A Mountain of Movies: After Years of Wandering, the Southern Appalachian International Film Festival Lands in Knoxville

Some film festivals are named after cities—the New York Film Festival, the Nashville Film Festival. Not the Southern Appalachian International Film Festival.

"It's important to think more broadly," says SOAPIFF founder Mark Compton.

SOAPIFF, which runs Nov. 12-18 at Knoxville-area venues, is in its seventh year. It has roamed during that time: Compton started it in Johnson City as part of his graduate work in cross-cultural tourism development at East Tennessee State University. One year the festival was in Kingsport, and in 2011, SOAPIFF events took place in Greeneville and in the Knoxville area.

This year, for the first time, "the whole shebang will open entirely in Knoxville—all the movies, guest speakers, and ending awards ceremonies," Compton says.

"We're hoping that the move to Knoxville means bigger audiences, more funding," says Amelia McCormick, the festival's artistic director.

Most screenings will be held in the Goins Building Auditorium on Pellissippi State Community College's Hardin Valley campus. Others will take place at the Knoxville Museum of Art, and at Pellissippi State's Blount County, Division Street, Magnolia Avenue, and Strawberry Plains campuses.

All SOAPIFF events are free. "We could make a lot more money selling tickets," says Compton. But he prefers to keep the festival open to more filmgoers. "I would rather someone be enlightened or entertained."

This year's festival includes more than 70 titles—shorts and features, documentaries and scripted films. There are films with environmental themes, like Roots and Hollers, about the ginseng trade. Other films focus on the concerns of cultural minorities (Hombre y Tierra) or on women's issues (Who Cares About Kelsey?). There are films about LGBT folk (I Now Pronounce You Husband and Husband). There is an Andrew Bird documentary/concert film.

"Most of the stuff we get won't make it to Regal, to Downtown West," says Johnson City-based McCormick, who has a background in film production. "I really admire independent filmmakers. I want to give them a leg up." As artistic director, McCormick is responsible for selecting festival titles. Each year, filmmakers submit up to 250 films for SOAPIFF consideration, some of them through the website withoutabox.com, on which SOAPIFF maintains a presence.

True to the festival's name, many entries are by international filmmakers or have international themes, like the feature documentary Little Tibet. "I can't stress enough how important it is to show foreign films," says Compton. Seeing them "gives you insight to the global condition," he says.

Indeed, the festival is partly sponsored by the Tennessee Consortium for International Studies, which facilitates efforts at colleges and universities statewide. "TnCIS was established at Pellissippi State to engage students with learning about international cultures and globalization," notes Michael Tomlinson, a Pellissippi State media technologies professor who coordinates SOAPIFF screenings. "And SOAPIFF brings international culture to students on campus."

"The students, we want to educate them as to what's out there," says McCormick. "For a lot of them, the only films they've seen are on Netflix or in theaters."

Some SOAPIFF films have Appalachian themes, like the short documentaries "The Mysterious Lost State of Franklin" and "Mountain Man," about a West Virginian fighting to hold onto his land amid the despoliation of mountaintop-removal mining. The scripted feature Beauty Beneath the Dirt takes place on the Appalachian Trail.

Compton hopes the festival will bring positive attention to the region. "There's a stereotype," he says. "People should know about how smart Appalachia is, about the great colleges and universities that are in Appalachia. I want to let the rest of the world know that we are progressive in a lot of ways."

Among the festival's special guests is Hollywood executive and producer Adam Leipzig. As president of National Geographic Films, he oversaw the release of the smash 2005 documentary March of the Penguins, which screens Monday, Nov. 12, at Hardin Valley. Showing before it is the Robin Williams drama Dead Poets Society, which Leipzig supervised as a Disney executive. On Tuesday, Nov. 13, the Knoxville Museum of Art hosts a screening of Titus, Julie Taymor's adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, which Leipzig coproduced. Receptions for Leipzig will accompany the screenings.

"He's coming to talk about what it takes to get films made," says Compton. "He's been doing it for years."

Compton is something of a Renaissance man himself. An English instructor at North Carolina's Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, he is also a filmmaker, an actor, and a writer of Gothic magical-realist fiction. He has lived everywhere from Seattle to Miami, and his educational pursuits have included theology and graphic design, in addition to cross-cultural tourism development.

He is passionate on the topic of moviegoing. "It's a communal experience," he says. "There is something spiritual about when human beings gather and are entertained or receive a message together."

On Sunday, Nov. 18, the Knoxville Museum of Art hosts the festival's closing awards ceremony. The festival bestows some honors in the name of Mary Jane Coleman, who in 1969 founded Greeneville's Sinking Creek Film Celebration. It is now the Nashville Film Festival.

After SOAPIFF's years of wandering the hills, McCormick hopes he has found a place for the festival to settle. "I would like to see it have a permanent home," she says. "And if Knoxville is that, that would be great. I enjoy Knoxville. It's a great city."

A Pair of SOAPIFF Highlights:

Roadmap to Apartheid

Eron Davidson and Ana Nogueira's polemical documentary forcefully likens the Palestinian situation to South Africa's racist apartheid regime. In thoughtful interviews with experts, and in harrowing footage from Palestine and South Africa, the film identifies parallels that are indeed striking—about history and identity, about road networks and housing policies. It's helpful to have the Palestinian crisis summarized this way, though a more balanced film would have more to say about the toll of terrorist violence in Israel. Alice Walker narrates.

Pellissippi State Community College Goins Building Auditorium (10915 Hardin Valley Road) • Tuesday, Nov. 13 • 6:15 p.m.

Boy With Blue

This is a remarkably effective and well-designed film, considering that it was shot in less than 24 hours for less than $10,000. The story unfolds on a single set, as a troubled husband and wife (David H. Stevens, Kymberly Mellen) mourn their teenage son (Ben Isaacs) and confront the young woman (Heidi Anderson) who caused his death. It's an emotionally intense work with a well-plotted, multifaceted story, though the dialogue is sometimes awkward. Still, $10,000! A single codpiece for Tom Cruise in Rock of Ages probably cost that much.

Pellissippi State Community College Goins Building Auditorium (10915 Hardin Valley Road) • Wednesday, Nov. 14 • 6 p.m.