Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival: Ninth annual showcasing 125 diverse films

August 12, 2023

By Jim Lowe, Rutland Herald

The Middlebury New Filmmakers never decides upon themes of the films it will present in advance.

“It’s never deliberate — we just work with what we have,” explains Lloyd Komesar, the festival’s producer and co-founder.

“Last year, we had really an outpouring of personal documentary filmmaking — involving siblings, offspring, parents. “This is continuing this year, and we’ve gotten several incredible films which are highly personal,” he said.

“When I think about this year’s films, I think several put us in the shoes of the other in ways that are not common to our own experience,” adds Jay Craven, festival artistic director and co-founder.

One such film, “Dusty & Stones” (7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 23, Town Hall Theater), will open this year’s festival. Directed by Jesse Rudoy, this documentary chronicles the remarkable ride of cousins Gazi “Dusty” Simelane and Linda “Stones” Msibi, a determined duo of struggling country singers from the tiny African Kingdom of Eswatini (known as Swaziland at the time of filming) who long for their big break.

When they are unexpectedly invited to record their songs in Nashville and to compete in a Texas battle of the bands, Dusty and Stones embark on their long-awaited first pilgrimage to the ancestral heart of country music. Over a 10-day road trip through the American South, Dusty and Stones bring their music to life in a top Nashville recording studio, explore the storied locales of their favorite country songs and excitedly engage with the culture they’ve long felt part of from afar.

But this sense of kinship is abruptly thrown into question when Dusty and Stones arrive in the small town of Jefferson, Texas, to compete in the battle of the bands and a clash of personalities arises.

“They are literally unhinged by this experience. They are weeping, they are so overcome by what has just happened to them,” Craven said.

“First of all, they put themselves in the shoes of an American country music group. And then we put ourselves in their shoes as they try to make that cultural leap.” (Opening night tickets are sold out, but there is a waiting list.)

The ninth annual Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival will showcase more than 125 films by first and second-time filmmakers Aug. 23-27 at Town Hall Theater, and five other locations in downtown Middlebury.

“Last year, we received 498 film submissions, and that was a record by far. I thought it was a fluke. I was wrong — we received 508 submissions this year,” Komesar said.

“Very gratifying was many filmmakers reaching out to me late in the submission window saying, ‘Is there still time? Can I get my film submitted to Middlebury?’”

“I think we are not a secret. Getting our niche has been working now for years,” he continued. “The quality of films we’ve gotten speaks to that. Curated films are different from the ones submitted to us. We seek them out, having heard of them or seen them at other film festivals. They amount to about to 15% or so.”

The festival is a juried competition and the winning filmmakers all receive the VTeddy Award in the Best Narrative Feature, Best Narrative Short, Best Documentary Feature, Best Documentary Short, Audience Award: Feature and Audience Award: Short categories.

Multiple cash prizes and in-kind awards go to selected directors of both shorts and features. The VTeddy Awards Ceremony will be held at Town Hall Theater on closing night, Aug. 27, and is free and open to all.

John Slattery will be honored for his extensive work as a film and television director. He made his directorial debut on the fourth season of AMC’s “Mad Men,” and he went on to direct five episodes of the critically acclaimed series. Additional television credits include three episodes of Judd Apatow’s Netflix series “Love.”

Slattery will present “God’s Pocket” (4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 27, Town Hall Theater), followed by a Q&A with Craven. And his new feature, “Maggie Moore(s),” has been selected as the Closing Night Film (Sunday, Aug. 27, Town Hall Theater). The festival will wrap MNFF9 with an on-stage conversation between Slattery and Craven.

The festival collaborates with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra (VSO) once again to present a special event combining screenings of the festival’s VSO Award-winning short films with live performances of the films’ scores by members of the orchestra at 4 p.m. Friday, Aug. 25 in Wilson Hall, inside Middlebury College’s McCullough Student Center.

Personal exploration is behind another outstanding film, “Jimmy in Saigon” (11:30 a.m. Friday, Aug. 25, Dana Auditorium, Middlebury College), written and directed by Peter McDowell. This is a loving documentary about discovering the radical life and mysterious death of the director’s eldest brother, Jim.

Chronicling the story of the Vietnam War veteran, who died in a shroud of shame in Saigon when Peter was only 5 years old, the film is an homage to a complicated man and an investigation into the secrets of one family.

“This man tries to investigate everything he can about his brother who was way older,” Craven said. “Peter, who is gay, ultimately discovers that his brother was gay — but had concealed the fact that he was involved with a Vietnamese soldier.

“We think being gay was taboo in the United States,” Craven said. “It was even worse in Vietnam.”

The festival will present the third pair of winners of the AICEF Prize for Cross Cultural Filmmaking as part of its relationship with Indonesia’s Bali International Film Festival. The prize is presented to a pair of first or second-time feature filmmakers whose work embraces cross-cultural themes either in the narrative or documentary genre.

One Indonesian filmmaker has been selected by the Bali International Film Festival (Balinale) to present their work at the festival, and one American filmmaker has been selected by MNFF to present their work both at the festival and at the 17th annual Bali International Film Festival in June 2024. The AICEF screenings will be presented back-to-back at 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Friday, Aug. 25, at Town Hall Theater.

The Bali festival has selected “Orpa.” Directed by Theogracia Rumansara, a first-time feature director, this compelling narrative film tells the story of Orpa, a serious 13-year-old book-loving girl from Papua, Indonesia, who is to be married off by her father. Director Rumansara will attend.

The MNFF winner of the AICEF Prize is “Dear Thirteen.” Directed by Alexis Neophytides, and her first feature documentary, the film vibrantly weaves together nine stories of 13-year-olds from across the globe.

Video diaries and candid interviews reveal how global issues are shaping — and being shaped by — young people: rising anti-Semitism in Europe, guns in America, gender identity and racial divisions across Australia and Asia. This empathetic portrait of a new generation goes beyond stereotypes of adolescence to capture the complexity of finding a way into adulthood today.

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