Second film festival’s success marked by larger crowds

MIDDLEBURY — The second annual Middlebury New Filmmaker’s Festival wrapped up Sunday evening as the event’s two founders passed awards to seven top filmmakers from Town Hall Theater’s main stage.
Festival producer Lloyd Komesar and artistic director Jay Craven presented each winner with a VTeddy award — a bear clad in a tuxedo standing atop a platform with the inscribed category — specially created by Vermont Teddy Bear Co., the festival’s headlining sponsor.
“These are not the Oscars, but after a few years, they’ll be better than the Oscars,” Komesar told the audience.
In addition to the honorary bear, the winning films will be shown in theaters around New England in the coming months. The tour is part of the festival’s mission to raise exposure for their award-winning submissions.
“It’s becoming typical of the Middlebury New Filmmaker’s Festival to go above and beyond,” said Jesse Nesser, recipient of the award for the Best Documentary Feature. “They don’t just give you an award, but they take you on tour.”
Nesser’s film, “Walk with Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith,” opened the festival last Thursday and received a standing ovation when the screening was over.
For the first time, the festival collaborated with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra to present an award, judged by the orchestra, for Excellence in Music Composed for Film. In addition to having the film toured with the other winners, the recipient will be paired with a musician from the VSO, with whom they will collaborate on their next film.
The award was given to native Vermonter Jesse Kreitzer for his film, “Black Canaries.”
“I’m still processing and sort of beyond words,” Kreitzer said.
His film was honored for its score, which was composed by Berklee College of Music student Jose Parody. Kreitzer reached out to several composers and chose Parody after listening to his demo.
“It was so resonant — it had a real humanity,” Kreitzer said. “I knew in that moment that I had found my composer.”
His next film, called “Caregiver,” is focused on hospice workers and midwives in rural Vermont. Thrilled at the chance to work with one of the VSO musicians, Kreitzer expressed gratitude and relief to already have a composer cherry-picked just for him. He said the music could play an important role in making the film accessible.
“It feels quite liberating to know that I’ll be working alongside the VSO to produce a film,” he said.
Other winning films included “Phil’s Camino” for Best Documentary Short, “Broke” for Best Narrative Feature, “The Best and Worst Days of George Morales’ Unnaturally Long Life” for Best Narrative Short, “Pony” for Audience Favorite Short and “The Guys Next Door” for Audience Favorite Feature.
“(The winners) represent what the festival’s about,” Craven said, adding that any films that have already been distributed were ineligible for the VTeddy awards. “We try to focus on films that don’t have distribution to give them a leg up. I think this is a really good collection of those films.”
Craven said he walked away from the festival with high spirits. Although final figures weren’t available early this week, he said attendance was up from last year, and even events he didn’t expect to be well attended were overflowing with an engaged audience.
“It was a feeling of great satisfaction, exhilaration, anticipation and real excitement for what, I think, is working as a partnership of community and culture,” he said. “The filmmakers were great, they were enthusiastic and they were so grateful to have the exposure.”
The team is already looking ahead and making plans for next year. Events will continue year-round, starting with a Town Hall Theater screening of “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” on Sept. 21, during which the celebrated television producer Norman Lear will Skype in for a question-and-answer session and discussion. 
A “Best of Festival” screening will take place at Town Hall Theater at the end of September into October. In January, Craven and the team will begin soliciting films again.
For now, Craven is grateful to everyone who helped make this festival a success.
“Everybody was generous, and that’s really what this is about,” he said. “The filmmakers, the special guests, the audience, the sponsors, the venues, the volunteers, the staff — the spirit of generosity is really the underpinning of the entire festival. Being a part of something that is so much characterized by the spirit of generosity is especially gratifying.”
Middfilmfest.org has additional information about upcoming events and the winning films.    LLOYD KOMESAR, LEFT, producer of the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, and Jay Parini, an award-winning local poet and screenwriter, converse on Friday before Parini appears with Russell Banks at the festival to talk about turning books into films. Photo by Phoebe Lewis

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