Telling the story of small-town secrets in rural Iowa, ‘East of the Middle West’ tackles themes of guilt, forgiveness, and betrayal.
Iowa City filmmaker Mokotsi Rukundo has based a great deal of his work on his own observations. Following the mantra “write what you know,” Rukundo took in his surroundings and transported them onto the screen. Observing the eerie perfection of rural Iowa that hides an abundance of dark secrets, Rukundo devised a story that tackled guilt, forgiveness, and secrecy.
Written and produced by Rukundo, East of the Middle West is the manifestation of those observations. The feature-length crime drama will debut at FilmScene in Iowa City’s Ped Mall and the Chauncey locations. The film will play twice on April 2, and once on April 3. The film will also be available to rent online at the end of May.
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The film follows the main character Chris: a high school student who must learn to grapple with the guilt of a mistake with catastrophic consequences, played by actor Carson MacCormac. Acting in the Netflix original series Locke and Key and the show Astrid & Lilly Save the WorldMacCormac has experience performing drama, but was less familiar with the setting of rural Iowa.
“Growing up in the suburbs of Toronto was a far cry from Iowa,” MacCormac said. “Being thrown in it, right into the middle of it, helped a lot. We had a couple of days before we started filming where I got to kind of explore the town a little bit, but just being out in the middle of cornfields on the farm where we were filming.”
Capturing realism was an important aspect in the writing, directing, and acting process of the film. As the team got together and progressed through the story, Rukundo said that certain scenes were drastically changed to both heighten emotion and make the story more human.
Rukundo also wanted to draw upon the “community element” when tragedy strikes. Comparing it to his own experiences of him, he said that the goal was to heighten the dread that the audience feels in the emotional scenes by providing relatable experiences.
“Growing up here in Iowa, there’s times where you’d hear these stories of [tragedy where] you’re just with that person the night before, and something happens whether it’s an accident or whatever,” Rukundo said. “The person is so normal — the person is so human, and that has this huge weight around them.”
Small town secrets are a driving point in the plot of the film, with several storylines connecting and leading to a penultimate event that brings the cast together. With the theme of “lacking forgiveness” in mind, Rukundo and director Brian Anderson allowed the story to form naturally and realistically.
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“We almost went backwards and allowed the natural plot to allow that truth to express itself in these different situations, rather than trying to make a scene somehow fit into the theme,” Rukundo said. “We went about it the other way around.”
While the script was pre-written and planned, there were deviations from that original plot. Whether that be due to ensuring a scene was as realistic as possible, or because there was an issue regarding the setting, Rukundo said the entire team was able to find an alternate path.
The relationships that were formed between the actors and actresses on the set contributed to a more authentic final product. Sophie Hoyt, one of the actresses in the film, said that the smooth collaboration paved the way for an effective solution.
“There was some flexibility, you know, there are scenes that were planned to be different,” Hoyt said. “You arrive at a location and it’s just not what we all thought it was going to be, and maybe we have to switch a couple of lines, and maybe we have to do a quick puzzle to rework, given the circumstances that we were working with.”
In the future, Rukundo hopes to return to Iowa for more filming and production. Currently, he is looking at transforming the book Beer Money: A Tale of the Iowa City Beer Mafia by SC Sherman into a film, capturing local store John’s Grocery and the history behind it in the city. Rukundo ultimately wants Iowa to be a hub for filming and directing.
“Growing up in the Midwest, you write what you know,” Rukundo said. “It would be really cool to film again in Iowa City with the rich history that’s behind that book, and John’s Grocery store there on College Street.”