‘Thumbs up’ for Des Moines filmmakers in Portugal

From left, “Thumb Wars” creators Nick Strickland, Marnie Strate, Michael LaDell Harris, Maggie Tatone, and Kim and Dan Haymes saw their movie on the big screen at historic cinema in Lisbon, Portugal. (Photo: Nick Strickland)

By Michael Morain

Sometimes life is as strange as a Mad Lib.

True story: A group of creative friends from Des Moines just returned from a film festival in Lisbon, Portugal. They walked the red carpet and celebrated their wacky new movie about thumb wars.

The seven-minute comedy was part of the annual 48 Hour Film Project, in which teams around the world have just two days to conceive, write, shoot and edit a short original movie. “Thumb Wars” emerged from a crowded field of Des Moines entries to compete in this year’s international festival in Lisbon, where it won an audience choice award and a nomination for best graphics, out of more than 130 entries from around the world.

“Taking something as silly as ‘Thumb Wars’ to an event like that was really something,” said Marnie Strate, one of the film’s actors.

She stars as “Plain” Jane Vanson, a professional thumb wrestler whose father always dreamed of going pro but never got the chance. (Hmmm … or did he?) In true mockumentary style, “Thumb Wars” follows mild-mannered Jane through a thumb-war tournament in which she competes against various WWE-style rivals, including tiny Thumbelina, the Green Thumb, the menacing Thumbertaker and a lunch lady whose mighty thumb bulked up from 37 years of scooping mashed potatoes.

The film was directed by Strate’s husband, Nick Strickland, and features a handful of local actors. They shot most of their scenes upstairs at the Temple for Performing Arts.

Des Moines first hosted the 48 Hour Film Project in 2005, when a local entry, a Ken Burns-style spoof called “Mimes of the Prairie,” went on to win the worldwide competition right off the bat.

The local competition has grown over the years, boosted by longtime producer Sam Pace-Tuomi and a handful of teams that return year after year and encourage others to join. As the prices of cameras (and drones) have dropped over the years, so have the barriers for participation.

“It’s a safe place to fail, so the best thing is seeing teams improve,” Pace-Tuomi said. “Some teams may not finish their first year, but they usually come back with a vengeance.”

Fifty-three teams entered last year’s local contest, which included a special division for short horror films. (This year’s horror winner was produced by John Hansen, who also went to Lisbon; he helped produce “Mimes of the Prairie,” too.) Pace-Tuomi is hoping for 60 local teams this year, which will mark the 20th contest in Des Moines, minus one or two during the pandemic.

Registration opens May 20 for the filmmaking frenzy July 26-28, followed by screenings at the Fleur Cinema and Cafe.

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