody.

“We have garage rock, hip-hop, electropop,” said Cole Waterman, the festival’s music coordinator.

“It’s all over the place, there isn’t a specific style as long as it’s independent and trying to get big.”

Venues for this year’s festival included the Electric Kitsch record shop, the blue room inside the Masonic Temple and Old City Hall.

“I had never even been to Bay City before June and I’m really happy to be back,” said Hailey Wojcik, a musician native to the Lansing area. “ I was really impressed with how everyone seemed to be really involved in this communal way.”

Delta College is a major supporter of Hell’s Half Mile providing volunteers, financial support and the planetarium as a venue. The festival gives students from Delta’s film capstone class an opportunity to screen their shorts and network with filmmakers.

Erik Dumont, a Delta Alectronic Media student, edited the short film “Fate.” Dumont’s film is one of three short films that premiered from Delta’s EM program, the other two being “Solace” and “Many a Moon.”

“It was a good experience because it really helped point out some of the things that we can improve for next time,” said Dumont. “It’s always great to get feedback both negative and positive so you can make things better.”

The students participated in a Q&A with filmmakers Jeremy Royce and Jerry White Jr. from the documentary, “20 Years of Madness,” and Mark Covino from “A Band Called Death.”

“The more films you watch the more you see what works and doesn’t work,” said Royce. “We all live in the day and age of YouTube and Vimeo where there’s a million great short films out there.”

Covino ended the meeting with words of encouragement. “We’re all making movies, we’re all filmmakers. You guys aren’t aspiring filmmakers, you’re filmmakers, you’re making movies.”

This is Vladmir Salinas’ fifth year as a volunteer at HHM; he first heard about the opportunity from a professor at Delta.

“I love it. It helps the economy of this area and a lot of random and a lot of colorful personalities come through.“

Electric Kitsch has served as the sound sponsor and as a venue for three years. Co-owners Jordan Pries and Jessica McQuarter say it’s nice to see people out experiencing new music on a Saturday afternoon.

“We’re happy to house anyone that HHM wants to put up here, they set up the times and the artists; they do the booking and we work around it,” said Pries.

“This is always a great weekend for business. A lot of people from out of town that don’t get to shop here find stuff; it’s great for us.”

Kathleen Ring had just left a showing of “A Rising Tide” when she remarked, “It’s been what 10 years? And we were just saying we had no idea why we didn’t know about it before now.”

Organizers are still looking to increase community support, but Jay Glysz is happy with the changes he’s seen in 10 years. “It’s Bay City and sometimes they’re a little resistant to new things, so it’s baby steps,” said Glysz. “But every year the attendees go up and with word of mouth it’s getting out there and it’s becoming slowly bigger.”

Sean Bergman is a regular festival attendee who travels every year from Dearborn.

“Every year I meet more and more people and make more and more friends. I plan on coming for as long as this is going on.”

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