Big plans afoot for 2018 Middlebury film festival

MIDDLEBURY — The fourth annual Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, set for August 23 to 26, will break its record for film submissions and boast a stellar lineup of industry guests, including some recent Academy Award winners.
“This has been a marvelous experience to build this festival into something that really does serve the community, nurture film culture and develop a network of filmmakers who really love us and want to come back — whether they have a film or not,” Festival Producer Lloyd Komesar said. “It’s a great thing.”
Before setting the stage for this year’s festival, let’s recognize how far the MNFF has come in just one year.
Organizers have received a whopping 475 film submissions, ranging from shorts to feature films. That’s a 27-percent increase over two years ago — the previous high-water mark — and a 32-percent bump compared to last year’s festival, according to Komesar.
“It’s smashed all of our previous records,” he said. “These are huge jumps for us.”
Filmmakers from 37 different countries have sent in entries, according to Komesar.
“We’ve really broken through here,” Komesar said of the still-nascent venture, designed to recognize and showcase the best work from budding filmmakers. “In some way, we’ve gotten traction that’s significant all across the globe.”
He attributed the success to four factors:
• The MNFF is now a top-100 best-reviewed festival on “FilmFreeway,” a website through which enthusiasts can learn about, promote and rank film festivals. FilmFreeway has placed the MNFF it in the top 2 percent of the 6,000 festivals it includes as part of its platform.
“When filmmakers get ready to spend their dollars to send films, they look at our listing… and I think it helps their decision,” Komesar said.
• European companies have become increasingly aware of MNFF and have been sending in their film slates, thus increasing the influence of the festival. 
• College theater, fine arts and filmmaking programs have become more aggressive about getting their students to submit to the festival.
• The growing number of MNFF alumni have been spreading the word about the Middlebury festival, and this word-of-mouth has translated into more film submissions.
“Our alumni network is really hard at work out there helping us,” Komesar said.
This year’s MNFF will again be a four-day affair, kicking off on Thursday, Aug. 23, with an opening night film at the Town Hall Theater, followed by a party at the Swift House Inn. Festival films will be shown on five screens (instead of the usual four) this year, with one at the THT, two at the Marquis, one at Middlebury College’s Dana Auditorium, and another to be announced.
As usual, the MNFF will be a juried competition and winning filmmakers all receive coveted VTeddy Awards in the following categories: Best Feature Narrative, Best Short Narrative, Best Feature Documentary, Best Short Documentary, Audience Award Feature and Audience Award Short. The festival will also confer multiple cash prizes and in-kind awards to feature and short film directors.
Along with the customary Hernandez-Bayliss $1,000 award for best feature film to capture the human spirit and the Clio $1,000 prize for the advancement of women in film, the film festival will debut a new cash award this year: The Gaia prize for environmental filmmaking. That award is also $1,000.
Participating filmmakers are now waiting anxiously as MNFF’s screening committee whittles the 475 submissions to the roughly 95 finalists that will be shown on five screens from Aug. 23-26. And Komesar said the triage has never been tougher, owing to the overall quality of films submitted this year.
This year’s festival will feature a bonus day — Aug. 22 — that will be devoted to children’s themes that will all be shown at the Marquis Theater on Main Street.
“We want to reach out to a (demographic) here in Middlebury that has not really been able to attend the festival, really, and that’s kids and families,” Komesar said. Past festivals have offered some kid-friendly fare on the Saturday morning of the event, but nothing as coordinated and comprehensive as will be seen on Wednesday, Aug. 22.
“It’s a demo we felt we needed to make a more concerted effort to attract,” he said.
Organizers will look within this year’s MNFF submissions, and curate films, in order to come up with three feature offerings for families and children between the ages of 6 and 16, according to Komesar. The mix is likely to include a feature animation, a documentary and a G or PG-rated drama, all by first- or second-time filmmakers. Plans call for face painting and other kid-friendly activities at the Marquis on that day.
Komesar and MNFF Artistic Director Jay Craven, a renowned filmmaker in his own right, confirmed the participation of four prominent guests in this year’s festival. They include:
• Noted documentarian Steve James (pictured), who produced, edited and directed “Hoop Dreams,” and the winner of multiple prizes, including a Peabody and Robert F. Kennedy Award. Other examples of his work include “Stevie,” “Death House Door” and “Life Itself.”
His most recent documentary, “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” earned an Academy Award nomination this year and will be screened at the festival, along with a film James executive produced, called “Minding The Gap.”
Festival organizers will give James an award for “sustained excellence in documentary filmmaking” for his considerable achievements.
In what is quite a coup for the MNFF, this year’s festival will premier the first two episodes of James’ 10-part docuseries, “America To Me,” which follows students, teachers and administrators in suburban Chicago’s Oak Park and River Forest High School over the course of a year as they grapple with racial and educational inequities. The series will debut on the Starz cable network this fall.
“Steve James will have a very significant presence while he’s here,’ Komesar said.
“(James) is absolutely a perfect choice for us,” Craven added.
• The return of Barbara Kopple, also a renowned documentarian. Kopple, an attendee of the past two festivals, will be on hand this year for a screening and Q&A for her new film, “A Murder in Mansfield,” which explores the 1989 murder of Noreen Boyle in Mansfield, Ohio.
“She’s become a fixture at the MNFF, and we’re thrilled to have her back,” Komesar said. “She loves coming here.”
• Mo Naqvi, a Pakistani filmmaker to whom the MNFF will be bestowing a “Courage in Filmmaking” award.
One of Naqvi’s films, “Shame,” relates the story of 30-year-old Mukhtaran Mai, a Pakistani village woman who, in 2002, was publicly gang-raped in retribution for an offense for which her brother was falsely accused.
Naqvi also made the documentary “Among the Believers,” which chronicles the spread of the radical Islamic school “Red Mosque” in Pakistan, a school that trains children to devote their lives to holy war.
“Both these films were films where Mo quite frankly could have been killed for the role he played in digging into these subjects,” Craven said. “He’s a very important filmmaker and a mentor to particularly women filmmakers.”
• David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco, a husband-wife duo of production designers and art directors. They won a 2017 Academy Award for their production design work on the film “La La Land.” They have also worked on such films as “Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill: Volumes I and II,” and “Inglourious Basterds.” David Wasco, a Bennington native, also did production work on Craven’s celebrated film, “Where the Rivers Flow North.”
“Production design is what we see when we go to the movie theater,” Craven said. “It’s building the visual world of the film.”
“It’s one of the pivotal crafts that makes Hollywood special,” Komesar added.
David and Sandy will be on hand for a screening of “La La Land” and perhaps one other film, Komesar said.
The Independent will provide more details on the 2018 Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival as the event gets closer. In the meantime, check out middfilmfest.org for more information and for ordering tickets to individual shoes and multi-day passes.
“Our goal is to do two things: serve the community and to help foster community,” Craven said. “This is the ultimate challenge of a nonprofit — to serve the community and given dimension to the communities it serves.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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