Heartland Film Festival features two students’ work

Samuel Robinson • Oct. 20, 2014
Carissa Barrett
Carissa Barrett is one of the producers of We’ll Be All Right, part of the Indiana Spotlight at this week’s Heartland Film Festival. (Photo by Grayson Harbour, The Media School)

A documentary directed and produced by two Indiana University students will premiere at the Heartland Film Festival this week.

The film, We’ll Be All Right, was directed and produced by Barton Girdwood and Carissa Barrett. It will be screened as a part of the Indiana Spotlight Oct. 20 and 24.

We’ll Be All Right follows the story of Frankie Presslaff, his partner Kelly Compton and their eight adopted children. Presslaff and Compton have been together for 25 years, and their family lives in Bloomington. But the movie is as much about Presslaff’s relationship with his late mother, Mimsie, as it is about his family.

“He and I met, and within 10 minutes, he told me about the cassette tapes his mom left behind for him,” Girdwood said. “I was interested in radio production and storytelling, and he told me about the tapes.”

Barton Girdwood
Barton Girdwood and co-producer Carissa Barrett both had worked in audio storytelling but said the film experience has turned them into filmmakers. (Photo by Grayson Harbour, The Media School)

Those tapes were left behind for Presslaff and the family when Mimsie died more than five years ago. A part of Mimsie lives on in the cassettes. They’re a part of her family’s legacy.

Presslaff told Girdwood he found it too difficult to listen to the tapes. But when he started talking with Girdwood, whom he met through the GLBT Student Support Services, he began to open up to the possibility of sharing his experience.

Meanwhile, Girdwood took lecturer Susanne Schwib’s C435 Documentary Filmmaking, Theory and Practice course, and knew he wanted the topic of his final project to be Frankie Presslaff and his extraordinary family.

“I never had anywhere to do anything with it until the film class came along,” Girdwood said. “I wasn’t sure it would work as a film until I started fleshing out the pitch, and then I realized it was the perfect story for a film.”

When Carissa Barrett, also in the class, heard the pitch, she immediately knew she wanted to be a part of it.

“We wanted to create an experience for the viewer so they could feel all of the emotions that we were feeling,” Barrett said.

When they approached Frankie Presslaff and Kelly Compton about filming their family, they were initially apprehensive. But over the course of a month, they let Girdwood and Barrett into their lives for two to three hours at a time.

“The thing about making documentary work is that you’re working with real people that are giving you a part of their life that they wouldn’t give otherwise,” Girdwood said. “They become your friends and family because you’re spending so much time with them.”

Asking for more time to film became Girdwood’s biggest challenge, “because you need more time and need to be in their face again, and they’ve already given up so much.”

The film lasts 10 minutes and 14 seconds. It took Girdwood 80 hours to edit nearly 60 hours of footage.

“Or, maybe it was 30. It felt like 60,” Girdwood said. “I always say 60 because I want them to understand this was a lot of film.”

We’ll Be All Right is Girdwood and Barrett’s first film. Both have experience as audio storytellers through IU’s American Student Radio and courses with visiting professor Sarah Neal-Estes, who teaches two audio storytelling courses.

“I wasn’t interested in film until this past spring, until I took this class,” Girdwood said. “This film made me a filmmaker. I fell in love with film because of it.”

“It’s weird to consider myself as a filmmaker,” Barrett said. “Yes, it’s technically true, but it still really hasn’t sunk in yet.”

Girdwood is a senior completing an individualized major in public memory. He studies cultural trends, media production, and how the two intertwine in storytelling. Barrett is a senior with a major in communications and culture, with a concentration in film and television.

Susanne Schwibs guided Girdwood and Barrett in the creative process, but she didn’t have to do any more than that.

“You wouldn’t want to,” she said, because it would spoil the creative process.

“Both Barton and Carissa are very talented and are willing to work hard,” said Schwibs, who is a producer and director for WTIU-TV. “And when you have students like that, you really don’t have to do as much as you might imagine.”

Girdwood and Barrett picked up on the family’s philosophy, which translated to the title.

“The name of the film is We’ll Be All Right, which really sums up the theme we were going for in the film making process,” Girdwood said. “In spite of death or any kind of loss, you are going to be all right and move forward.”

Girdwood and Barrett became well acquainted with the family during the filming process, and they think their story is worth telling.

“Despite having to fight every step of the way to have children, to have eight children, for them both to be able to adopt these kids and still have careers and be successful…to see that is really important,” Barrett said.

“Especially in a place that you wouldn’t expect it,” Girdwood added. “You would expect a story like that out of San Francisco or New York, not in a small town in Indiana.”

The two said the experience taught them that there are unique stories in every community.

“We should look for those kind of stories and tell them because they’re significant, and they teach us that there is possibility anywhere,” Girdwood said.

We’ll Be All Right is featured with two other films in the Indiana Spotlight category. It premieres at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 20 at AMC Castleton Square 8 and will be shown at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 24 at AMC Traders Point Theater 7. The Heartland Film Festival uses several locations around Indianapolis to screen its entries.