The theme for this year's Tallgrass Film Festival is "Roadside Attractions." It's meant to be a reflection of Kansas' hidden gems — that there's more to be discovered beneath the surface.
The same could be said for the festival program, too.
Not only will more than 100 feature and short films be screened from around the world, but many of the films were made right here in Kansas.
Tonight's opening-night film even has ties to Wichita. Several scenes from Lawrence-based director Kevin Willmott's "The Only Good Indian" were filmed at Old Cowtown Museum and Sedgwick County Park.
Never miss a local story.
Willmott's "The Battle for Bunker Hill" was filmed around Lawrence. And the Timothy Gruver Spotlight on Kansas Filmmakers program will include work by artists from Wichita, Lawrence, Hutchinson and Kansas City.
But one of Kansas' best-kept secrets comes from Wamego, and it's a filmmaker who creates worlds all his own.
Steve Balderson, whose award-winning documentary "Underbelly" will be the festival's Saturday night centerpiece, grew up in Wamego and Manhattan (a self-proclaimed "outsider") before heading to Los Angeles to attend the California Institute of the Arts and study film.
And that's where he knew — forgive the cliche — that he wasn't in Kansas anymore.
"I walked down the hall and there would be people having sex," Balderson said in a recent phone conversation.
Confused by the complete openness, Balderson asked a teacher about it, who said, "We believe as long as you aren't hurting anyone or yourself, you have the freedom to do whatever you want. And if you don't like it, you have the power to close your eyes and walk away."
"That single lesson," Balderson said, "just about freedom and life, is the greatest thing I got from school."
And although his college experience was an eye-opening one, Balderson says he learned more about the process of creating movies by making them than by studying them.
So he returned to Kansas — and became one of this state's most prolific underground filmmakers.
He has developed a distinctly offbeat and surreal style, and rounded up an unlikely group of people to be in his films.
Balderson's first feature, "Pep Squad," was described as a "homicidal comedy." His second, "Firecracker," was a freakish carnival tale that starred famed '70s actress Karen Black and Faith No More rock band singer Mike Patton.
His other films have featured a man who falls in love with himself — quite literally — in "Watch Out," the experimental documentary "Phone Sex," and "Stuck!," his latest narrative work, a "women-in-prison" film that again stars Black, but also features ex-Go-Gos band member Jane Weidlin and Mink Stole, a frequent star of John Waters films. "Stuck!" just had its world premiere earlier this month at the Raindance Film Festival in London, England.
But "Stuck!" also stars the colorful subject of "Underbelly" — Pleasant Gehman, and Balderson says her world is like no other.
He remembers saying, "Somebody ought to do a documentary. She's such an interesting person, her whole story, her character in real life — you're just stunned. Then it ended up actually being me."
Balderson spent a year documenting her life, and that is what became "Underbelly."
Gehman had already made a name for herself as a punk rock singer and author. After years spent on debaucherous tours, after having struggled with substance addiction and bulimia, she discovered the world of belly dancing, and it changed her life.
She reinvented herself as Princess Farhana, eventually becoming an internationally acclaimed belly-dancing star.
But it wasn't without controversy, Balderson said, since she combined the world of belly dancing and burlesque — and that didn't go over so well in some Middle Eastern communities.
"She actually invented a new form of dance," Balderson said.
Gehman will attend Saturday night's screening of "Underbelly" at the Orpheum Theatre, and participate in a Q&A session after the film with Balderson. She'll also perform a dance exhibition.
And that, says Balderson, will provide insight into the art form's expression, and the underlying meaning he interprets as, "What are the things we have to break down to be free?"