• Cristee Cook

At the Reel East Texas Film Festival, the city of Kilgore and its artists play a leading role

Updated: Jan 16, 2020

Kilgore, TX – a small historic town 100 miles East of Dallas might seem like an unlikely event spot, but as the hosts of the Rangerette’s Revels annual Spring show and the Texas Shakespeare Festival, Kilgore is an experienced host city. Now, the city of Kilgore can add the Reel East Texas Film Festival to its list of cultural experiences.

The Reel East Texas Film Festival was founded in 2017 by Chip Hale. A filmmaker himself, Hale returned to Kilgore (his hometown) to shoot a documentary in 2013. Even though he planned to move back to Los Angeles upon the completion of the film, he ended up getting work in Kilgore and made a home there. Now, he’s the Director of Reel East Texas Film Festival, and along with that, the management, restoration and revival of Kilgore’s historic buildings. Together with the city of Kilgore and Executive Producer Steve Shirey and Producer James Draper, Hale is committed to supporting independent films, and highlighting the unique aspects of Kilgore that make it an ideal location for filmmaking.

Kilgore’s Texan Theater is one of the highlights of the festival. In fact, Shirey shared how the space was pivotal in his involvement with the film festival: “I showed up [at the Texan Theater] for the lighting of the theaters’ neon signs. I became aware that evening that Mr. Hale was in the process of forming a film festival and that he was attempting to actually use the Texan Theater. So, we started meeting - our first meeting was in the Texan around this time in 2017. I remember standing there going, how is this possible? and by November we were showing movies.”

The historic Texan Theatre in Kilgore, TX is a centerpiece of the RETFF

Hale and Shirey shared that the renovations of the historic buildings not only highlight the local history, they also serve as an avenue to honor local artists. The Old Post Office building, which is the ‘Reel Lounge’ during the 3-day event, has been designed with the comfort of filmmakers in mind. Decorated with mid-century modern furniture and local fine art, the Reel Lounge is the festival’s social epicenter.

Shirey and Hale were particularly excited to tell us about Bill Phinnie – a painter from Kilgore who is exhibited in the Old Post Office building. Hale shared, “About a month after I met Steve, he was telling us about [his artist friend] Bill Phinnie, and that his art was going to be on display at the Longview Museum of Fine Arts. So, James and I went over to the post office – and you’d have to see it to realize how large the walls are – and Bill Phinnie just happens to make very large art. So, as we were leaving the Longview Museum, we just had the idea to see about getting Bill’s art in there.” After his death, Phinnie’s collection of paintings was bequeathed to a dear friend, who promised to keep the collection intact. The Old Post Office is where The Phinnie Collection is currently displayed, but in the near future, Shirey hopes to give the paintings a wider audience.

Kilgore painter Bill Phinnie

The evolution of the Texan Theater and the Old Post Office is ongoing. Shirey and Hale share a vision that the buildings will play a large role in establishing Kilgore as a cultural destination.

In addition to aiding in the revival of Kilgore’s history, the Reel East Texas Film Festival also illuminates the local filmmaking scene. Hale told us, “We’re really trying to create a film industry here. For example, the first year we held the festival, we had one movie that was from the 903-area code. Last year, I think we maybe had two films [from the 903-area code]. This year, we have an entire block of films that are from the 903 area. Now, in our third year, we’re continually getting more and more East Texas films. But I don't know if local filmmakers know that they can do it on the larger level here in Kilgore. That's something that we're trying to facilitate for them.”

Along with the Texas films, this year’s festival boasts new films from all over the United States and international submissions. A juried festival, there are about 96 films, plus a filmmaker panel and Awards Ceremony. Shirey shared one of his favorite aspects of the film festival when he told us, “We just seek to have a diverse group of people able to learn things about each other, and about the city of Kilgore - the art, and the venues. I think that it is the variety of not only the films, but of the crowd itself being a combination of film makers, curiosity seekers, history buffs, you know, people of different interests. I’m proud that in our first couple of years with the festival, we’ve been able to show the work of Bill Phinni and the Reel Lounge. It’s a retreat for not only filmmakers, but a venue of choice for our visitors.”

In less than 2 hours, D/FW residents can be in the picturesque town, and Hale shared that many D/FW citizens not only travel to Kilgore for events, but that the festival includes Dallas area films and filmmakers. Running November 14 – 17 in Kilgore, Texas, the Reel East Texas Film Festival is a hidden gem with rich artistic offerings. For tickets and showtimes, be sure to visit: http://reeleasttexas.com.

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