Arts & Leisure

Record number of films entered for Midd film festival

Photo by Oliver Parini

Lights.

Camera.

Action.

Organizers of the 8th annual Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival are sorting through a record number of film submissions, confirming a wide array of screening venues and compiling a list of stellar honorees in preparation for what is shaping up to be a cracking confab in downtown Middlebury from Aug. 24-28.

While MNFF8 officials remain vigilant about the impacts of COVID-19 — a pandemic that forced the 2020 MNFF to go fully virtual — they are optimistic that the festival will return to its most “normal” programming since 2019. Visiting filmmakers lodging with guest families will need to bring proof of vaccination, and the screening venues will prescribe their own masking/vaccination rules for attendees. But it’s clear that unless the Vermont Department of Health and CDC pivot to more stringent health/safety regulations, festival goers will have more free rein than they’ve had in three years.

“It’s their call, and we will act accordingly,” MNFF Producer Lloyd Komesar said of the governmental entities and venues, which will include the Marquis Theater (two screens), Middlebury College’s Twilight Hall and Dana Auditorium (both back in the mix following a COVID-19 hiatus), Swift House Inn, and of course the Town Hall Theater.

Those attending MNFF will be able to choose from around 120 films — shorts, features and documentaries — around 90 of which will be culled from almost 500 submissions from filmmakers in 50 different countries. That’s a 12% increase in submissions compared to last year’s record of 432 entries, according to Komesar.

Approximately 30-35 films to be shown at the festival have been curated by the MNFF creative team, led by festival Artistic Director Jay Craven, a nationally acclaimed filmmaker in his own right. Around 10 films (list yet to be finalized) will have specific ties to MNFF honorees.

Craven and Komesar are proud of the fact that two-thirds of MNFF8’s films will consist of submissions from budding filmmakers. That stands in sharp contrast to other festivals that curate up to 90% of their films, according to Komesar.

“It’s gratifying, and it goes to the niche we’ve created and continue to develop of first- and second-time filmmakers only,” he said of the growing interest filmmakers are showing in MNFF. “We have a very level playing field, and the filmmaking community is recognizing this and feel if they can get into MNFF, they are going to be showcased very well.”

Asked about the quality of this year’s films, Komesar — a member of the screening committee — said he’s seen some “superb breakthrough films” this year, with filmmakers clearly influenced by the emotional toll of the pandemic.

Craven agreed.

“Emotion is part of the essential language of film, and I think… we’re finding films that are sort of sparking right out of the gate,” he said. “There’s an energy and a sizzle that I think is distinguishing this class of films.”

Overall, Komesar said competition is looking particularly fierce in the “narrative shorts” category.

“I am blown away,” he said. “We’re going to be offering an outstanding class of narrative shorts to our audiences this year.”

Around 20-25 of the estimated 400 MNFF alumni have submitted a second film this year, Komesar noted.

“That’s s a strong number of people coming back to us,” he said.

MNFF8 honorees will include:

  • Marc Levin, who has directed 39 feature films, including “Stockton On My Mind,” “One Nation Under Stress,” “Rikers,” “Class Divide,” “Slam,” “Prayer for a Perfect Season” and “Brooklyn Babylon.”

Levin has also produced 50 feature films including “The Slow Hustle,” “Baltimore Rising” and “Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George’s Creators.” And he’s produced and directed numerous television series, including “Chicagoland” and “Inside the FBI: New York.”

Festival organizers are recognizing Levin for his talents and “continually and consistently exploring themes of social justice, criminal justice, workers’ rights and economic fairness.”

  • Film producer Tyler Davidson, whose latest film “Emily the Criminal,” was featured at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Davidson is know for such films as “Take Shelter,” “The Signal,” and “Kings of Summer.”

“He’s an example of a tenacious, resourceful, strategic and young producer,” said Craven, who worked with Davidson on his first film in 2001, titled, “The Year That Trembled.”

“He’s (Davidson) a real inspiration,” Craven said.

  • Nora Jacobson, an award-winning independent filmmaker who writes and directs narrative films as well as documentaries. She is devoted to “telling stories of women, place, justice and diversity,” and believes that filmmaking can “promote social change by provoking meaningful discourse,” according to her bio at offthegridproductions.com.

Jacobson’s latest film is about the late Ruth Stone, a poet with ties to Addison County.

Craven and Komesar promised news about additional honorees during the weeks to come. At the same time, MNFF officials are organizing financial and informational programs to assist budding filmmakers. For example, MNFF will feature the return of Katie McCullough, founder and film festival strategist at Festival Formula Ltd. She specializes in advising filmmakers on which festivals to enter and other tips on how to get their movies in front of audiences.

The MNFF Franklin Film Development Fund this year is offering up to two $10,000 production grants to festival alumni entering a narrative film script competition that this year has attracted 13 candidates. The two winners will have nine months to match their grant, giving each $20,000 in seed money for their projects.

“We’re doing what we can to try to provide impact for filmmakers to go out and make their next, more ambitious films,” Craven said.

Also, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra is preparing a special retrospective incorporating all the music that has won the MNFF’s “Best Integration of Music into Film” award since the founding of the festival. This will culminate in a film/concert event on Friday, Aug. 26, with a live, 22-piece VSO chamber orchestra accompanying the screening of seven documentary and animated films, all with Vermont ties.

“I think it will be extraordinary,” Komesar said.

Stay plugged into the Addison Independent and middfilmfest.org for future details on special MNFF events, including gatherings, talks, opening and closing ceremonies, and a lot more. MNFF8 festival passes are $100 and went on sale June 1; beginning Aug. 1, the price will rise to $110. Day passes cost $45, student festival passes are $50, and tickets to the Opening Night Film and After Party at Swift House Inn go for $60. Passes and tickets can be purchased through the Town Hall Theater box office, electronically through townhalltheater.org.

LLOYD KOMESAR AND Jay Craven

Craven and Komesar said they’re committed to making MNFF8 special, particularly after what have been two challenging years of trying to stage public events amid a pandemic.

“I think there’s a shift that’s happening throughout the country, including Vermont, that hasn’t been fully assessed, and we’re doing the best we can to commit fully and develop a robust program,” Craven said.

“I think the survivors of the next period are going to have to be strategic and smart to build new life into all these non-profit arts and community ventures. People spent a couple of years pretty much in isolation, and with that comes new habits and new ways of filling one’s time. We believe that shared experience, rooted in community, is essential to community, and that the arts experience — specifically through film — opens lots of doors and windows that people sharing together increases the impact of the work.

“It’s not simply a consumer product that we individually click a button and say, ‘Let me check it out.’ It’s more than that. If we look at the MNFF, it’s a very strong commitment to shared experience in community. By its nature it has to be public and it has to be in person.”

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