High-profile film festivals are also highly exclusive, often resembling the closed society of a debutante’s coming out ball. But the local short film festival Hi Mom!, now almost 10 years old, is more like a high school kegger: rambunctious, loosely organized and open to anyone who shows up thirsty. Forget hors d’oeuvres and distribution deals; think stacks of free pancakes and flaming trophies.

While Hi Mom! is more concerned with nurturing its local community than with giving a few lucky winners a hot ticket out of it, it has grown steadily over the past decade. It was founded in 1997 by a group of UNC film students, including Mike Connor, Elizabeth Ingram, Cory Ryan, Ian Krabacher and Kendra Gaeta (who went on to direct the Film Arts Festival in San Francisco). Hi Mom! No. 1, a one-night affair, took place at the Local 506 and featured post-screening performances by the Comas and Sankofa. For Hi Mom! No. 3, in 1999, the festival added another day of screenings, waived its entry fee, and began accepting video submissions, expanding its purview. The festival is now a three-day event spanning numerous venues, including live music and outdoor screenings.

Hi Mom! is run by a revolving stable of volunteers, but since No. 5, Krabacher, Tom Laney and Matt Hedt have been constants, and they’ve helped usher the small festival into an age of greater exposure. Thanks to the trio’s publicity push, Hi Mom! No. 6 received more than 500 entries, about 100 of which came from outside of the United States. (Hi Mom! No. 5 received a modest 60 entries.) Because administering the festival had become so time consuming, it was decided that there needed to be a director and assistant director in order to focus it, and the trio have rotated the positions among themselves ever since.

But while Hi Mom! has changed, its populist ideology remains intact. While anyone in the world can enter, the festival has a “Best of North Carolina” category in a nod to its local roots. It still uses a jury of volunteer screeners who needn’t have film backgrounds, which Hedt believes leads to selections that are diverse and reflective of the community’s tastes, and it tailors its format to its submissionsone year, when there were a lot of “coarse, funny submissions,” an “adult block” was introduced; another saw the festival making a special block for its surfeit of 35mm submissions.

Aside from Kodak’s film donations, Hi Mom! still uses only local sponsors to fund its lavishly illustrated programs and cash prizes, which are significant but, according to Hedt, not really the point. And while the festival is open to anything, it still has a distinctly lo-fi bent, privileging experimental or inventive amateur work. “One aesthetic we have passed down is to shy away from calling card films and glossy, high-end student films,” Hedt explains. “Sometimes they look really good, but they lack something we see in the grittier films.”

Because of the screeners’ diversity of backgrounds and tastes, the only thing you can safely expect from Hi Mom! is the unexpected. My favorite film last year was Christian Nicolay’s AMPTANK, where Nicolay filmed himself banging around on huge metal tank, then cut the film into a dazzling spray of image and sound. Another simply featured cut-up clips of riotous monkeys from Animal Planet freaking out to a Beastie Boys tune. Which is to say that this is a festival more interested in originality and enthusiasm than filmic technique.

“Technique is about the last thing I care about,” says Hedt. “I like when there’s some unique element in the film, and even more, I like new methods and media. I like films that mix existing films, or take things from TV. Some of the best films for me have the worst quality, the worst sound.” On the other hand, Krabacher, according to Hedt, “really appreciates good sound design, and a film where I don’t even notice how bad the sound is, Ian will hate.” This cross-section of tastes ensures Hi Mom! audiences a lively and diverse selection of films.

Thus far, Hi Mom! has been an annual festival. But as the workload increased, it kept creeping a little later into each year, and now the festival has arrived at something of a leap year. None of Hi Mom!’s volunteers had time this year to take on the role of director, which Hedt describes as now being “like a part-time job,” but they’ve collectively committed to mount Hi Mom! No. 10 next year, with Krabacher in the driver’s seat. In the meantime, Hi Mom! No. 9.5 will take place at the Carrboro Town Commons July 14. The free 90-minute screening will highlight a selection of family-friendly films from the festival’s history.

After No. 10, the festival’s future, while not exactly in danger, is nevertheless unclear. Hedt himself is considering minimizing his role in order to focus on other projects he’s been neglecting, like fixing up his house. But “if someone wanted to step up and administrate it,” he says, “I think there’d be a lot of support behind that.” In any case, it seems unlikely that the festival will be going away anytime soon. As long as there are people in the Triangle making animations and video mashups and low budget splatter films and experimental meditations that don’t easily fit into any extant category, Hi Mom! is fulfilling a community need, giving burgeoning auteurs a place to share their efforts, make connections and maybe snag a bit of prize money in the process. Whether or not it continues to do so in the future is up to the community.

For a preview of this year’s Hi Mom! 9.5, which takes place this Saturday, July 14, 9 p.m. at the Carrboro Town Commons, see the Spotlight in the Film Calendar starting on page 64.