Lela Meadow-Conner is executive director of the Tallgrass Film Association, a nonprofit cinematic arts organization in Wichita, Kansas. “Film Art, Wichita…. ” is an understandably startled first response. Lela, in fact, confesses to having had the same response herself. But today she is part of a core of artists and educators transforming Wichita in what many are calling a major cultural renaissance.
“We’re really trying to change the perception of Kansas and the Midwest as just fly-over country,” she says. Earlier this year, Tallgrass sponsored a film production class with an award-winning documentary filmmaker from Vermont. The students set out to make a short film about life in Wichita, and the final product showcases the city’s thriving arts and cultural scene. (You can watch the film at tallgrassfilmfest.com.)

“There’s a lot of room for innovation in smaller cities,” she says. “It’s easier to make a big impact.”

For Lela, the role of art in bringing people together can be as important as the art itself. “We live in an age when that doesn’t happen often anymore,” she says, “when going to the movies is something even I don’t get to do. I have two small kids. I don’t have time to do that. I watch a lot of stuff on my phone, on my computer, my iPad, at my desk—alone. So when you create these opportunities to come together, it brings back that idea of theater, of film viewing, as a communal experience. It creates conversation and builds bridges across segments of the population that might not otherwise be sitting under the same roof.”

In addition to year-round special screenings, filmmaker workshops, and a traveling road show, one of the organization’s major undertakings each year is the annual Tallgrass Film Festival, a five-day event held in October in downtown Wichita that features movies, parties, and educational opportunities. This year’s festival, the 13th, included 203 independent movies from 35 countries. More than 80 filmmakers traveled to Wichita from all over North America to showcase their films.

“People are hungry for this kind of cinematic programming here,” she says. “When I first came here, I was shocked at how much art and culture there was in the city. And that was 12 years ago. It has only grown since. I think Wichita is one of those places—true for a lot of Midwestern cities—where you only hear the negative, and you don’t see the cool stuff that’s going on. Ever since the first festival, international documentaries have been our audience favorites, because that’s not something they are typically exposed to here. We’re really proud that we can help people see the world through a different lens by showing films they otherwise wouldn’t see, especially in the theater. Certain films, like Among the Believers, about a Pakistani jihadist cleric, or Armor of Light, about an evangelical minister who questions the possibilities of being both pro-gun and pro-life, are great, because they really incite discussion and thought, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to achieve.”

Lela knows there is much creative work involved in getting audiences out these days. “We live such a fast-paced lifestyle, to even take two hours to go to the theater seems like a crazy luxury when we should be home checking our email and working 24/7. A lot of what we do involves eventizing our films, for example, presenting a film with other local arts organizations, or pairing a movie with a wine tasting. For the last three years, we’ve partnered with our local music theater, which is one of the biggest regional theater companies in the country. Next year, their season includes “Oklahoma,” and together, we’ll screen the film version coupled with a pie auction to raise money for both of our organizations. In January, we will present a family-friendly film festival called “Smallgrass” with Exploration Place, Wichita’s science and discovery museum. In August, we will present “Dudegrass,” an ode to the Big Lebowski, where we will screen the film in a bowling alley. We really try to be creative, and it’s a lot of fun.”

A champion of women filmmakers, Lela is anxious to introduce their work to audiences and features a Spotlight on Women Filmmakers as part of the festival. “Filmmaking is such a male-dominated industry,” she says. “So many more women are now making films. Every year we do a screening for high school students during the festival. This year, we screened the film Do You Dream in Color?, directed by two women. Co-director Abigail Fuller attended the festival and answered questions for more than 800 area students after the film. It’s so important for these young people to see women at the helm. It makes them think, ‘I can do that! I can make a film.’ There’s so much opportunity now. All you need is a smart phone.” In fact, the festival also screened Tangerine, a critically-acclaimed feature film that was shot entirely on an iPhone.

Though technology played little role in Lela’s days at DCD, she remembers well the rush of energy around every class play. “I rarely had any lines let alone remembered them at the right time, but the experience was confidence-instilling even if it didn’t seem that way at the time. I remember all the creative writing that we did, especially in third grade with Mrs. Lindsay. Coupled with the emphasis on reading, it helped me to understand how important the elements of storytelling are to creating a sustainable and viable culture. I’m sure the emphasis on art and creativity at DCD (including the memorable shop classes with Mr. Patriarca and the jagged artifacts that still adorn my parents’ house) helped shape my ‘stubbornly independent’ outlook on life, because art is about witnessing unique points of view, which often include subtleties and imperfections.

“It’s interesting, because when I was younger I didn’t even think about a career in the arts. I wanted to be a lawyer or a journalist, even up to when I graduated from college. When I went to college and moved to Los Angeles, I wanted to be a poli-sci major. But obviously, the arts were deeply ingrained in me somewhere. And I would say, not just the arts and the humanities, but also the idea—because I work for a nonprofit—of giving back, that generosity, that what-can-you-do-for-your-community spirit. I can remember when I was at DCD, it felt like a real community—everybody helped each other out, and everybody knew each other. Actually it’s kind of like that in Wichita now. It’s a small city. It has that same feeling as DCD; we all know each other; we all help each other out; we all support each other. This sense of togetherness is something I hold sacred from my time at DCD.”

With her husband Jim and young daughters Edie and Margo, Lela Meadow-Conner is working to spread the good word of the arts and community, with reverberations reaching who knows how far beyond Wichita.

One of the visiting filmmakers at this year’s festival recently reached out to her and is interested in turning the story of how a big-city girl uprooted her life to Wichita to create an independent film festival for the community. Perhaps this fictionalized version of the story will hit the film festival circuit in years to come.