Take Five

Film, feasts, and fun — we look at a heaping handful of unusual events around the region.

Fall will soon give way to winter, but various celebrations — some serious, some considerably more whimsical — are in the works to give more spice to the holidays than just turkey or mistletoe. From Little Rock, Arkansas, to Greenwood, Mississippi, and right here at home, folks can revel in the art of filmmaking, food, music, and more to help get into the joyous spirit of the season. Take a break from the hustle and bustle of making your list and checking it twice. Just relax, and feel free to join the fun.

— The Indie Memphis Film Festival —

indiememphis.com | November 3-6

Midtown will once again set the stage for film buffs and players in the industry at the 14th annual festival celebrating the art of filmmaking, Memphis-style. The festival will screen a broad range of independent features, documentaries, and short films at Playhouse on the Square, the Malco Theatre’s Studio on the Square, and right around the corner at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, also serving as the major showcase for new work from Memphis and regional filmmakers. Investment banking firm, Duncan-Williams, Inc., was recently announced as the new presenting sponsor through 2013.

Last year’s festival celebrated the 25th anniversary of making movies in Memphis (beginning with The Firm in 1985), and this year promises to be equally full of surprises and compelling works. Narrative features will compete for a grand-prize package that includes a round-trip flight to New York City and $25,000 in color grading and finishing services including visual effects, motion-graphics, and animation, from the New York City-based company, Nice Shoes, whose clients include Kanye West, the NFL, and the United Nations. Winners of jury awards will receive Gorilla film software, with crucial production tools for scheduling, budgeting expenses, planning storyboards, and keeping track of contacts and locations. 

The opening night of the festival will feature a “Showcase Screening,” set for 6 p.m. at Playhouse of Undefeated, a documentary that delves into a defining season for an inner-city high school football team from North Memphis that has since been picked up by the Weinstein Company after showing at the SXSW Film Festival. The second headlining feature takes place at 7 p.m. on Saturday with Losers Take All, a comedy about a fictional pop-punk band in 1986, both films being co-presented with the Memphis and Shelby County Television and Film Commission. Other highly anticipated picks include Melancholia, starring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg on Sunday, and the much-anticipated Martha Marcy May Marlene on Saturday, which features Elizabeth Olsen — the younger sister of the famous Olsen twins Mary-Kate and Ashley — in what is buzzed to be her breakout role. Advance tickets are available through the festival website, along with updates and complete schedule information.

— Inaugural Little Rock Cornbread Festival —

arcornbreadfestival.com | November 5, 11-4 p.m.

If you don’t love cornbread, then you’re not a Southerner at heart. Cornbread has been the cornerstone of countless Southern meals dating back to the earliest settlement here. The soul in soul food, this traditional staple has been enjoyed for generations in all variations and styles — the perfect complement to a glass of cold milk or tossed in with barbecue or chili. The almost-endless means of creating this simple bread offer a whole world of possibilities, whether you call it johnnycake, hoecake, skillet bread, or corn-pone. 

But the line dividing the savory from the sweet can be dicey territory, and die-hard cornbread fans are usually quite passionate about their stance on anything straying from the original. For the most part, northern cornbread tends toward sweetness, while Texans like to spice up their version with jalapeños and cheese. Make no mistake, the competition in Little Rock will be fierce, with a great appreciation for interesting new recipes. 

Up to 40 participants will compete in the categories of traditional, non-traditional, and sweet, providing enough one-teaspoon taste-testing samples for up to 800 people. Evenly split between amateurs and professionals, winning chefs in each category will receive cash prizes, blue ribbons, and an invitation to participate in the wildly successful Road Food Festival in New Orleans. 

But in the meantime, the Bernice Garden at the corner of South Main Street and Daisy Bates Avenue in Little Rock will fill with the heavenly scent of hot-from-the-oven cornbread, accompanied by blues musicians, fiddlers, and vendors of all kinds, including the Clinton Museum Store and many local nonprofit organizations. For a mere $5 admission, patrons can sample cornbread to their hearts’ delight, while judges determine the finest that Arkansas has to offer. May the best cornbread win.

— National Sweet Potato Festival —

vardamansweetpotatofestival.org | November 5-12

Vardaman, Mississippi — the self-proclaimed “Sweet Potato Capital of the World” — is a nice little town in one of the state’s top sweet-potato-producing counties. While China actually contributes the majority of the world’s supply, Mississippi is currently home to some 150 sweet-’tater farmers who contribute around $19 million to the state economy. The 38th year of the town’s National Sweet Potato Festival begins with an Arts and Crafts Day, drawing crowds of up to 20,000 to a multitude of handmade wares and fun events. Opening day also features a sweet potato tasting booth, the ever-popular barbecue chicken dinner — served with sweet potatos, of course — at the local fire station, and the judging of the sweet potato art contests. Pageants take place throughout the week to name a sweet potato king and queen, and the second Saturday closes the festivities with the judging of the original recipe contest and a festival banquet.

So what’s all the fuss about? Well, the Center for Science in the Public Interest released a study in 1992 that ranked the sweet potato highest in nutritional value against other vegetables. At Vardaman, however, brown sugar, marshmallows, and other sweet components will add plenty of unhealthy aspects to the many scrumptious sweet potato casseroles and pies — don’t forget the pie-eating contest held on the first Saturday — served all week long. Admission to the festival is free, and tickets to the closing banquet are $15 in advance or $20 at the door.

— The Roy Martin Delta Band Festival & Parade —

 greenwoodms.org | December 2, 4 p.m.

The film thread will carry over to the upcoming theme of December’s 76th annual Delta Band Festival in Greenwood, Mississippi, where filming of the current critically acclaimed box-office smash The Help took place, portraying the quaint town as 1960s-era Jackson, Mississippi. The event is esteemed as the oldest and grandest Christmas parade in the state, a tradition originally begun as a Winter Carnival in 1935 to promote the Christmas shopping season in the town. The very next year, Greenwood High School Band Director Roy Martin formulated a morning bash — then dubbed the Delta Band Festival — to complement the evening trade event, and the name has persisted ever since. 

The festival also carries weight as one of the largest marching events left in the southeastern United States, kicking off with a pre-parade exhibition of drumlines from Ole Miss, Mississippi Valley State, and the University of Southern Mississippi, from 1 to 4 p.m. A number of step groups will also perform.  

The parade sets off immediately after, coursing from the corner of Howard and Johnson Street to Grand Boulevard with celebrated marching bands accompanied by floats inspired from holiday classics like A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, The Nutcracker, and Christmas Vacation. Creators of  the floats were instructed to expressly avoid using movies with Santa Claus as a central figure, as the big guy himself will be waiting to thrill kiddos at the parade’s end. A fireworks show over the Yazoo River caps off a festive beginning to the merriest of seasons.

— Starry Nights at Shelby Farms Park —

starrynightsmemphis.com | November 25 – December 30

Driving past the fantastic array of lights that brightened the expanse of Shelby Farms Park was a favorite tradition of many Memphis households when MIFA originally implemented the event in 1994. Giant holiday ornaments, Christmas critters, and even a dragon in the middle of a lake were just some of the illuminated spectacles. A highlight one year was a massive lighted ball that seemed to roll down a grassy slope. The magnificent program ran for only six years until being cancelled, but thankfully it was resurrected by sponsor First Tennessee Bank in 2009. Starry Nights this year begins November 25th and lasts through December 30th. 

The traditional light show has come back better than ever, with 1.5 million environmentally friendly LEDs stretching over a two-mile route. New displays feature environmental and natural themes alongside traditional holiday motifs, and special plans for this year include lighting the newly opened Woodland Discovery Playground to create a Mistletoe Market, complete with hot cocoa, visits with Santa, Rudolph’s Petting Zoo, and a special “Deck the Arbor” light display.

Every Monday will continue to be reserved for visitors walking, jogging, running, biking, or skating along the course of the grandiose display in the magic of the cool night air. No cars allowed. Tickets are priced $20 per car Tuesday through Sunday ($35 for large vans and other vehicles), and individual Monday-night tickets run $10 per adult and $5 per child, with children in strollers allowed free of charge. 

New for 2011 will be carriage rides through Starry Nights; reservations are required.

Purchase tickets at the main park entrance at Farm Road and Walnut Grove, or pre-purchase tickets at a First Tennessee Financial Center. Proceeds from the event will benefit the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy’s efforts to preserve and promote the importance of this unique natural area in the heart of Shelby County. 

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