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Twelve Lions Film Festival celebrates both international and local cinema in downtown Lexington

A projector at the Kentucky Theatre projects a film behind the scenes at the Twelve Lions Film Festival
Shepherd Snyder
A projector at the Kentucky Theatre projects a film behind the scenes at the Twelve Lions Film Festival

The debut of the Twelve Lions Film Festival in the heart of Lexington made its mark for film lovers as a way to showcase independent film from regional and international artists.

Last week, it showed screenings of 50 films, narrowed down from 100 submissions.

Hayward Wilkirson is the director of the Kentucky Theatre. The century-old Lexington institution was the festival’s primary organizer and host.

“We are going into our second century, and we need to inject a bit of new energy into the Theatre,” Wilkirson said. “Our philosophy, for better or worse, is: throw it at the wall and see if it sticks. If it doesn't stick, that's fine. We try it.”

The festival gets its name from the number of lions that adorn the walls of the Theatre’s lobby. Wilkirson says organizing the festival is a continuation of the Theatre’s mission, which is to expose Kentuckians to films they might not be able to see otherwise.

“The major impetus was simply to celebrate film from around the world and bring that to Lexington, to people that already love film and people that you know, maybe have never discovered they love film yet, and to support and encourage emerging filmmakers,” Wilkirson said.

For independent creators, the festival circuit is valuable for sharing their hard work.

“You might be seeing brand new talent, or you're seeing early, mid-career talent, you're seeing people who are beginning their careers, who are willing to break the rules,” Wilkirson said. “Maybe they don't even know all the rules, but they're going to be bold, they're going to be daring with a lot of what they do.”

The festival’s international presence included films from across Europe, Asia and Australia. Hermann Weiskopf is a director who came all the way from Austria for his screening of Ride Back to Freedom, a road trip documentary he shot across Italy during the COVID-19 lockdown.

“When I'm here, I'm a spectator, myself,” Weiskopf said. “I go in, I watch movies, I talk to other filmmakers, I talk to the audience, to people you meet. And we have to remind or to tell people who may be having their first time experience, that it is a wonderful occasion.”

Weiskopf says those connections – and finding different ways of thinking – are some of his favorite parts about film festivals.

"It's easier that you find people who say, ‘Oh, Herman, what a great idea. Really, I think you should do that. I'm sure you will achieve that.’ And I love this mentality, to tell you the truth. I mean, this is the real power of the United States," Weiskopf said.

For others, the festival marks a homecoming. Abby Wathen is an actress and writer based out of California, but she’s originally from central Kentucky and credits the Kentucky Theatre for cultivating her childhood interest in movies. She wrote, starred in and produced Trying about her experience trying to get pregnant.

"When (my team and I) were doing the circuit, we were like, I would love to find something in Kentucky, where I'm from, and Twelve Lions came up,” Wathen said. “And then I saw it was at the Kentucky Theatre. And it was like, ‘I have to get into this festival! This is like my Sundance.’"

And for those in the film community, festivals are also great for networking.

"It's really hard to make a movie,” Wathen said. And these movies will just sit on your computer. Thank God for the festival world, because that's where you can go and discover the next director you want to work with, or the next writer, or the next actor."

For Wilkirson’s part, he plans on continuing the festival as a yearly tradition as part of his mission to bring unique cinema to Lexington.

"Do we want to keep this 40 or 50 films a year? Or do we want to grow a couple 100 films?” Wilkirson said. “We don't know, I mean, we're just going to get through this first year and figure out what we did well, and what we did poorly and take a break when we're done with this and get back to just running the Kentucky Theatre for a few weeks, and then start thinking about next year."

Shepherd joined WEKU in June 2023 as a staff reporter. He most recently worked for West Virginia Public Broadcasting as General Assignment Reporter. In that role, he collected interviews and captured photos in the northern region of West Virginia. Shepherd holds a master’s degree in Digital Marketing Communication and a bachelor’s in music from West Virginia University.
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