Vermont developing influence in the film world: Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival

Courtesy Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival

Jim Sabataso

When the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival gets underway tonight, nearly 60 filmmakers from 15 countries will converge on the town for one of the film industry’s most distinctive up-and-coming festivals. Over four days, more than 90 film screenings, as well as panel discussions and related events, will be taking place at venues throughout Middlebury.

The festival, now in its fourth year, features a combination of submitted and curated films from all genres, including narrative, documentary, animation and short form. Screening venues will include: Town Hall Theater (68 Pleasant St.), MarquisTheater (65 Main St.), Dana Auditorium at Middlebury College (356 College St.) and Twilight Hall at Middlebury College (50 Franklin St.).

“We find ourselves with a power-packed roster of ground-breaking, courageous, relevant … filmmakers for a really potent presence at this year’s festival,” said MNFF creative director and Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven.

Craven said this year’s festival is “a snapshot taken at this particular juncture in our ongoing work to build film culture and invite audiences to go behind the scenes in the making of narrative and documentary films.”

However, the centerpiece, he noted, is the submitted films.

Festival producer Lloyd Komesar agrees. “We started this (festival) with a firm commitment to showcasing first- and second-time filmmakers. We have not changed.

“We are not a glamour festival,” he said, underscoring MNFF’s distinction from other festivals, like Sundance or Tribeca. Both he and Craven believe new filmmakers working in the trenches are underserved by major festivals.

Komesar said new filmmakers need platforms like MNFF. “They need a level playing field. We provide that.”

As such, MNFF shines the spotlight directly on new filmmakers by only accepting submissions from first- and second-timers. That commitment extends to all aspects of the festival, which has been tailored to provide these filmmakers with a better experience, and give them takeaways in the form of panels, as well as inspiration from the various veteran filmmakers in attendance.

This year, such veterans include celebrated documentary directors Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County, USA”), Steve James (“Hoop Dreams,” “Abacus”), Peter Davis (“Hearts and Minds”) and Pakistani filmmaker Mo Naqvi (“Shame”). “Hearts and Minds,” “Abacus” and “Shame” will be screened during the festival. Naqvi’s latest film, “Insha’Allah Democracy,” will also be screened.

Another screening of interest is “Dateline: Saigon” on Friday. The 2016 documentary by Thomas D. Herman profiles the work of several reporters during the early days of the Vietnam War. The screening will be followed by a panel featuring a detailed discussion of film as journalism, and how documentary filmmakers are journalists for the current age.

“We’ve had a consistent thread each year that touches on the questions of journalism,” Craven said. Past years’ panels have included reporters from The New York Times, members of the “Spotlight” team from the Boston Globe and writers from “The Daily Show.”

Craven said documentaries have become a “driving force” in independent film. “We’ve become such an information-oriented society, unfortunately, with a sort of monoculture of repetition of information through cable news. … To see filmmakers who’ve actually spent years trying to tell a story based on a real-life situation is an inspiration, I think It engages us to the diversity of cultures, not only in the United States, but around the world.”

On the narrative side of things, production designers David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco will be on hand for a special screening of “La La Land” Saturday. The Wascos, who have worked on the films of Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, won an Academy Award for the stylish 2016 musical film about romance and jazz in Hollywood.

The couple will host a post-screening presentation in which they will discuss their work on the film. Craven, who worked with the Wascos on his first feature film, “Where the Rivers Flow North,” said production design isn’t given much thought when people go to the movies — although it should be. “The production designer is as important as the cinematographer or anybody else in terms of what the film looks like.”

All this, according to Komesar, adds up to a festival that’s starting to get some traction on the circuit. In its fourth year, MNFF is bigger than ever. Nearly 500 films were submitted for consideration this year — up more than 100 from last year.

Komesar attributes that success to several factors.

“MNFF alumni are out there talking about our festival, and looking for films when they go to festivals that they think might be appropriate for Middlebury,” he said. This year, around 10 films were submitted based on alumni word or mouth.

The festival is also gaining more traction in Europe. Film companies across the pond are now assembling slates of films for MNFF consideration.

In addition, colleges are becoming fertile ground for submissions. Komesar said around five colleges are currently active with the festival.

“This year, we had a West Coast college that was very excited to partner with us for submissions. We ended up having six of their films submitted and we took five,” he said.

Finally, MNFF’s positive reputation is spreading. For two years running, the festival has been a top-100 best-reviewed festival on the film-submission platform Film Freeway. The website services approximately 6,000 festivals in addition to MNFF.

“The pillars of our festival are very sturdy. They’re built to last,” Komesar said. “We’re doing a good job of building on our original foundation … We’re not afraid to try stuff. We’re not formulaic people.”

The result is what Komesar characterizes as a “distinctive experience.” He also attributes the festival’s growing success to the small-town setting. The close proximity of venues keeps the energy of the festival buzzing all weekend long, as filmmakers, audiences and staff interact to create a collective experience.

“It continues to circle throughout the four days as people talk and laugh and share, and I find that to be the most gratifying part of this festival,” he said.

Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival

The Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival runs Aug. 23-26 at venues throughout Middlebury. Individual advance tickets are available online for $15 through Aug. 22; weekend passes are $80; single-day passes are $32; day-of/rush tickets available at any venue for $12 on a first-come-first-serve basis. For tickets, additional info, film trailers and a full schedule of events, go online to

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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