June 29, 2023
By John Flowers, Addison Independent
Above: “DUSTY & STONES,” a film about two men living in rural Africa who aspire to become U.S. country music performers, will be screened at the 9th annual Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival. Nearly 125 films will be shown on six screens at five different local venues around Middlebury on Aug. 23-27.
MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival (MNFF) will mark its 9th birthday this August with at least one multiple Academy Award winner, a growing cast of attending directors and movie-goers now liberated from the shackles of COVID, and a record number of film submissions that have been winnowed down to 125 that’ll be screened at five venues in Addison County’s shire town.
Last year’s MNFF8 received a then-record 498 film submissions.
“I thought it was a fluke, that this would never be replicated,” MNFF founder and Producer Lloyd Komesar said of last year’s otherworldly yield.
He’d reasoned that post-COVID filmmakers “were trying to get a lot off their chest” and thus were pouring an unusually high volume of films into the festival marketplace.
But MNFF8 has proved to be no anomaly.
A whopping 510 film submissions came in for MNFF9, set for Aug. 23-27.
The film entries — a mixture of features and shorts — trickled in slowly at first but then gained momentum into April and up until the May 30 deadline. Thirty-six of the 141 feature submissions (including narratives and documentaries) will make the cut for a coveted MNFF9 slot. Meanwhile, approximately 15% of the 369 short-film submissions will be screened.
“Many filmmakers reached out to me late in the submission window asking, ‘Is there still time?’” Komesar said.
It’s meant more films for MNFF Artistic Director Jay Craven and his team to evaluate and triage, but it’s also an indicator of the festival’s growing reputation, according to organizers.
“I think we are not a secret,” Komesar said. “Our niche has been working now for years. It takes time for the filmmaking community to realize we should be a priority if you’re a first- and second-time filmmaker.”
MNFF’s growing prestige undoubtedly influenced Oscar-winning film director and writer Alexander Payne to accept a festival invite as presenter and honoree. Beginning with the release of “Citizen Ruth” in 1996, Payne has made eight feature films, including “Election,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways,” “The Descendants” and “Nebraska.”
His movies have been nominated for 19 Oscars, including three times each for Best Picture and Best Director. Payne has won twice for Best Adapted Screenplay.
“He’s a substantial filmmaker with a great sense of humor,” Komesar said of Payne. “He’s a great ‘get’ for us.”
MNFF9 will include a screening of 2013’s “Nebraska,” directed by Payne and starring Bruce Dern, with a Q&A to follow, moderated by Craven.
Komesar and Craven — a nationally renowned filmmaker in his own right — are very pleased with the quality of films MNFF will be able to offer. During a recent interview, they singled out the following:
• “Q” from Jude Chehab, which “offers a haunting look at three generations of (Middle Eastern) women whose lives were forever upended by a cult.”
• “Sam Now” by Reed Harkness, which charts two brothers’ real-life quest to find their mother, who had suddenly disappeared 25 years earlier.
• “Dusty & Stones,” the story of two men living in rural Africa who aspire to become U.S. country music performers after having been exposed, through much of their life, to that genre of music over Voice of America Radio. The film tracks the two men as they make their way to a country music festival held each year in Texas featuring performers from other nations. Prior to the festival, the duo was able to record a couple of songs in Nashville.
“They are openly weeping, they’re so overcome by what’s happened to them,” Craven said.
• A poetic documentary called “Anqa,” which focuses on a group of Middle Eastern women who’ve experienced domestic violence.
“It’s quite compelling,” Craven said. “It expresses their humanity in a very original way.”
• “A Revolution on Canvas,” about an exiled Iranian painter and his efforts to find, and reclaim, some of the artwork that he left behind upon leaving his country following its Islamic Revolution of 1979.
• “Breaking the News,” a documentary about a women’s media company founded by several women of color.
“They persevere and make it happen,” Craven said.
• “Fire through Dry Grass.” It’s a film made by a small group of severely physically disabled men of color, and it chronicles their 385 days of lockdown in a hospital ward on Roosevelt Island during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They’re completely cut off from the world, not even able to go outside,” Craven notes. “It’s eye opening. It’s raw, honest filmmaking.”
• “Jimmy in Saigon.” It’s about Jimmy McDowell, a combat veteran of the Vietnam War who died in 1972 at age 24 — as a civilian, during a post-war visit to that Southeast Asian country. Jimmy’s much-younger brother Peter wants to learn about his late sibling, so he picks up a camera and travels to Vietnam to, as Craven states, “try to track down what fragments they had about the brother who died. He ultimately discovers that his brother was gay but had concealed the fact that he’d been involved with a (South) Vietnamese soldier during the war.
“We think of being gay as having been taboo in the U.S.; it’s even worse in Vietnam,” Craven added. “(The filmmaker) tries to penetrate that veil.”
A COMMON THREAD
MNFF organizers don’t organize the festival according to a theme. But there are times when a common thread seems to permeate many of the submissions.
“Last year, we had an outpouring of personal documentary filmmaking involving siblings, offspring, parents, where filmmakers decided to take up a camera and document whatever was happening in their family — whether be in the present or going back in time,” Komesar said,
“This is continuing this year.”
Craven offered his take:
“If I were to give a theme… I would really talk about ‘getting inside unusual lives,’” he said.
This year’s festival will, as usual, also feature several curated films by established filmmakers. Among them will be:
• “Joan Baez: I Am a Noise,” a documentary about music legend Joan Baez as she takes “an honest look back and a deep look inward as she tries to make sense of her large, history-making life, and the personal struggles she’s kept private,” according to imdb.com.
“(The film) creates multiple dimensions around a woman that we know from her iconic presence, but gives a much more complicated view of her,” Craven said.
• “Little Richard: I Am Everything.” It tells the story of the Black, queer origins of rock ’n’ roll, and “presents the self-proclaimed “architect of rock ’n’ roll” as a man of contradictions,” according to a recent New York Times review.
“He performed a character as well as his music,” Craven noted about Richard. “He was extremely influential.”
A full list of MNFF9 honorees and special guests is still being compiled by festival organizers. But they were able to share a few additional names (other than Payne), including:
• Documentary film producer and director Beth Levison — a Middlebury College (‘91) alum and past MNFF attendee.
Levison will be at the festival for a screening of a 2022 Oscar-nominated short film that she produced called “The Martha Mitchell Effect,” which centers on Watergate whistleblower Martha Mitchell.
• Su Friedrich, who Craven called “probably the leading American experimental filmmaker.”
Friedrich has been the lead writer, director, cinematographer, editor and sound editor of all 24 of her films — except for “Hide and Seek,” which was shot by Jim Denault. Friedrich’s films regularly combine elements of narrative, documentary and experimental styles of filmmaking, and have focused on the roles of women, family and homosexuality in contemporary America.
MNFF9 will screen Friedrich’s film “Sink or Swim,” which, through a series of poetic vignettes, “methodically analyzes and reflects on her childhood and the emotional scars left by her detached and self-involved father,” according to imdb.com.
• Longtime casting director Risa Bramon Garcia, whose credits include “Born on the Fourth of July”, which will be screened at MNFF, “JFK”, “Wall Street,” “Twister,” and “Natural Born Killers.”
• Yoni Brook, a Philadelphia-based documentary cinematographer and director, who recently made “Philly DA,” described as “a groundbreaking documentary series embedded inside the long shot election and tumultuous first term of Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s unapologetic district attorney, and his experiment to upend the criminal justice system from the inside out.”
Two episodes of Philly DA will be screened at MNFF9.
Films this year will be screened at six Middlebury screens: Town Hall Theater, the Marquis Theatre (two screens), Middlebury College’s Dana Auditorium and Twilight Hall, and the Swift House Inn (outdoors).
For all things MNFF9, go to middfilmfest.org.