The Middlebury New Filmmakers Film Festival, which takes place every August in the picturesque college town of Middlebury, Vermont, is unique in its focus on the first and second movies of novice filmmakers. From August 23–26, this year’s festival features a tribute to “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James and a slate of “films as journalism.”
Jay Craven, MNFF, Artistic Producer, Lloyd Komesar, MNFF Producer, and Phoebe Lewis, MNFF Associate Producer answered my questions about the festival.
How did this festival get started?
Lloyd Komesar attended a screening of Jay Craven’s 2013 film, Northern Borders (with Bruce Dern and Genevieve Bujold) at the Brandon, Vermont town hall — and spoke to Jay afterwards. They kept in contact and Lloyd proposed that they start a film festival. Lloyd had this idea to focus on new filmmakers and Jay refined this by suggesting a showcase for outstanding first and second time filmmakers — Lloyd agreed — and they started planning the inaugural Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival in July 2014. Thirteen months later, the first MNFF launched.
Why the focus on new filmmakers?
New filmmakers often receive too little support at larger film festivals. By dedicating all our efforts to encouraging and promoting emerging new talent MNFF has carved out a valuable niche and offers many beginning filmmakers a legit chance to have their film screened.
How are the films selected?
Filmmakers apply through Withoutabox and Film Freeway and can submit shorts or features — documentary, narrative, animation, experimental. We have programmers who do the initial screening. Artistic Director Jay Craven then screens films rated in the top 20% and selects the films that will play at the Festival. He also curates approximately 10–12 films that were not submitted. Jay consults with Lloyd fairly broadly — and, together, they discuss and decide special events, guests, honorees — who have included documentary filmmakers Barbara Kopple, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, and Bill and Turner Ross, writers Russell Banks, Jay Parini and Dick Lehr, actors Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Murphy and many others.
What are some of the highlights of this year’s festival?
Our Opening Night film, “Personal Statement,” by first-time director Juliane Dressner, is exceptional. It recently opened AFI Docs to great acclaim. We will be honoring the distinguished documentary filmmaker Steve James and screening his latest film, the Oscar-nominated “Abacus: Small Enough To Jail.” First time director Tom Herman is bringing his marvelous film, “Dateline-Saigon,” to Middlebury for a Vermont premiere. The film brilliantly tells the story of the first American journalists to cover the Vietnam War in early 60s Saigon. Academy Award winner Peter Davis will join us for a tribute screening of his first film, the seminal “Hearts & Minds,” released in 1974 and often cited as the greatest documentary ever done about the Vietnam War. We must mention the greatly anticipated appearance of David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco, Oscar-winning Production Designers for “La La Land,” who we will honor for their sustained excellence in this crucial aspect of movie making. Mohammed Naqvi, the intrepid and fearless Pakistani filmmaker, will be receiving our Courage in Filmmaking Award. And we will close out the Festival this year with the very moving documentary, “The Sentence,” directed by first timer Rudy Valdez.
When do films become journalism?
Most documentaries are forms of journalism, as reporting, feature journalism, or investigative journalism. The work explores any number of situations with some outcomes that are sort of predictable and others that are not. We’re paying special attention this year to documentary filmmaking that functions as investigative journalism — where the filmmakers are trying to discover the currently unknown and take us to substantially new understandings of their subject matter.
Why the focus on production designers?
Production designers are as important as any creative player on the filmmaking team. What we see on screen is the result of the world they create, visually — the colors, textures, props, ambient qualities, period specificity. They command the largest department on the project, usually — and intersect directly with what camera and lighting contribute. They are essential players — and the Wascos, our special honorees at MNFF, are among the very best.
What films have been the audience favorites at your previous festivals?
We’d start with “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” from Alexandra Dean, which wowed the audience last year. “Among the Believers,” from Hemal Trevedi and Mo Naqvi, riveted its audience in 2016. “The Guys Next Door,” from Amy Geller and Allie Humenuk, was a genuine audience favorite that year, as well. Our Opening Night film from 2016, “Walk With Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith,” from Jesse Nesser, lingered in people’s minds for months, as did last year’s opener, the hilarious and poignant “Take My Nose, Please,” from Joan Kron. Other favorites: “Captain Fantastic,” “Peter and the Farm,” “God Knows Where I Am,” “Dina,” “The Peacemaker,” “Abundant Acreage Available,” “Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George,” “Landfill Harmonic” and “The Wolfpack.”
What do you hope for this festival in the future?
We hope for continued dynamism of the festival experience, with all of the anticipation and investment we see from audiences and filmmakers. We want the audience to continue to grow and to develop further appeal to young people, which is why we have created a Kids & Family Day at MNFF this year, which will feature the Sundance favorite, Science Fair. We’re also working to develop our audience among college and high school students. And we want to keep expanding our “family” of emerging filmmakers. We love producing our special events — and like to keep mixing up the scope and variety of who we bring to our audiences. With four years under our belts, there is much to build on and many new roads to go down, but at its core, the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival will always be about providing a welcoming home for first and second timers.