Meet the Hellions who go the extra half mile to bring an iconic film and music festival to Bay City

It’s the end of September. Time to raise hell.

Hell’s Half Mile, Bay City’s annual independent film and music festival, kicks off its 15th celebration tonight. (It’s not too late to buy tickets for the Sept. 23-26 event.) Did you know HHM is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, run entirely by volunteers? From pre-screening films to managing the whole dang thing, it’s all volunteers.

Jolie White started volunteering “by accident.” She’s been with the festival since year four. When she was attending Delta College, one of her professors, Mitchell Jarosz, mentor to Alan LaFave, was involved with the festival. Jolie encouraged her parents to come to the festival with her.

“Delta has always had a presence with us in supporting the festival, whether it’s advice, volunteers, location,” says Dawn Hessell, who has been volunteer manager for HHM since 2014. “It was always great when they required students to volunteer because we needed more help,” she says, laughing. “They always got a lot out of it.”

Joe White, Jolie’s soon-to-be 75-year-old father, has been volunteering with Jolie ever since. Why? “Because we always volunteer together,” Jolie answers. Joe grins, “Because she’s my baby.”

Jolie White, seen here in this family photo, still loves partnering with her dad, Joe White, on projects.The duo are volunteer-veterans. (Joe is also a Vietnam veteran, but that’s another story.) They both help out at the Tall Ship Celebration, and Jolie recently lent a hand for the Bay City Country Music Festival. “These people are like my family,” she says. Joe adds, “I used to volunteer for Pig Gig and all of Bay City, because I love Bay City.”

Joe’s side of the family is from Pinconning and his wife’s side is from Auburn. They raised their children in Rose City.

“I was the first one to graduate high school, and I said, ‘Well, I’m leaving — I’m going to the big city!” recalls Jolie. That big city was Bay City. “I moved here so I could be involved with things, because we didn’t have anything where I was.”

At HHM, volunteers are essential to everything: ushering, working concessions, selling merchandise, running the multimedia, greeting people and supporting the parties, plus event set up and tear down. With four days of in-person programming and a virtual experience being offered, it’s no small task.

Joe is willing to do anything. “Hard work or easy work — whatever it is, I help.” Sometimes, that’s physically loading and unloading furniture from the back of a truck so it can be used at different events.

“As a nonprofit, we don’t always have multiple sets of things that are part of staging,” Hessell says. “Everyone helps out; we make it work.”

Jolie is a venue manager. She makes sure everything is running smoothly. For example, Jolie is charged with the accounting event sheets, managing film voting ballots, tracking how many people come through with passes, and how much cash comes in from concessions.

Needless to say, running a festival is a lot of work. So what’s their favorite part about volunteering?

For Joe, it’s a sense of community and “personal satisfaction.” While she loves the films, Jolie’s favorite part of the experience is the buzz on opening night.

“You can feel the excitement rising within the crowd,” she says. “Everybody’s just having so much fun, and they’re talking to people they haven’t seen in a while.”

Hessell loves bringing people together.

“We do it to bring something special to Bay City. I actually get a little choked up sometimes when I see people all together,” Hessell says. 

“We have this ability to put these bands out there that people might not have the opportunity to see, to have all these special stories — I’m really proud of that. I put a lot of time into doing this, and that’s the big reward. I think it’s special, and I just love film on top of it.”

As Hessell talks, she cracks, beginning to tear up. Jolie turns and hugs her. “I love you,” she says. Hessell laughs.

Based on that, it’s not hard to guess what keeps these volunteers coming back year after year.

“The people,” says Jolie. “The experience. Especially the people.” 

Hessell adds, “I think we’re really good at making people feel welcome. We’re a small, scrappy town, but people really celebrate the filmmakers. I know a lot of organizers and other volunteers who end up with relationships with filmmakers from all around the country and outside as well.”

Joe brings a different perspective. “I just do it to help the community and help me pass the time,” he says. “It gets boring being retired. You have to make a life that’s happy.”

And of course, since it’s a film and music festival, we need to know: what are their favorite films or bands from over the years? Jolie and Hessell go back and forth as they answer the question.

“Flint Eastwood,” says Jolie, naming her favorite band. “I follow them on Facebook. They just blew me away — I didn’t expect the talent on that girl’s mouth.”

“As far as film,” says Hessell, “I still really love ‘20 years of Madness.’ It was a documentary of a filmmaker. He took footage of himself every year. On his birthday, he would do a video of himself, and he had this amazing collection of all these years.”

“I love independent films,” adds Jolie. “I don’t think I ever would have realized I loved independent films if I hadn’t been exposed to them.”

“It’s all these special and unique stories in it that you’re just not going to get anywhere,” says Hessell. “And where we’re located in the state, there’s not a lot of opportunity to access it.”

For newcomers to independent films, Jolie and Hessell recommend seeing the shorts — a collection of short films with run times between 3 and 30 minutes.

“You get a little bit of everything,” says Jolie. That’s the beauty of it, Hessell adds. “You might not like a couple of them, but you love the other three or four you’re seeing.”

The festival runs from Sept. 23-26. View the full, four-day lineup of films and music on the website. Some films will be shown virtually up until Sept. 30. Tickets for individual showings can be found on the schedule, while events and all-access passes are available here.