The documentary “Florence, Kansas” by filmmaker Steve Lerner will make it to the big screen April 13 and 14 as a featured film in the 2012 Kansas City Film Fest.
“Not very often does a little small town get notoriety unless it’s in a bad light, and it’s nice that this is in a good light,” Florence Historical Society President Judy Mills said. “I’m excited it will put Florence in another venue for people to see our town.”
Lerner’s 20-minute film uses old film footage, photographs, and interviews with residents to tell the history of Florence from the glory days of the railroad and oil booms to the significant impact of economic decline in the last half of the 20th century. It ends with old and new residents expressing their hopes and ideas for the town’s revival.
“It could be Anytown, U.S.A.,” Mills said. “It’s nice they chose Florence, but I’m sure there are towns out there that relate to this story very much.”
Lerner said the idea for a film documenting the challenges facing small rural communities grew out of a conversation he had with a friend during a 2009 visit to Florence.
“A friend of mine, Frank Barthell, and I were walking on Main Street one day around 5:30, the sunlight on the buildings was the kind photographers love, and he said ‘Someone ought to make a film about this place,” Lerner said.
A $10,000 grant from the Kansas Humanities Council gave Lerner the resources he needed to bring the film to fruition, though he had already started filming before he secured the grant.
While Lerner had a long-standing interest in small towns, he wasn’t prepared for what he discovered when he filmed his first interviews on Memorial Day 2010.
“We set up a room at the school gym and interviewed a series of people coming back for the Florence alumni banquet,” Lerner said.
“I hadn’t quite anticipated the incredible depth of love people had for their town, and the interaction of that deep feeling with the realities of what they’re up against,” Lerner said.
The reaction was particularly intense when Lerner asked people to describe what they felt was the heart of Florence.
“Several people burst into tears at that question,” Lerner said as he described stories they related of hard times where neighbors pitched in to bring solace and healing to others.
“A surprise was the willingness to share that up front with a stranger. I ended up respecting those people very much,” Lerner said.
“Schools have closed, the grocery stores have closed, employment opportunities are limited, and yet there is a rich history and the sense of limitless possibilities,” Lerner said.
Lerner decided to forgo using a narrator for the film, choosing instead to let Florence’s story be told by the 40 to 50 people he interviewed.
“The editing process was incredibly difficult,” Lerner said. “We did not script transitions, so piecing it together so it makes sense in the words of the interviewees was backbreaking.”
A year after the first interviews, Florence residents got their first look at the documentary at a Memorial Day screening at the Florence Masonic Lodge. Lerner recalled a comment he received following the screening.
“One person said ‘I think it’s realistic.’ I took that as a compliment to the film, to show realistically in a positive but frank way the challenges,” Lerner said. “While I wasn’t making a booster film, I didn’t want to disappoint people. I felt a huge responsibility to tell the truth as told by these folks.”
The next challenge was getting the film into a film festival. Lerner said it was rejected four or five times before he paid the entry fee for the Kansas City FilmFest competition.
“I thought ‘What the heck, I might as well waste $30 on it,” Lerner laughed.
Kansas City Filmmakers Jubilee Executive Director Jeph Scanlon, the lead programmer for Kansas City FilmFest, said Lerner’s film was one of 80 films from among 250 entries selected for the festival.
“Many of them, like ‘Florence, Kansas,’ are shorter films,” Scanlon said. “Some of the smaller genres may have only three or four entries that make it to the final round before we make our decisions.”
Scanlon is responsible for making the final decisions about what films to show.
“It’s a matter of paring down to the best films that we have,” Scanlon said. “We want to have a variety of things — diverse geographically, diverse genres, diversity among the filmmakers themselves.”
One reason Scanlon gave for the film making the cut echoed Mills’ comment about appealing to a broader audience.
“The movie takes a very classic Kansas small town that had a boom in the first half of the 20th century and a small town bust in the second half, and it illustrates that very well. In the case of this movie and this town it points out the 1951 flood, which if not the event, was a significant event,” Scanlon said.
“From that perspective, it is a very ‘everyman’ sort of story, if you grew up in or know anything about small-town America,” Scanlon said.
Lerner is excited the film will be a part of the festival.
“It’s going to play on the big screen in high definition with a spruced-up music track, so it’s going to be a great opportunity to see it at its best at the theater,” Lerner said.
Mills believes small towns should always be ready for unexpected opportunities such as this.
“We don’t realize when something like this might happen,” Mills said. “We always have to present ourselves as likable and friendly, because you never know when someone might drive through town and hang their hat or take a picture. It very well could happen.”
The film will be shown twice during the festival, at 4 p.m. April 13 at the Ward Parkway AMC theater, and at 3:30 p.m. April 14 at the historic AMC Mainstreet 6 theater in downtown Kansas City, Mo. Festival schedule, location, and ticket information is available through the Kansas City FilmFest website at http://2012.kcfilmfest.org.