Successful Middlebury film festival excites viewers, filmmakers

MIDDLEBURY — With the awarding of 13 fuzzy, well-groomed teddy bears, the third annual Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival closed its curtains on Aug. 27, concluding what festival organizers said was the best year ever.
MNFF Artistic Director Jay Craven reported that this year’s festival featured the largest number of films screened (96), the most filmmakers to attend (over 40), and a record number of special guests. That the festival also attracted bigger audiences with high engagement also gave this year’s festival high marks.
“It’s a high point for sure,” Craven said after the four-day festival. “I think it’s one of the most stimulating arts events in Vermont.”
Festival passes were up 35 percent, day pass sales were higher, and audience attendance and participation at the panel discussions and workshops was over the roof, said Craven. A total of 12 screenings were sold out compared to last year’s four, even with the addition of a fifth screen at the National Bank of Middlebury Community Room.
About 2,900 community members went to the movie screenings during the second festival. This year, festival producer Lloyd Komesar is certain that number was substantially exceeded.
“I think all of us were immensely pleased at the way the festival rolled out,” Komesar said. “Just in general I thought that this is our best year.”
The duration of the festival was extended with Thursday early bird screenings, and Komesar said he’s likely to expand that next year.
“I felt Middlebury and the MNFF came alive in a way that felt new and groundbreaking,” added Phoebe Lewis, the festival associate producer. “I was also very pleased to see the filmmakers forging friendships and exploring Middlebury and becoming members of the community in a way that I’m confident will extend beyond their four days here.”
The filmmakers felt the same way.
BRUCE BAYLISS, LEFT, Michele Hernandez and their son, Ian, paused for a photo op at the MNFF. They endowed the Hernandez/Bayliss Prize for the film the “best demonstrates the triumph of the human spirit.
“We want to come back, so I guess we will get back to work,” said Shawn Convey, whose documentary feature “Among Wolves” won the $1,000 Hernandez/Bayliss Prize in Triumph of the Human Spirit.
Among the other winners, Alexandra Dean’s documentary “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” took two awards home: The Audience Award in Feature film and the Clio Visualizing History Prize for the Advancement of Women in Film, the latter one also being a $1,000 prize.
“I am privileged to be among you as a cohort,” Dean said on the THT stage during Sunday’s awards ceremony. “I have loved talking to the audience about my film and having such an emotional and real response from people.”
The Clio Visualizing History Prize resonated with the festival’s focus on women filmmakers this year. Dean’s documentary explores the famous film actress Hedy Lamarr, who was also an inventor of technological advances, a little-known fact that was the basis of the documentary. The film’s message on the difficulty Lamarr experienced in getting recognized for her brilliance in the technology industry remains critical today.
“The truth is it’s still hard for us to be taken seriously as filmmakers,” Dean said.
A new partnership with the Jacob Burns Film Center introduced the Creative Culture Award, which was given to Martha Gregory for her documentary short, “Three Red Sweaters.” Upon receiving the award, Gregory was also offered a one-month residency at the Westchester County, N.Y., center, where she will have access to all resources and facilities.
The center also introduced the first Virtual Reality demonstration to the festival, featuring Alex Gonzalez’s short “Beyond the Mountains.” Gonzales showed his VR production at the Marquis Theater Café, where about 40 people got to see the 7-minute film on Gonzales’ personal VR goggles and equipment.
In other activities during the four-day festival, the MNFF marked the second year of its partnership with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, which presented the Award in Best Integration of Original Music. Ben Gustafson’s film “Seared” was this year’s winner. Gustafson will be able to team up with a composer to work on a film and its accompanying score together.
Other awards included: “A Pact Among Angels” for Best Feature Narrative; “The Peacemaker” for Best Feature Documentary; “There Are No Brothers Here” for Best Short Narrative; “An Outrage” for Best Short Documentary; and “An Autobiography” for Audience Award in Short Films.
As a tribute to experienced professionals in the field, whose works continue to inspire and educate, the Award in Sustained Excellence in Acting was given to Michael Murphy, while the filmmaker duo of Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg was awarded Sustained Excellence in Documentary Filmmaking.
“You are blessed and you are screwed,” Murphy joked at the awards ceremony, encouraging the new filmmakers to embrace the challenges and hardships that will come along.
To provide opportunities for the budding filmmakers to converse and learn from each other, festival organizers introduced two craft workshops. On Saturday, the cinematography session, hosted by Craven, and the film distribution discussion, hosted by Komesar, were joined by professionals in the respective fields.
A merchandise store (sponsored by Bourdon Insurance Agency) at the old barbershop on Merchants Row became what Komesar considered to be “one more focal point for the festival,” as many people enjoyed going to the store for ice cream and merchandise.
Outside the four-day fest, this year’s MNFF Winter Screening Series will start on Sunday, Dec. 3, with a 2017 film “Novitiate.” The series will bring one film each month at the Town Hall Theater until May. And a possible special evening screening of the 2018 Oscars is now on the organizers’ calendar.
“I feel that this year was a real breakthrough for us,” Komesar said. “And we are already planning for next year based on the successes we had in our third year.”

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