Indie filmmakers bring inspiring, challenging works to Wichita

In 2009, Justin Johnson was working at a do-it-yourself filmmaking network in New York when the company’s lawyer received something unusual: a piece of physical mail.

The package was a submission from Richard “R.G.” Miller, a Wichita man who makes what he calls “Internet art films” with little money or help from others. Johnson was used to getting submissions from 14 year olds, but Miller was in his 50s.

Six years later, Johnson is finally showcasing “Double Digits,” a documentary about Miller’s art and the life that led to it. The film was shown at the annual Tallgrass Film Festival last week to a packed house of people who responded with multiple standing ovations.

“Seeing 300 people in the audience and getting two standing ovations, seeing the outpouring of love to [Miller] was better than I ever imagined,” Johnson said.

Johnson found Miller’s story inspiring because of his perseverance. Miller has lived through violence, alcoholism and a stint in prison, and he has shown no signs of letting those experiences stop him.

“He could easily be pissed off about all the things that have happened to him, but he’s not,” Johnson said. “He just keeps on going, and that’s what’s so cool.”

While Johnson set out to provide inspiration with “Double Digits,” other filmmakers wanted to challenge societal assumptions. Steven Loring’s documentary “The Age of Love,” for example, calls attention to the speed-dating scene that exists for senior citizens.

“Our society says that people after a certain age don’t really think about affairs of the heart,” Loring said. “I thought that I might be able to really change some ideas if I found a way into that topic.”

Loring said his own assumptions were proven wrong when his uncle entered into a relationship at an older age. For Loring, calling attention to discounted populations is one of his objectives when directing a film.

“It’s kind of become a mission, more than the film,” Loring said. “It’s a journey, a calling of my own at this point.”

In “A Light Beneath Their Feet,” director Valerie Weiss chose to tackle the sensitive subject of mental illness. The film explores the relationship between a woman with bipolar disorder (played by “Orange is the New Black” star Taryn Manning) and her teenage daughter.

Weiss, who was a scientist prior to becoming a filmmaker, wanted to make sure this project was worth her time.

“I don’t take my career choices lightly when I dive into a long-term project,” Weiss said. “I wanted this to be a constructive film for society.”

Weiss and her team took extra care to make sure the protagonist’s illness was depicted with realism and sensitivity. They read memoirs and screened the film for psychiatrists for their approval.

Their preparation included a Skype call between Weiss, Manning and Linea Johnson, co-author of “Perfect Chaos,” a book about Johnson’s experiences with bipolar disorder.

“It was tremendously helpful for both of us,” Weiss said. “That was incredibly important to getting us to an authentic place.”

For Weiss, showcasing her work to a respectful audience and getting an immediate reaction was a gratifying experience.

“To finally open it back up for the original purpose of showing it to an audience is tremendous and cathartic and so rewarding,” Weiss said. “It gives you the energy and strength to go and make another one because it’s such a fantastic experience.”