More than 170 fans of independent film converged on the Midway Drive-In Theatre in Sterling, Ill., for the first-annual Northwest Illinois Film Festival on Aug. 26.

Most came from the Northwest Illinois region, some from Chicagoland, and one flew in from Los Angeles, according to the festival organizer, the Northwest Illinois Film Office (NIFO). The event was a celebration of Illinois indie filmmakers, featuring 11 short films — the night’s theme was “Shorts-A-Palooza.”

“The feedback from both the audience and the filmmakers was very positive,” NIFO executive director Gary Camarano said in a Monday release. “The films were well received, the drive-in atmosphere added to the enjoyment, and everyone is looking forward to a repeat performance.”

Among the short films shown were two episodes from Moline-based Fourth Wall Films, A Bridge Too Far From Hero Street, and Riding the Rails to Hero Street.

“It was a magical evening seeing the two new Hero Street documentaries light up the screen,” said producer Tammy Rundle. “It was our first drive-in film exhibition and rather thrilling.”

“Gary was determined to have a safe film festival for attendees to enjoy and adapted the plan to showcase short films produced by independent Illinois filmmakers at the Midway Drive-In Theatre. It was a great success,” added director Kelly Rundle. “We are very gratified that our two new Hero Street documentaries were selected by invitation for the festival.”

Tammy and Kelly Rundle

A trailer of the Rundles’ new award-winning docudrama Sons & Daughters of Thunder opened the evening’s festivities. Thunder won seven awards at the 29th Iowa Motion Picture Association’s award ceremony on Aug. 8, including the top awards for Best Feature Film, Direction, Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Score and two Awards of Achievement for Best Actress and Editing.

Based on the play by Earlene Hawley and Curtis Heeter, Sons & Daughters of Thunder presents the unforgettable true story of the first-in-the-nation 1834 emancipation debates led by firebrand abolitionist Theodore Weld in Cincinnati, Ohio, and their effect on a young Harriet Beecher Stowe’s views of slavery.

Camarano said he originally planned a two-day festival for May, running concurrently in the Sauk Valley, Rockford and the Quad Cities, showing feature films, documentaries, shorts, and with panel discussions and networking events, but the Covid-19 pandemic altered those plans.

While planning to reorganize the festival for next year, they discussed ways to have a film festival and do it in a safe manner considerate of personal and public health concerns.

The Midway Drive-In (one of just five remaining drive-ins in Illinois) opened in 1950 and has been in continuous operation ever since. The drive-in is a genuine historical landmark as it is home to the oldest standing drive-in screen in Illinois and can accommodate 500 cars.

The Midway screen is 90 feet across, giving a massive film presentation. During the pandemic, the drive-in has mandated a parking space between each car, reduced capacity, and other personal protective precautions, such as the use of facial masks.

“We loved getting to see our short and so many others glowing at the drive-in,” said Sadie Rogers, director of How is This the World! “The Midway Drive-In is cool and adorable, and it was thrilling to have the Northwest Illinois Film Office bringing some many Illinois filmmakers together safely and in such a great space.”

Sean Miller’s The Replacement, a dark comedy about the first clone President and his resentful “original” who sees his life stolen by his many copies, was also presented, and received a loud and positive audience reaction. Actor Michael McNamara, who played the role of the “original” and his many clones was on hand and was very appreciative of the audience reaction.

Mark Schimmel, writer, director and producer, said, “The Northwest Illinois Film Office went to great lengths to honor the filmmakers and their films. The vintage Midway Drive-In was the coolest and safest venue to screen the block of films. I am honored that both Kill the Light and The Musician were part of the launch of the festival. Special thanks to the all-Illinois cast and crew that helped make these films and to the State of Illinois.”

The program also included the following films: Dearly Departed, by Rock Island-based Fresh Films;  Light, and The Follower, by Patricia Frontain; Hiplet: Because We Can, by Addison Wright; How is This the World, by Grace Hahn and Sadie Rogers; Survive by Danial Miller and Tim Morgan; Keep the Change, by Tom Doherty.

“We had a very varied and diverse group of films and filmmakers,” Camarano said. “Thought provoking, informative, funny, scary, and all of them entertaining. Our office received a lot of positive reactions, and all wanted to see our film festival continue. We’ll be back next year, bigger and better. Covid-19 may have altered how we work, but it didn’t stop us.”

Gary Camarano

Peter Hawley, director of the Illinois Film Office, was on hand to help open the festival, and pointed out the economic benefits of film industry to the state’s economy, as well as to the artistic and entertainment sectors.

He complimented the festival, saying, “It was a great event, really well done. I don’t know if it could have been better given everything.”

The Northwest Illinois Film Office was expanded in 2019 to promote the region (Rockford, Quad-Cities, Sauk Valley, Galena and Pike County) as a destination for film and media projects. The office assists film projects in location scouting, liaising with state and local municipalities for permits, and incentives, and identifying local cast, crew, and supply chain.

Recently, three indie feature films, Blacklight, Hunter’s Creed, and Without Grace, have been completed in the region, along with two documentaries, and studio productions Lovecraft Country (HBO) and’s The Now (Quibi).

“The State of Illinois was ranked sixth for film production last year — a fantastic showing,” Camarano said. “We expressly want to get some of those productions to film here in the Northwest Illinois region. It’s a great location, and full of film friendly communities.”

For more information, visit filmnwillinois.com.

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Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.