Walnut Hills celebrates its people and stories in a series of films to air Friday

CINCINNATI—If the audience at the first Hilltop Stories Neighborhood Film Festival wants to throw rotten tomatoes at the screen, they can save time by smashing tomatoes into their own faces. After all, the films premiering are largely by and about most of the people who will attend.

“We envisioned it somewhere between showing movies in the backyard and showing family vacation photos and everything in between,” said the festival’s co-founder, Ryan Mulligan. “It was about figuring out the stories people wanted told and making it happen.”

And making it happen fast.

Annie Bolling, the owner of a new nonprofit gallery, the Gallery Project on Woodburn, reached out to Mulligan, telling him she was a fan of his own artwork and asked if he would get involved in her gallery’s debut. The gallery, at 2718 Woodburn Ave, hosts a satellite exhibition before the films begin showing across the street, at 9:15 p.m. Friday, Aug. 15, in the parking lot of St. Francis de Sales Church, at 1600 Madison Road.

Mulligan, who recently moved from Walnut Hills to Blue Ash, is a professor at the University of Cincinnati’s Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning whose own artistic practice has evolved more into a social and public practice. In 2013, he created a playground for the Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center’s “UnMuseum” largely inspired by his young autistic son.

'Start by listening to people'

“I said to Annie, ‘If this is really about art and community, we’re going to have a neighborhood film festival about the neighborhood and show (the films) in the neighborhood,” said Mulligan, who had no previous practice with film or video.

“It’s art for social good,” he said. “You start from a place of listening to people: What can we do with as many people as possible to see other people’s perspectives? It’s a community dialogue, and a movie is nothing more than a giant megaphone to start that conversation.”

Mulligan co-conspirator Sam Meador, also an artist and educator, recruited students and instructors at DAAP and the Art Academy of Cincinnati to volunteer as videographers, directors and editors. They then went about talking with people throughout Walnut Hills and finding more potential stories than they had the means to bring to life.

Seven short films are on the festival slate, though Mulligan says there could be as many as 10 by the night of the festival. At least five are documentaries, and two are hybrids of real and dramatized people and events.

There’s an intriguing look at a Walnut Hills couple, Roy and Dee Green, who have been married 54 years. The film features interviews with the Greens while University of Cincinnati theater students reenact some of their stories. In a silent film, local improvisational performer Dave Powell portrays a mime who meets Destiny Stanford, who portrays herself—a 15-year-old deaf girl who lives in Walnut Hills.

The documentaries are largely sweet and modest:

  • A woman tells about a neighborhood drunk who saved her daughter’s life and is now buried in an unmarked grave.
  • There’s a look at a group of elderly men who regularly convene at a McDonald’s to play chess.
  • In another film, one woman interviews her neighbors about how their dogs improve the quality of life in Walnut Hills.
  • A man often seen watering plants for the city’s parks service is the subject of one documentary.
  • The effects of converting Taft Avenue from a one-way street to two-way traffic are explored in another.

Perhaps the most ambitious film is a look at Courttney Cooper, a Kroger employee and Cincinnati artist, that evolved into music video-meets-flash mob dance performance featuring Cincinnati’s Pones Inc.

All this came with no budget beyond credit cards and a $1,500 micro-grant from Give Back Cincinnati.

“I know what happens when you forge a small collaborative team and try to do something ridiculous,” Mulligan said. “It’s hard to put a price on that.”

More Neighborhood Films In Works

Mulligan coined the festival in recognition of Walnut Hills as one of Cincinnati’s first “hilltop” neighborhoods, and he will measure its success by the number of people from the neighborhood who turn out Aug. 15. He’s already eyeing 2015 with plans to create a similar film festival in another Cincinnati neighborhood—this one powered by grants and private donations.

“I would love to give a giant hug to all the moms and children in Avondale,” he said, noting the neighborhood’s infant mortality rate relative to other Cincinnati regions.

“I don’t know what it will look like, but I’d like to do it through film,” he said. “Whoever wants me can have me.”


WHAT: Hilltop Stories Neighborhood Film Festival

WHEN: 9:15 p.m. Fri., Aug. 15

WHERE: Parking lot of St. Francis de Sales Church, 1600 Madison Road., Cincinnati. The Gallery Project is at 2718 Woodburn Ave.


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