Valley showcase features short films, big stories

Fresno’s Tower Theatre hosts The Big Tell showcase, taking stories of history, culture and community from six Central Valley counties to the silver screen

Dozens of people start lining up outside the Tower Theater, waiting for their chance to go inside for the show. (Kenny Goodman)
Dozens of people start lining up outside the Tower Theater, waiting for their chance to go inside for the show. (Kenny Goodman)
Serena Bettis
Published December 5, 2023  • 
12:00 pm

FRESNO – Thirteen Central Valley filmmakers gathered in Fresno’s Tower District Thursday evening to showcase documentaries they created capturing the lives, loves and cultures of their communities. 

The Big Tell film contest/program premiered its fall cohort of documentarians at the Tower Theatre on Nov. 30 to a crowd of a few hundred people. Coordinated by the Community Media Access Collaborative (CMAC) with multiple other sponsors, The Big Tell provides filmmakers across six Central Valley counties the opportunity to hone their craft and shine a light on an untold local story. 

“To be able to give back and help support local artists … is just so amazing and why we do The Big Tell,” CMAC Executive Director Bryan Harley said. “(It’s) to shine a light on those local filmmakers — because not a lot of people know that we have a growing film community in the Central Valley — and also to share amazing stories about the Central Valley that people might not have heard about.”

The Central Valley Community Foundation started The Big Tell in 2017 and partners on the contest with CMAC, Valley PBS, the James B. McClatchy Foundation and the Kern Dance Alliance (KDA) Creative Corps, which administers grants from the California Arts Council, a state agency. The Big Tell program provides grants and assistance to filmmakers to produce short, 5-minute documentaries. 

Residents of six counties — Fresno, Kings, Tulare, Madera, Merced and Mariposa — are eligible to apply to the program. This year, more than 200 applicants submitted original documentary pitches to The Big Tell, with only 26 films making it in — the 13 filmmakers not featured in Thursday’s showcase will begin work on their projects soon and then have their own premiere in April 2024.

Community Media Access Collaborative Executive Director Bryan Harley opened the night with a few words for those in attendance. (Kenny Goodman)

Each filmmaker received a grant award of $8,000, the option to rent filmmaking equipment from CMAC, three months to make their film and one-on-one mentorship from Sascha Brown Rice, an Emmy-nominated documentarian. 

Harley said the program strives to select a diverse group of filmmakers, not just in ethnicity or background, but in experience level, geographic region and variation in stories, both of the documentary subject matter and the filmmaker’s personal life. That way, they have “stories that feature the rich cultural diversity that we have in the Central Valley.”

“We want to make sure that there’s a good mix; that we’re hearing voices that we don’t normally hear in the mainstream media,” Harley said. 

Untold stories of the Central Valley

The documentaries screened at the showcase told stories of triumph, growth, history and, ultimately, love — of an individual, of a place and of what it means to be a community. 

Some of the documentaries centered around current events and programs in cities, including “Merced Pride” by Adam Lincoln Lane, explaining how a three-day celebration came to be embraced by the city; “No Te Here o Te Hiro’a: For the Love of the Culture” by Hashim Hassan, featuring the purpose behind the Polynesian Club of Fresno; and “From Disabilities to Abilities: The Green Rose Revolution” by Bill Henshaw, showing the actors of Visalia-based nonprofit Green Rose Productions. 

Other documentaries, including “Zone” by Rippin Sindher, “Reaching Alcalá” by Adán Ávalos, “Circa ‘91” by Marquis D. Perkins and “Ben’s Cafe” by Antonio Ramirez took archived footage, documents and photographers that were interspersed with present-day interviews to tell the history of a place, person or tradition. 

The films “Walappu’ ‘Uuchuthuu: Butterfly Homeplace” by Jennifer Robin, “Mi Casa es tu Casa: Manuel and Olga’s Garden” by Tim Tsai” and “To Plant a Garden” by Angelica Hernandez centered on people’s connections to the environment and the work they are doing to preserve natural land and beauty. 

“Riding Low” by Cruz Gonzales, “Finding Voices” by Taylor Quintanar and “Valley Skies” by Orlando Garcia focused on the work specific community members have dedicated their lives to, including artwork, spoken word poetry and emergency medical services, respectively. 

Aside from region and length of the documentaries, the filmmakers had the creative freedom to present their stories in whatever manner they chose. While some films followed a more standard documentary format with interviews and footage of events, others took on artistic interpretations of an interviewee’s story and featured distinctive film styles.

All 13 documentaries will be broadcast on Valley PBS at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 17. After that, they will be available to watch for free online on the CMAC website.

Serena Bettis
General Assignment Reporter