Movie Country: The Tulsa American Film Festival

Tulsa hosts one of the country’s youngest film festivals – it started just last year – but it’s quickly gaining notice for its smart programming and purposeful mission.  It also has a perfect, readymade location.  “There was also a beautiful old cinema house with a lot of history that is the base of the independent film community in Tulsa,” says Festival Executive Director Ben Arredondo.  “Jennifer Jones' father ran the theater and she grew up in the theater for part of her childhood.”

It’s called the Tulsa American Film Festival, and they take the name seriously.  In addition to showing great American movies, the festival concentrates on American-made independent features and short films.  “We showcase films that truly represent what America is made and built of,” says Ben, “so we have a very strong Native American and Latino program to start and will expand in years to come. We also focus on supporting Oklahoma-based filmmakers, both professional and students, and of course, Oklahoma-based classic films.”

Ben hails from New York, so he had his work cut out for him when he started the festival.  He admits that his toughest challenge was selling the idea to the Tulsa community.  “I didn't live in Tulsa,” says Ben, “and our programming director, Colleen Thurston, just moved back from working as a programmer at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.  My New York background and Colleen's experience in programming certainly opened doors with organizations and private donors, but proving ourselves to the local film community was our biggest challenge.”

To give the festival a true community feel, the Tulsa American Film Festival goes beyond the doors of the theater.  This year they’re hosting an outdoor screening in the historic Kendall Whittier district, with an after party featuring live music, food trucks and more.  Plus, they’ve hosted pre-festival screenings of classic movies, such as True Grit, which was introduced by TCM Producer Gary Freedman.  Ben considers himself lucky to work with such enthusiastic partners. “The support we get from Tulsa institutions – Gilcrease Museum, Philbrook Museum, Woody Guthrie Center, This Land Press, University of Tulsa – as well as TCM, it all means so much.”  And we look forward to watching the Tulsa American Film Festival grow into an American institution in its own right.