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Filmmakers who consider Vt. home to screen works at festival

Nearly 370 films from 27 countries were submitted for consideration in the 2016 Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, which kicks off next Thursday. A showpiece for those just breaking into the industry, 90 films will be screened at the Town Hall Theater, Marquis Theater and Dana Auditorium during the 2nd Annual MNFF.
The festival draws entries from all over the world, and this year’s event will feature 10 films by Vermonters — some of them natives of the Green Mountain State, some Middlebury College grads and one is the chief of the Burlington Police Department.
Here’s a rundown of what to look for.
 
Lambing Season
Andrew Baker found inspiration for his film, “Lambing Season,” on a visit to see his former professor Don Mitchell of Middlebury College, with whom Baker had kept in contact since graduating in 2002. Mitchell, now retired, tends sheep with his wife, Cheryl, on a farm in New Haven.
Baker travelled to the Mitchells’ farm to work on a script, and when he arrived, he found a captivating story that breached his expectations.
“I began pursuing the idea of a man in his golden years, with its attendant baggage and freedoms, but the material drifted toward something deeper and more richly faceted,” Baker said. “‘Lambing Season’ is a film about identity: choosing it, chasing it, losing it, and finding all manner of new ones among mapless backroads.”
Baker, now based in Brooklyn, says he’s been interested in film his whole life. Between shorter projects, he’s compiling and editing more than three years of footage focused on metalworkers in St. Johnsbury. He particularly appreciates documentary film, which he can write, film and direct on his own.
Vermont is one of Baker’s favorite places to work. As the MNFF approaches, Baker is looking forward to seeing his film in the same theater where he watched films years ago as a Middlebury College student.
“It’ll be cool to bring this one back,” he said.
— Emma Cotton
 
Blind Date
Co-directors Maya Albanese and Nicole Ellis paired up at Columbia University’s documentary film graduate program and stumbled upon the world of online dating for people with disabilities while working on a documentary project that ended up becoming “Blind Date.”
“(Ellis) is very passionate about the issue of blindness and had worked with people with disabilities in South Africa,” Albanese told the Independent. “As a visual artist and photographer, I’m very visually driven, and my curiosity and understanding also stems from there not being a lot of understanding for blindness.”
When the two paired up for a documentary project, both wanted to bring awareness to blindness. They worked with Achilles International, a nonprofit organization that provides athletic resources for people with disabilities, got to know many of the people involved, and from there, their documentary was born.
“It’s a whimsical, entertaining and character-driven piece — not a sob story about people with disabilities,” Albanese said. “The people featured in the film and the audiences that have disabilities who have viewed (the film) have been excited to see something that hit the issue hard but was still uplifting.”
At the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, the co-directors hope to bring awareness to technology accessibility for people with disabilities, a topic that is largely unknown. The currently LA-based Albanese is also excited to bring “Blind Date” to her hometown of Middlebury and have its world premiere at the festival.
“I think it’s luck that the (MNFF) would be our world premiere,” Albanese said with a laugh. “I love Middlebury. I grew up in Middlebury, I went to summer camp there eight summers in a row, and I love maple syrup. I’m very much a Vermonter, and I’m very excited to come back (to Middlebury) for the festival.”
— Charmaine Lam
 
Coming Through The Rye
Based on the true story lived by the Woodstock-based filmmaker James Sadwith himself, “Coming Through the Rye” follows the story of an ostracized teenager whose quest to adapt the classic novel “Catcher in the Rye” into a play becomes one in search of the book’s elusive author, J.D. Salinger.
“I was in Middlebury last year, saw the posters for the festival and thought it would be a fun place to show my work,” Sadwith said.
Sadwith’s film has been shown at numerous other film festivals across the nation, from Phoenix to Charlottesville, Va. The reception has been fantastic, he said, with the tickets for screenings selling out at each venue.
Sadwith hopes the film will eventually become a companion piece to the novel “Catcher in the Rye,” but now is focusing his attention on getting the film seen by as many people as possible.
“I get a real joy out of watching the audience’s reactions to the film,” he said. “(The festival being in Vermont) also feels like home, and I would love to share it with other Vermonters.”
Sadwith will attend both the screening of the film and the Q&A following it.
— Charmaine Lam
 
Drug Mule
First-time filmmaker Sharon Lesser Maguire was packing for a winter trip to Mexico with her 10-year-old son when she thought to herself, sitting among piles of clothes and an empty suitcase, “This is absurd, wouldn’t it be funny if…”
And there, her first screenplay was born.
A New York-based actress, Maguire both wrote and starred in her first film. The comedy follows the story of an American mother suspected of smuggling drugs by Mexican drug enforcement.
Maguire has already shown “Drug Mule” in several festivals, including the Manhattan Film Festival in New York City, the California Women’s Film Festival, and the International Contravision Film Festival in Berlin, but she has a soft spot for MNFF.
“(Middlebury) is a very special place for me,” the 1986 Middlebury College graduate said. “When I first found out about the film festival, I thought of course I’m going to apply for a chance to go back.”
Maguire looks forward to the chance to share her work with Vermonters and many of her college friends, who will be in attendance.
“It’s always fun to go to festivals and see other shorts — what other people are talking about and focusing on,” she said. “All the different festivals have different vibes and different paces, and I look forward to the Middlebury audience’s reception to the work.”
— Charmaine Lam
 
Walk With Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith
Director Jesse Nesser first met civil rights advocate Judge Damon J. Keith when he was working on a freelance project. The two-minute sound bite Nesser was contracted to make turned into a 30-minute interview that Nesser could not cut short. The filmmaker decided then and there to dedicate the next few years to work on the Detroit federal judge’s life and legacy.
“It’s a great story, and (Judge Keith’s) cases in the ’70s are still so relevant today,” Nesser said. “His willingness to go against the status quo in the ’70s laid the groundwork for us to even be able to debate (civil rights issues of race).”
The film had its world premier at the Traverse City Film Festival in Michigan. It sold out and received four standing ovations, to the excitement of Nesser and the “Walk With Me” production team. Middlebury will be the film’s first stop outside of Michigan.
“It’s our hope that the audience walks away a little more educated, informed, and inspired,” Nesser said. “Our goal is to get the story as widely known as Judge Keith’s decisions are felt across the nation.”
Nesser is excited to bring both the film and Judge Keith, who will be in attendance, to the MMFF and to open the festival, no less. Nesser attended Marlboro College in Southern Vermont and has since come to love Vermont as his home.
“It feels sort of like a homecoming for me,” Nesser said. “I got to know the culture of Vermont and Vermonters, and it is a state very concerned with civil rights and social justice. I think the message (of the film) will resonate especially strongly with that crowd.”
— Charmaine Lam
 
Zephyr
“Zephyr” is, as the 21-year-old Ryegate, Vt.-based filmmaker describes it, the “quintessential summer film.”
Liam O’Connor-Genereaux has been creating short films since he was eight years old. Thirteen years of filmmaking later, he has broken into the world of feature films with “Zephyr.” O’Connor-Genereaux created the film out of a short film that he and his team had created for a 48-hour film slam in Bradford.
“It was the most fun I’ve ever had shooting a film, and it brought down the house when we screened it,” the filmmaker said. “So I started writing to build off that original short concept.”
The film about amateur robbers who botch a job and impersonate a band to escape turned into a high school summer film. According to O’Connor-Genereaux, it would give his audience “a sense of one last, dangerous, desperate hurrah” seen in classic summer films such as “Grease” and “American Graffiti.”
A native Vermonter, O’Connor-Genereaux has led teams in nine 48-hour film slams across Vermont before embarking on his first feature film, which premiered at the White River Indie Fest to an enthusiastic audience.
O’Connor-Genereaux attended last year’s MNFF as a filmgoer and was gripped by the personable atmosphere at the event. He knew then, he said, that he wanted to submit “Zephyr” to the festival.
“I’m very excited to have been accepted and to get as many unknown eyes on it as possible,” he said. “I want to build on (the film’s) success to start my next project at a slightly higher point so I can keep improving and telling better stories to more people.” 
— Charmaine Lam
 
Unspoken
“Unspoken” is the second of two projects by Wild Angel Films, founded by Tamara Rabil. Her mission is to recreate the true, untold stories of parenthood. This film, shot entirely in Rutland, is centered around Sandra and Allen Gartner’s story.
Several years ago Rabil’s first film, called “Unburden,” was featured at a Vermont film festival. The award-winning narrative inspired audience member Sandra Gartner to approach Rabil after the film. She told Rabil her own story — that many years before she had to take her own child off life support — and that she would be interested in sharing her story with an audience. 
Gartner’s story became the premise of “Unspoken,” which will premier at MNFF. The never-before-seen short is just over 15 minutes, and producer Micaela Tamaccio said Vermont is the perfect place for it to be screened.
“We’re really excited and honored, especially that it’s in Vermont,” she said.
The production team also appreciates having an audience for the film, which was created in part to spark discussions about parenting topics that are otherwise not talked about. Gartner and Tamaccio will both attend the festival.
 “The big thing for us is really getting the story out there so that other people know they’re not alone,” Tamaccio said.
— Emma Cotton
 
Huntwatch
“I’m a Vermonter for sure,” said Kerry Branon, producer of “Huntwatch.” “It’s my favorite state.”
Branon is based in Cape Cod, Mass., but she spent her childhood in Rutland and visits often.
Though she’s produced shorter films for most of her career, “Huntwatch” is her first feature-length documentary. The idea began 12 years ago when Branon first saw seal hunting footage.
“It became an evolution of ‘I can’t look at this’ to ‘Everybody needs to see this,’” she said.
Her team put the film together over a six-year period, digging up footage of seal hunting that spanned four decades. Though they also filmed new interviews, Branon said the documentary is “very much an archive show.” The biggest challenge, she said, was creating an honest story that wasn’t too graphic for a general audience.
“Sometimes when you’re telling a story, you’re looking for dramatic moments to highlight, and in this case, the job was to dial back the emotion, because the seal hunt is a graphic event.”
This often meant creative editing — cutting to black, or suggesting that an action was about to happen instead of explicitly showing it.
Branon is excited to show her work in a place accessible to her family and friends.
“It’s like a homecoming for me,” she said.
— Emma Cotton
 
Peter and the Farm
Director Tony Stone was a child when he met the subject of his film “Peter and the Farm,” Peter Dunning, at the Brattleboro Farmer’s Market. It wasn’t until 25 years later that Stone visited Dunning’s farm in Springfield.
“He was actually the one who challenged us to make the film,” said Melissa Auf de Maur, producer of the film. “The moment we stepped on the farm, we saw the stage that this man has been dedicated to for over 30 years.”
“Peter and the Farm” focuses on Dunning and his emotional relationship with the farm. Though Stone captures Dunning during a dark time in his life, Stone and Auf de Maur were drawn to his charisma and multi-dimensional character.
“He is a man of profound depth and complexity,” Auf de Maur said. “He’s one of a kind, but there’s something about him that touches everyone. It’s been an honor catching this man on film.”
Though this is Stone’s first documentary, his training in fantasy film gave him with a unique cinematographic perspective, enabling him to show audience members a different side of farming than what’s often presented in other films. Stone’s innate respect for Dunning also influenced his filming, according to Auf de Maur.
“There’s an actual meditation and respect in the way the farm is framed,” she said.
Auf de Maur grew up in Montréal, and Stone was born and raised in New York, where their production company is now based. Still, all of Stone’s films are shot in Vermont. 
The MNFF will be the Vermont premiere of “Peter and the Farm.”
“It’s an epic tale,” Auf de Maur said. “We’re so excited to share it with Vermonters.”
— Emma Cotton
 
Sunday 1287
Brandon del Pozo moved to Burlington about a year ago to lead the city’s police force. The chief has since been spotted frequently on the streets, talking to citizens and reaching out to activists, artists, vendors and reporters. In his free time, he bikes, hikes, climbs, skis, plays guitar and works on his book, which he said a New York publisher will produce.
Oh, and he’s a filmmaker.
Del Pozo wrote the script, recruited the cast, and directed on-set for his 11-minute short, titled “Sunday 1287,” which will be featured at MNFF. The film recreates a domestic incident that he dealt with during his 18-year career in the New York Police Department.
Besides having dabbled in a few screenwriting ventures, this was del Pozo’s first time immersing himself in the art of filmmaking.
“Sunday 1287” is a result of del Pozo’s creative inclination, the attachment he felt to this particular story, and his desire to bridge the gap between the public and the police. It was shot over a period of three days in December of 2014 in the Bronx.
“I think being a reform-minded police chief at this time in our country requires you to be creative,” he said. “I get a lot of satisfaction out of that, but I made this film as a creative outlet, and I really enjoyed it. If it tells a captivating story to people, then it’s achieved its goals. So much of policing these days is having citizens understand where we’re coming from, and us understanding where citizens are coming from, and storytelling is part of that.”
— Emma Cotton

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