by Bailey Pennick
“Yeah, mama.film is in an interesting evolution,” says Lela Meadow-Conner with a light laugh over Zoom. The executive director and founder of mama.film — a nonprofit cinematic arts organization that originated in Wichita, Kansas — pauses as she thinks about all of the pivots that her film family has been through since its start in 2019. But before the pause lingers too long, the spirited Meadow-Conner snaps back to our conversation and her vision for mama.film.
Birthed as a pop-up “micro-cinema” located in a shipping container, adorned with donated vintage furniture for seating and style, mama.film quickly became the go-to place for Wichita’s cinefiles. “When we were supposed to just show 12 films over six months, we ended up showing 30 films in six months,” Meadow-Conner says with pride. “We became the defacto art-house cinema in town.” Soon the shipping container theater couldn’t hold all the fans, so Meadow-Conner and company picked up and moved to a shiny new space in downtown Wichita. It was January 2020.
“I went to Sundance [Film Festival], came back, and we were super excited,” Meadow-Conner recalls. “We were going to open up this new cinema space, and then, of course, we were open for about a month and then everybody had to close.” While this anecdote might provide one with some dark lockdown flashbacks, Meadow-Conner saw it as an opportunity for mama.film: “[It] was really interesting for a small organization like [us], because we were still very young. Many institutions and larger organizations had to struggle to figure out how…[to] maintain a presence. We were able to really think about what it is that mama.film wanted to be and how we could evolve.”
Through artist support services, podcasts, educational curation and more, Meadow-Conner made sure her downtime was well spent. “[We were] supporting mothers in the industry, and thinking about ways that we could be impactful beyond just showcasing film.” And that’s where mama.film’s mission shifted to be more about the people coming together than any particular location: “a village — at the crossroads of art & advocacy — where storytellers, changemakers and nurturers come together to champion humanity through a maternal gaze.”
Once the ties of a brick-and-mortar location were removed, Meadow-Conner began to see the true calling of mama.film. “At the end of the day, I want to curate content and bring it to audiences,” she says with an excitement that’s infectious. “I don’t want audiences to have to come find me on the corner of First and Broadway in downtown, I want to find stories that I can bring to people! I’m going to partner with a museum, or I’m going to partner with another cultural organization whose patrons already have interest in that, and we’re going to bring a cinematic element to the program that they’re already doing. So really, meeting the people where they are instead of expecting them to find us.”
Beyond her vast experience within the film industry — including a concurrent role as the Executive Director of the Film Festival Alliance — Meadow-Conner has been collaborating with many midwest institutions to highlight cinema that views the world through this “maternal gaze.” “It’s about these stories, this coming of age, this life, this humanity that we all share,” says the mama.film founder, stressing that anyone can have the nurturing gaze that she’s speaking to. “We see all of these relationships on screen all the time, and there’s so much of that relationship, nurturehood, humanity issues that we’re all dealing with represented on screen, but we have rarely found a place to come together and talk about it.”
As one of the Satellite Screen partners of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, mama.film has a lot to discuss with its community thanks to the film slate for the program this weekend. “That’s been part of this really magical evolution of what mama.film has become,” Meadow-Conner says. “We started in a shipping container in Wichita, which is the middle of the country, and next thing you know, we’re partnering with Sundance, and we’re partnering with various festivals around the country.” She pauses again, thinking about mama.film’s success and its hopeful future. “It’s just so cool to be able to find the community of people that are interested in our mission and in the programming that we’re presenting.” Have films, will travel.