Independent films have long had a reputation for being dark and depressing, but that has been changing, and nowhere is that more noticeable than in Indianapolis, where a popular film festival is lauding independent flicks that are decidedly on the bright side.

The Heartland Film Festival, holding its 17th annual event October 16-24, has the stated mission of honoring independent filmmakers "whose work explores the human journey by artistically expressing hope and respect for the positive values of life."

When the inaugural event was held in 1991, only a handful attended. This year's fest will stretch over nine days, screen almost 50 films, attract more than 20,000 moviegoers, and feature premieres of Miramax's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Disney's Tinker Bell. The fest concludes with an awards banquet at Conseco Fieldhouse — home of the Indiana Pacers — with some Hollywood heavyweights in attendance. Past attendees have included Disney chairman Dick Cook, director Michael Apted, and actors Maureen O'Hara, Robert Duvall, and Dakota Fanning.

That banquet, the Crystal Heart Awards Gala, costs about $500,000 — nearly $300,000 to stage the event and another $200,000 in cash prizes for the award winners, all independent filmmakers, including student auteurs. Last year's $100,000 Grand Prize winner was Bella and its director, Alejandro Monteverde.

It's an impressive bonanza for a nonprofit organization funded solely by donors and foundation money.

Cofounder and president Jeffrey Sparks, 56, did much of the fundraising himself for years; friends joke that he won't take no for an answer. Sparks now has a full-time development officer in charge of raising money so he can spend more time on other efforts, including casting the organization's vision.

Sparks dreamed up the idea for a film fest in the 1980s with some friends in the entertainment business, many of them fellow Christians. Their conversations initially yielded weekend writers' labs in Indianapolis starting in 1986, but it wasn't long before they turned their efforts to creating their own film festival.

Though founded mostly by Christians and espousing many biblical values, Heartland is not a "Christian" event, says Sparks.

"I don't mind talking about my own faith, but Heartland is not a Christian organization," he says. "We have people of faith who are connected, and people who aren't of faith." Sparks notes that the faith element matters little when it comes to Heartland's mission for highlighting works that are uplifting.

Veteran producer Ken Wales (Amazing Grace, Christy) calls Heartland "the best film festival out there, and I've been to a lot of festivals. It reaches to the Christian experience, but in a total-life way. Jeff and his team are good at finding films with redemptive themes, films that leave the audience reflecting on what they've seen. A lot of people are paying attention, even here in Hollywood."

Related Elsewhere:

The Heartland Film Festival lists awards it has given on its website, where it also sells tickets.

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