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MNFF kicks off its virtual film festival this week

This year’s festival has forced us to be creative with how we approach what we do. It’s a good, energizing charge of imagination that will hopefully stay with us.
— MNFF Artistic Director Jay Craven

MIDDLEBURY — New entertainment options for those spending a lot of time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic are arriving on Thursday, Aug. 27: A panoply of films — both short and feature length — will be accessible online as part of the first-ever virtual edition of the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival (MNFF).
Under normal circumstances, filmmakers and movie enthusiasts from throughout the world would be converging on Middlebury this week for the sixth annual MNFF, which customarily offers more than 100 film screenings at five venues in Addison County’s shire town. The festival is also known for its opening soiree, closing awards ceremonies and a variety of gatherings to explain cinema trends and celebrate seasoned, award-winning filmmakers.
But this is no typical year, due to a COVID-19 pandemic that has temporarily shuttered theaters throughout the world. So MNFF organizers — in partnership with CineSend, an online content-delivery platform  — will make the festival’s films available on a variety of electronic devices, including computer, mobile phone, tablet, or Apple TV 4K or Roku on your television.
“We’re offering them a really good entertainment option for eight days, beginning on Thursday,” MNFF Producer Lloyd Komesar said during a Monday Zoom interview that included MNFF Artistic Director Jay Craven, a celebrated filmmaker in his own right, and festival Associate Producer Phoebe Lewis.
In all, viewers will be able to tap into 26 feature-length films and six separate packages of short films — whenever they want — during the festival, which will conclude Sept. 3.
And that’s not all.

Q&A EXTRAVAGANZA
Craven has recorded 23 separate interviews with filmmakers that will be included in the virtual festival experience. The 23 interviews are by far the most that the festival has undertaken, and will ensure that 90% of this year’s film submissions will be buttressed by a Q&A offering insights into the creative process.
Craven reached far afield for his interviewees. For example, his subjects for Barbara Kopple’s documentary film “Desert One” — about the failed rescue attempt of U.S. hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Iran in April 1980 — included Kopple; John Limbert, who was one of the U.S. hostages; and James Q. Roberts, one of the soldiers on the ground during the rescue attempt, which was aborted due to operational difficulties with three of the eight helicopters, a situation that got even worse when one of the helicopters crashed into a troop transport aircraft.
“This year’s festival has forced us to be creative with how we approach what we do. It’s a good, energizing charge of imagination that will hopefully stay with us,” Craven said.
“Desert One” is just one of MNFF’s offerings that’s been generating a buzz among this year’s festival enthusiasts, according to Komesar. Others generating brisk online ticket buys of late include “Finding Yingying,” a feature documentary about the search for 26-year-old Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang, who disappeared while studying at the University of Illinois in 2017; “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” a documentary about the life and career of the legendary civil rights activist and U.S. Rep. John R. Lewis, D-Ga., who died this summer; and “For the Love of Rutland,” a documentary about the trials and tribulations of Stacie Griffin overcoming addiction and poverty in Rutland in 2016.
The abundance of short films can be purchased in six packages, each containing four to seven films.
“These are strong films,” Komesar said. “We’re very fortunate to have had films like these to choose from this year.”
Indeed, organizers had feared that film options would dry up after the pandemic hit in mid-March. While MNFF 2020 is featuring fewer viewing options than in past, in-person versions, Komesar, Craven and Lewis believe they are bringing enormous quality to the public.
“One thing that this festival has that is really unique that I think will be hard to replicate in years to come, and adds a silver lining of having to be distanced for the festival, is that people will be able to see every single film during MNFF, if they want,” Lewis said. “This is a pretty rare opportunity for people to be able to dive super-deep into the program.”
Organizers shared this list of MNFF 2020 winners, in order to further guide people to possible viewing choices. They are:
Best Narrative Feature – “Murmur,” directed by Heather Young.
Best Documentary Feature – “Finding Yingying,” directed by Jiayan “Jenny” Shi.
Best Narrative Short – “Whiteout,” directed by Lance Edmands.
Best Documentary Short – “Teranga-Life in the Waiting Room,” directed by Daisy Squires, Lou Marillier and Sophia Seymour.
Festival passes cost $80, and will provide access to around 95% of the offerings, according to Komesar. Tickets for individual films cost $12.50. Komesar and Craven explained a few of the films carry circulation restrictions imposed by distributors. For example, some films:
•  Will be available just four days rather than the full eight days of the festival.
•  Have “limited seating capacity.” Should a film reach that predetermined limit, it will be marked as “not available” on its page on the watch portal.
•  Have geographic limits, meaning some films can only be viewed in the U.S., or even just in Vermont.
•  Will only be available by purchasing an individual ticket. “The Fight,” “John Lewis: Good Trouble” and “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band” fall into this category.
Check each film’s availability at middfilmfest.org/2020-films.
And for all things MNFF — including the complete list of films and how to watch online — log on to middfilmfest.org.

TICKET SALES 
As the Independent went to press, Komesar said signs were encouraging for good sales of passes or individual tickets for online MNFF 2020 offerings. This is the first online version of the festival and thus it would be unfair to compare ticket sales to past, in-person MNFFs, he noted. But Monday saw a surge in ticket sales in the lead-up to Aug. 27.
“Sales right now are tracking higher than what my conservative estimate was,” he said.
Craven is pleased with the interesting mix of films in this year’s festival, including two music-related films (“Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President,” and “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band.”
“I think it holds its own pretty well,” Craven said of the program.
“It’s been a huge undertaking to figure out this online process. We’re learning as we go.”
Now it’s up to the audience to turn on their TVs and devices and tap into the film fare.
“I’m hoping people will enjoy the experience,” Komesar said.
_____________________
FEATURE FILMS AVAILABLE AUGUST 27-30 ONLY
–Desert One
–The Fight [Single Tickets Only, No Passes, At Distributor’s Request]
–Finding Yingying
–For the Love of Rutland
–John Lewis: Good Trouble [Single Tickets Only, No Passes, At Distributor’s Request]
–The Rabbi Goes West
–Sorry We Missed You
FEATURE FILMS AVAILABLE AUG 31-SEPT 3 ONLY
–The Accused: Damned or Devoted?
–Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President
–Martha: A Picture Story
–Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band  [Single Tickets Only, No Passes, At Distributor’s Request]
–WBCN and The American Revolution
FEATURE FILMS AVAILABLE AUG 27-SEPT 3
–Advocate
–The Art of Dissent
–August
–Birth Wars
–Colewell
–Down a Dark Stairwell
–Freeland
–Gotta Get Down To It
–Life in Synchro
–#LIKE
–The Marina
–Murmur
–River City Drumbeat
–Sisters Rising
FEATURE FILMS WITH GEO-LIMITS IN PLACEVERMONT RESIDENTS ONLY CAN VIEW
–August
–Down a Dark Stairwell [VT & NH]
–For the Love of Rutland
–Martha: A Picture Story
U.S. RESIDENTS ONLY CAN VIEW
–The Accused: Damned or Devoted
–Advocate
–Colewell
–The Fight
–Finding Yingying
–Freeland
–John Lewis: Good Trouble
–The Marina
–Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band
–Sisters Rising
ALL AUDIENCES CAN VIEW
–The Art of Dissent
–Birth Wars
–Desert One
–Gotta Get Down To It
–Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President
–Life in Synchro
–#LIKE
–Murmur
–The Rabbi Goes West
–WBCN and The American Revolution
_____________________
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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