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Middlebury readies for its annual close-up

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Posted on August 22, 2016 |
By John Flowers



MNFF Walk With Me Technial Director Doug Trevethan prepares for the start of the Master Interview.jpg
TECHNICAL DIRECTOR DOUG TREVETHAN and Judge Damon Keith prepare a shot during filming of “Walk With Me — The Trials of Damon J. Keith,” a film that will kick off the Middlebury New Filmmaker Festival on Thursday. Below right, MNFF Producer Lloyd Komesar is seen here with the VTeddy Awards that will be presented to the festival winners. Farther below right, award-winning documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple will speak and show three films this weekend.

MIDDLEBURY — The second annual Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival (MNFF) will begin rolling this Thursday, Aug. 25, with a four-day extravaganza for the senses, headlined by the screening of 77 films produced by some of the country’s budding cinematographic talents (see related story).

Espousing a theme of “film as journalism,” the sophomore edition of the festival will also pay tribute to one of the nation’s most celebrated documentary producers (Barbara Kopple), while engaging viewers and representatives of such media giants as The Nation andThe New York Times in discussions about the increasing role that movies are playing in the reporting of major events and news trends.

“Filmmakers make a difference, and we believe their influence is widening,” festival Producer Lloyd Komesar said. “To take on the ‘film as journalism’ theme was important to us, because we believe it is utterly relevant and timely.”

Festival organizers this year received a total of 370 film submissions from 27 countries. That was a 15 percent increase compared to last year’s inaugural festival.

 “It provides a wonderful validation of our festival’s basic mission, namely to support the work of first- and second-time filmmakers,” Komesar said. “We are developing our niche and feel that we have connected with the filmmaker community in a very positive way.”

This year’s festival runs Aug. 25 through 28. The 77 films will be shown in three familiar venues: Town Hall Theater, Marquis Theater (two screens), and Middlebury College’s Dana Auditorium. MNFF Artistic Director Jay Craven took the lead in curating those films; he aimed to deliver a non-stop feast for the eyes and ears throughout the marathon event.

Craven personally watched 112 films, representing hundreds of hours of viewing.

“We are excited about everything we are programming,” said Craven, a renowned filmmaker in his own right. “We feel there are some films that hit a homerun from top to bottom. Some of the films have great writing and fabulous performances, but maybe we quibble a little bit about how they end it … It’s all part of the discussion.”

DOCUMENTARY PIONEER

Movies will only be part of the fun this year, organizers promised.

“We are also offering some things this year that we think will enhance the experience at the festival,” Komesar said.

Such as celebrating this year’s MNFF honoree — Kopple, a two-time Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker from Brooklyn, N.Y.

The festival will screen three of her highly acclaimed documentaries, including her groundbreaking film, “Harlan County, USA.” Released in 1976 as Kopple’s first feature film, “Harlan County USA” chronicled the bitter 1974 strike of Kentucky coalmine workers that began when the Eastover Mining Company refused to sign a standard union contract.

The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary and, in 1991, the Library of Congress named it to the National Film Registry. The film was also named one of the top five documentaries of all time by the International Documentary Association in 2007.

In recognition of her outstanding achievements in filmmaking, MNFF will award Kopple its VTeddy Award for Sustained Cinematic Vision and Imagination. She will also be part of a featured panel discussion by distinguished filmmakers on “New Currents in Documentary Filmmaking,” to take place at 4 p.m., Saturday at the courtyard of the Middlebury Inn.

“We follow her career closely and we are grateful and delighted to have Barbara here for the entire weekend,” Komesar said.

Kopple’s two other featured films at the festival will be “Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation,” which will screen at 10 a.m. on Sunday at Dana Auditorium, and “Miss Sharon Jones!” which MNFF has selected as its closing night film on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at Town Hall Theater.

“It’s a great way to end (the festival) with a flourish,” Komesar said.

Craven said the festival will continue to annually recognize filmmakers who made a splash with their earliest films and/or who merit kudos for having notable bodies of work. Last year, MNFF conferred the “VTeddy Award for Cinematic Vision and Imagination” on Bill and Turner Ross, documentary filmmakers from New Orleans.

“Barbara’s (film) really signaled a new style of documentary filmmaking, which was to get inside the subject matter — rather than to remain outside of it — and to record a turbulent event by directly engaging with the event and the principals who make it happen,” Craven said.

Kopple, according to Craven, remains an inspiration to this latest generation of documentary filmmakers who will be well represented at the MNFF. And her appearance here in Middlebury will not only benefit aspiring filmmakers, according to Craven

“This raised for us consideration of the role of the media in, and about journalism, media as journalism, and journalism ad media, and where we stand at this particular moment, as far as print media, national and city dailies and struggling,” Craven said. “Television has been a 24-hour news cycle — and not only to the benefit of consumers, I would argue. Video clips are beginning to be used on-line by traditional media.”

So MNFF organizers have scheduled events at this year’s festival to explain the increasing role of filmmaking in how today’s news is gathered and displayed.

The aforementioned “Hot Type” documentary provides a window into The Nation, America’s oldest continuously published weekly magazine. “Hot Type” captures the day-to-day pressures and challenges of publishing the magazine, as well as illuminating how the past continuously ripples through and shapes current events. An on-stage conversation following the screening of the film will include Kopple and John Nichols, national affairs correspondent for The Nation.

SPOTLIGHT ON THE TIMES

Continuing the theme and also on Sunday — at 1 p.m. — the festival will screen (at Dana Auditorium) the documentary “Page One: Inside The New York Times,” which chronicles the transformation of the media industry at its time of greatest turmoil.

After the screening, Hamilton Boardman, senior editor of The New York Times and publisher of the online edition, will speak with Craven about how The Times has further evolved since the film’s release in 2011. A panel discussion titled, “The Changing Face of Journalism in the Age of New Media” will then ensue. Participants are expected to include Boardman; Lindsay Crouse, coordinating producer of the Times’ “Op-Docs” video documentaries; John Nichols of The Nation; a representative of the Addison Independent; Paula Routly, publisher of Seven Days; and John Van Hoesen, senior VP/chief content officer for Vermont Public Radio.

“Jay and I are both fascinated by the impact that film has, and the outcomes it produces in the journalist enterprise,” Komesar said. “We have seen legal cases in the last several years directly affected by filmmaking. This undercurrent of film as journalism is powerful.”

Komesar and Craven are also intrigued by the Times’ relatively new Op-Docs feature.

Launched by the Times opinion section in 2011, Op-Docs is a “series of short, interactive, and virtual reality documentaries,” according to nytimes.com. “Each film is produced with wide creative latitude by both renowned and emerging filmmakers, and premieres across the Times’ online platforms. The goal of each Op-Doc is to present a unique point of view.”

Op-Docs documentaries have won an Oscar nomination, two News and Documentary Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award and the World Press Photo Multimedia Award for Interactive Documentary — as well as official selections at international film festivals.

Contributing filmmakers have included such luminaries as Errol Morris, Laura Poitras, Alan Berliner and Alex Gibney.

“What Op-Docs is doing in film writing, is giving new significance, shape, impact and exposure to the two-to-five-minute documentary,” Craven said.

He said the public should have great interest in the evolution of how it stays informed, noting magazines and newspapers have historically provided the “connective tissue for us to understand who we are, where we are, and what’s going on.”

Unlike last year, the 2016 festival will not feature any 4:30 p.m. film screenings.

“We wanted to give people time to regroup,” Komesar explained, adding that window will allow participants to socialize, dine and attend panel presentations as they so choose. Screenings will resume at 7:15 p.m.

AWARDS PRESENTATION

The VTeddy awards presentations at Town Hall Theater will at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday. Awards will be given in the categories of Best Feature Narrative, Best Short Narrative, Best Feature Documentary, Best Short Documentary, Audience Award/Feature, Audience Award/Short. In addition, a Vermont Symphony Orchestra Award will be given for “Best Integration of Music Composed For Film.”

The awards carry some extra perks not offered by most other film festivals, Komesar stressed.

As was the case last year, the winners will receive MNFF backing to screen their films on a multi-state tour throughout New England.

Town Hall Theater will again host “Best of the Fest” screenings in September and October. A local winter screening series is again in the works, with the added goal of expanding it to one screening per month, through next May.

“When you look at the continuity, you have only a little bit of down time when the festival brand is not active,” Komesar said.

The VSO awardee — chosen by the orchestra itself — will be paired with what Komesar called “a rising composer of their choice” with whom to collaborate on the filmmaker’s next project.

“It’s a very innovative partnership,” Komesar said. “We are thrilled to be involved with the VSO on this.”

Organizers are pleased with the eclectic mix of activities at thus year’s festival.

“We have a variety of activities, so that people who show up will have no problem finding a highly engaging activity to participate in,” Craven said.

Komesar said early demand for MNFF passes and individual tickets has been strong. Festival passes cost $75 — a bargain compared to most other festivals. Individual tickets ($12) and day passes ($28) are also available. He anticipates a larger and more devoted following this year, believing the festival has transitioned from somewhat of a “novelty” in its first year, to an established and respected event. This year’s MNFF has 35 sponsors, headlined by Vermont Teddy Bear.

“It has become a staple on people’s calendars,” Komesar said.

Get more information at middfilmfest.org.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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