Ninth Annual Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival Features Themes of Perseverance

August 16, 2023

By Hannah Feuer, Seven Days VT

Move over, Barbenheimer: A double feature has nothing on this year’s Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, screening 118 films over the course of five days. The fest was founded in 2015 to showcase the work of first- and second-time filmmakers, with winners of its juried competition receiving awards. Highlighting themes of perseverance and resilience, this year’s selection of features and shorts will be shown Wednesday through Sunday, August 23 to 27, across six screens that include Town Hall TheaterMarquis Theatre and venues at Middlebury College.

The festival’s opening night kicks off with Dusty & Stones, a documentary about two country singers from the African Kingdom of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) who are determined to make a name for themselves. Inspired by country music broadcast on the Swazi national radio station, the duo puts an African flair on the music of the American South. When they’re nominated to compete in a battle of the bands in Texas, the singers travel to the U.S. intent on winning big. Director Jesse Rudoy, one of a record-high 82 filmmakers in attendance at the festival, will participate in a Q&A following the film.

Wednesday and Sunday will mark the festival’s inaugural student film showcases, along with a new $1,000 prize for best student short. This year’s student winner, Incisor, explores a tense dentist appointment between a father and son, partly based on director Jinho Myung’s experiences with his own dentist father.

With a roughly $4,000 budget, Myung made use of friends and family as actors and the office of his father’s friend from dental school as a set. A rising senior at New York University, Myung plans to use the prize money to fund his next short film.

“It feels very surreal,” Myung said. “This is the first sign of hope that [my] filmmaking could come close to sustaining itself [financially].”

Taking home the prize for best Vermont film is the documentary Whitman Brook, screening on Thursday. Filmed over two years, the movie follows a couple seeking to revitalize an abandoned apple orchard in Quechee, exploring grief and the passage of time in the process.

Ben Silberfarb, director of the documentary Whitman Brook, winner of best Vermont film at this year’s Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival

Director Ben Silberfarb, who runs a small film production company in the Upper Valley, said he targeted his work to local film festivals because the documentary “speaks to an aesthetic that New Englanders understand.”

“Vermont is so rich with stories, and to get those stories told to Vermonters or the region is a challenge,” Silberfarb said. “Local film festivals and regional film festivals are your voice to getting that story out there.”

Other documentaries include “Philly D.A.,” a series chronicling the activism of progressive civil rights attorney turned Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, and With Peter Bradley, a biographical film depicting Bradley’s life as a Black abstract artist and pioneer in his field whose work deserves greater recognition. Both screenings will be followed by conversations with the films’ directors.

Moving into the weekend, director and Princeton University professor Su Friedrich will discuss her experimental films Sink or Swim, a semi-autobiographical tale told in 26 short stories corresponding to letters of the alphabet; and Today, a collage of documentary footage symbolizing what it means to live in the moment.

“Part of what we want to do as a film series is explore not only the different genres in cinema but who is taking that work to the outer edge and really finding new ways of expression,” festival artistic director Jay Craven said. “Su is really in the forefront of that movement of filmmakers.”

Two-time winner of the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay Alexander Payne will speak about directing Nebraska — a 2013 drama about the journey of an alcoholic father and his son to collect a sweepstakes prize — and About Schmidt, a 2002 comedy-drama in which Jack Nicholson plays a recently retired man traveling to his daughter’s wedding soon after his wife’s death.

Rather than show another film of his own, Payne will then highlight what he sees as an underappreciated movie, Raising Victor Vargas, a 2002 coming-of-age film about a cocky teenager trying to win over a girl.

“He’s really a prestigious director and somebody who hasn’t been all that dependent on studio backing,” festival producer Lloyd Komesar said of Payne. “He’s very much in the indie tradition.”

 The festival will conclude with Maggie Moore(s), followed by a discussion with director John Slattery, who played Roger Sterling Jr. in “Mad Men.” Inspired by true events, the narrative film tells the story of the police investigation that ensues after two women with the same name are murdered days apart.

Slattery will speak strictly about his experience directing, not acting, due to his participation in the Hollywood actors’ strike. The actors’ union SAG-AFTRA is prohibiting those on strike from promoting their work, a blow to some larger film festivals that rely on celebrity attendance and marketing prowess to boost their numbers.

By contrast, with an abundance of small, independent films, the Middlebury festival will proceed largely unaffected, Komesar said. He expects about 600 people to attend this year, a number that has been growing as the festival bounces back from the pandemic.

“A lot of larger festivals seem to have been hampered because they rely on a great deal of star power,” Komesar said. “For us, we’ve always been a little more homegrown. We have a very engaged community.”

Komesar and Craven encourage people to stop by the festival for any amount of time, with walk-up tickets to individual blocks of films available for $14 — though they note that festivalgoers see an average of five movies each.

Looks like Barbenheimer may have been only a warm-up.

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