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Opinion: Wish us luck as the curtain rises on film festival

As we prepare to open our Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival tonight, we’re filled with a sense of anticipation — and gratitude for the many local businesses, restaurants, media outlets, town leaders and venue managers who have fully responded to our call, breathing life into this weekend’s celebration of community and culture. More than 150 people have purchased our $75 weekend film passes. Single tickets will be on sale at each show — although tonight’s premiere is sold out. Check out our full list of films and special events at middfilmfest.org.
We’re especially grateful to our summer party hosts, people who are opening their homes to filmmakers, and our hardworking staff, Kyla Jarrett and Phoebe Lewis, who go the extra mile every day. Special thanks, also, to the community-spirited Addison Independent and our gifted graphic artist, Matt Heywood, and web designer, Dave Campbell, who produced materials that have people buzzing. 
All systems are now “go.” We’re thrilled to share these films and looking forward to welcoming Addison County stalwarts, visitors from every corner of the region, and emerging filmmakers from the Northeast Kingdom, Brattleboro, and as far away as California, Poland, Australia and Brazil.
My wife insists that I knock on wood every time I tempt the fates — but I can imagine that we’ll experience a wrinkle or two in our carefully laid plans this weekend. Please bear with us, if we do. I’m reminded of a near calamity that occurred in 1999 when I screened my 1993 film, “Where the Rivers Flow North” in a dusty old theater in Ashkabat, Turkmenistan. 
It was already an hour past the scheduled show time when I looked at my translator Angela’s watch.  Three hundred Turkmen were seated but I was the only one who seemed anxious. Finally, a local leader announced that we were not permitted to start the show until the country’s President-for-Life,Saparmurat Niyazov, signed the building permit. 
I made small talk with Boris the projectionist, marveling at his ancient Czech projectors and recalling the first time I ran 35mm equipment as a teenager and let the carbon arc light go dark during the car chase scene in Steve McQueen’s “Bullitt.” Angela translated but Boris wasn’t interested. So I walked to the front of the theater where a U.S. Embassy official named Tom asked me if I wanted to go out drinking after the show.
“I don’t drink,” I say. “But I might start soon.”
At 4 p.m., two hours after the scheduled start, a courier arrived with the permit and an older man with a battery-operated bullhorn emerged from behind the screen. I turned to Angela. “He’s the translator for the film,” she said.  “He’ll read from the script.”
“Over the bull horn?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Angela. “Though his English is a little spotty.”
Wanting to be a gracious guest, I nodded and told the crowd how my story was rooted in the history and culture of Vermont. People’s faces went blank. “In New England,” I said. Still, nobody understood. “In the U.S.,” I added.
“Start the show,” someone shouted from the audience.
A minute into the film’s first scene, I grimaced at the screeching feedback coming from the translator’s bullhorn. Then I noticed a microphone dipping into the frame. The projectionist had failed to put the aperture plate on the projector. Angela followed as I ran to the projection room.
Boris lit a cigarette as I stepped into the booth. “The aperture plate,” I said. You forgot to put the aperture plate in the projector gate. The microphone is showing.”
“Get used to it,” said Boris. “There are no aperture plates. These are old machines.”
I looked around the grimy booth and found the missing plates hanging from a nail on the front wall.  “Here,” I said, holding them up for Boris to see. 
Angela didn’t have to translate Boris’ response. “You want to run the show, be my guest,” he said, as he gave me the international arm gesture for “up yours.” Then he stormed out of the booth. Left to my own devices, I inserted the plates and the screen went blurry for 20 seconds. But the translator kept going.
Angela looked out the booth window. “The translator’s reading the scene descriptions as well as the dialogue,” she said. “He’s way behind the picture.”
“That’s the least of my problems,” I said.  “It looks like I have to run the projectors.”
I had not run carbon arc projectors since a brief moonlighting stint at a Littleton, N.H., theater during the early ’80s. The trick is to know when the electrically charged carbon rods will burn down to nothing. If you let that happen the screen will go black. So, I did my best to guess how much flame each rod still had on it. The rods also emit carbon monoxide that needs to be vented. The Ashkabat unit was out of whack so the booth got smoky. I hoped to avoid passing out.
I kept the show rolling to the final credits and made my way to the stage where the translator took a huge bow. Cheers filled the room. Then an audience member asked me whether Rip Torn’s hook was real. Another wanted to know how many Indians were left in the U.S. Then, a woman stood and said, “My heart took flight.” 
Outside, a Turkmen filmmaker denounced me as an American imperialist. I ask him if he saw the film. “No,” he said. “And I won’t. Everything wrong with the cinema is the fault of Hollywood.” I told him that “Rivers” is not a Hollywood film but he remained agitated.
We won’t be using carbon arc projectors and bullhorns this weekend in Middlebury. Rest assured.
Screenings, discussions, pop-up events with filmmakers, and a fabulous free Saturday night dance party are on tap this weekend. A complete festival schedule, film trailers and festival passes are available online at middfilmfest.org.

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