WIFI brings films, workshops to capital city


photo by Christina Noland

Filmmaker Jill Gevargizian watched her award-winning film, “The Stylist,” with an audience at ArtsConnect as part of the WIFI Film Festival.

It’s hard to focus on just one aspect of the 2022 WIFI Film Festival. In addition to the showing of 29 films from around the world, attendees were also able to attend a lecture by Kevin Willmott and watch a feature-length horror film, “The Stylist.”

The Washburn International Film Institute gave students and spectators behind the scenes access to acting, producing, writing and creating connections with the people involved in the film industry.

WIFI endeavors to create an event where the Topeka community comes together to not only celebrate local work but also to bring high-quality global films to the capital city.

“WIFI is important because we get to see creatives come together to support each other in a region where film is not really celebrated,” said Victor Ramirez, senior mass media major.

Washburn students serve integral roles in making the WIFI film festival a reality. Leah Jamison, senior mass media major, was the design team leader, and her team worked to create new branding, logos, and all other print and digital design elements.

“I attended the first WIFI Film Festival in 2019 as a student and loved everything about it, so I became involved in the WIFI Student Committee the very next year,” said Jamison.

The public was able to take advantage of every aspect of the festival for free and could choose to watch movies at the Rita Blitt Gallery, the Topeka Shawnee County Public Library or at ArtsConnect in NOTO.

“I love to sit and watch the different films that you guys present because they always have such interesting stories,” said Tricia Eddy, Mulvane Art Museum gallery assistant. Eddy appreciates having a front-row seat to language, customs and scenery from different areas of the world.

Caleb Schmelzle, a Topeka resident, discovered the festival by chance while visiting the library.

“I came in to pick up a novel and ended up spending around two hours watching film after film. I thought there were some really good ones. I really liked the foreign movies, and it was great to see all of the diversity there,” Schmelzle said.

Kelli Smith, the circulation supervisor at the Topeka Public Library, said she is excited to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes during filmmaking.

“I think it’s great we have an opportunity to help the community celebrate filmmaking,” said Kelli Smith, circulation supervisor at the Topeka Public Library. “We learn more about filmmaking and have a chance to see some work you do not see every day in the theaters. A lot of hard work has gone into this festival and it’s of great quality.”

As part of the festival, organizers also planned workshops and panels featuring both local and Hollywood professionals involved in the filmmaking industry, which are still available on WIFI’s Facebook page.

Kevin Willmott presented his views on making movies in Kansas to an engaged crowd at the Rita Blitt Gallery. Several mass media students attended his session.

On Friday night, Academy Award-winning director and screenwriter Kevin Willmott spoke to a crowd at the Rita Blitt Art Galley.

During his talk, Willmott recalled his childhood in Junction City, Kansas. He credits growing up surrounded by older people with his talent for storytelling. His natural warmth and humor kept audience members invested while he detailed going to high school where he experienced racist faculty and riots. Willmott’s Kansas background allowed him to be inspired and create great films including the Hollywood blockbuster “BlacKkKlansman.” He said his mission was to make movies that Hollywood would never make.

Sue Vicory, (far right) pulls together a panel of women to share their experiences as filmmakers. (photo by Perla Soto)

The “Truth From Women” panel took place Saturday. The panel was made up of Betty Chung, Daria Dennison, Francesca Kelley, Jill ‘Sixx’ Gevargizian, Jodi Mitchell and moderated by Sue Vicory. Determined, dependable, ferocious, resilient, disciplined and brave were what the women in the panel described themselves knowing they had to fight for what they have achieved in the industry.

The women from the panel were open and honest about their successes and struggles. Like most filmmakers, time management and securing funding for film projects are big challenges, but the payoff of finishing a movie and seeing an audience’s reaction makes it all worth it.

After the women’s panel, Gevargizian’s film, “The Stylist” was shown at ArtsConnect in NOTO. Her horror film elicited gasps, wows, head turns and even some closed eyes when a moment was dramatically heightened.

Dennis Etzel Jr., a senior lecturer in English, presents his workshop about myths and truth. (Perla Soto)

During his workshop called “Myth or Truth,” Dennis Etzel Jr., senior lecturer in English at Washburn University,  explained how “Xanadu” became his favorite movie and an inspiration for his writing. He was experiencing a painful time in his life as a child when the 1980 film came out. He went to a Topeka theater and saw the movie for $1.25 for the three days it was featured. Etzel explained that he uses the movie as part of a writing exercise he does to focus. He watches specific scenes from the movie at least three times a day for three straight days. He suggests that three days of repetition is beneficial to his process.

Attending a film festival is not like waiting for a movie to come out in a theater. Instead, people sit and watch a set of shorter films that cover a variety of people, places and experiences.

“This festival was something that I have never thought I would go to, but I am happy to say that after I went, it completely changed my view,” Washburn Student Genevieve Michaelis said. “WIFI was eye-opening and fun, getting to see films from all over and from Washburn’s own students. This is a great experience for everyone and a great way to spend a day.”

Originally, WIFI had scheduled a screening of “The Princess Bride” to be shown at the Evergy Plaza in downtown Topeka. Due to a threat of severe weather, the outdoor screening had to be canceled on the first night of the festival.

Storyteller and filmmaker Kevin Willmott speaks during the 2022 WIFI Film Festival at the Rita Blitt Gallery. (photo by Emma Palasak)

WIFI showcased 29 films from nine different countries. Of those, nine were made by Washburn Students and two of those films won awards. “Pro Play,” by Joshua Grimmer, took home the Golden Ichabod award, and Derek Blanchard’s film, “Furever Love,” took home two awards, one was the Ivy Press Screenwriting Award . Other notable films that took home awards were “Censor of Dreams” (France), “Bear,” (Australia) and “Hellbender in the Blue” (USA).

WIFI’s goal of bringing in more diverse movies, actors, writers, directors and producers can create a space to inspire other Kansas filmmakers.

“This is my first year attending the WIFI Film Festival and based on what I’ve seen from just the first day, I would highly recommend it to anyone in the community,” said Brooke Donaldson, senior mass media major.

“The range of films shown provides something for everyone to enjoy and encourages building community on our campus outside of the classroom. My favorite part about this event is seeing everyone come together and share in the same excitement. It’s so fun to see students from multiple majors and people from all around Topeka come out and watch independent films and support their peers.”

Mass Media faculty, staff, students and guests show up to watch “The Stylist” at ArtsConnect in NOTO. (photo by Christina Noland)

The contributions of mass media students, faculty and staff made WIFI’s film festival possible, and the planning is already underway for the next festival.

“I have volunteered for the WIFI Film Festival in years past, but this year I had the opportunity to coordinate the event with the help of Professor Nyquist and Professor Grimmer,” said Hunter Wise, junior mass media major. “It’s been a great experience and I’m happy to see all the hard work we’ve done this semester pay off.”

This story includes reporting from Brooke Donaldson, Katie Hampton, Jossie Hicks, Hayden Kalp, Shalynn Long, Gen Michaelis, Shiann Olberding, Emma Palasak, Alyssa Storm and Nicholas Wright.