Top Notch Programming at Newport, R.I. Fest, But Bigger Crowds Wanted
by Lily Oei
In a town best known as the gilded playground of robber barons, it seems at first odd to pair Newport with emerging filmmakers. But as the local guides at the mansions will tell you, “America’s First Resort” is a community built for entertaining — be it yachtsman or visitors of more modest means. Tooling into town close to midnight my first night in, our driver turned to us and said, “Should I take you to the party?” And so began my introduction to the eighth annual Newport International Film Festival.
Hats off to Sky Sitney for her top notch programming — it didn’t matter that selections weren’t premieres — the result was like a getting a cinematic mix tape of festival favorites. The schedule included “Me You and Everyone We Know,” screening for the first time since it’s Cannes award haul, and which understandably picked up both the audience and directors prize in Newport. Another two-fisted winner was the cringingly good “The Forest for the Trees” which claimed the dramatic feature prize and a best actress award for Eva Löbau.
Over the course of six days, the programming would prove to be heavy on the docs — ten in competition, another 16 out. For Sitney, this is a reflection of the financial and social realities of filmmaking. “We’re in a highly political climate,” said Sitney. “It’s a cultural trend and the program reflects that.”
While it can be tough for regional festivals to woo talent to town, many doc subjects showed up for their moment in the spotlight. There was the clique of Conde Nasties who attended opening night’s doc, “Seamless” along with designer Doo Ri; Sheby Knox, of “The Education of Shelby Knox“; Joe Soares of “Murderball“; and “After Innocence“‘s Scott Hornoff, a Rhode Island native, joined by writer/producer Marc Simon. Continuing to fight the good fight, Simon even penned an op-ed in Saturday’s Providence Journal about Hornoff’s case.
Prize-wise, the big doc award went to “The Boys of Baraka,” directed by Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady. Jury honors also went to both “Abel Raises Cain,” by Jenny Abel & Jeff Hockett, and Taggart Siegel‘s “The Real Dirt on Farmer John.” The latter is compelling account of one man’s fight to farm and march to the beat of his own drum, so while it was great that the Crystal Pineapple was accepted by John Petersen himself, it was disappointing that he wasn’t wearing his trademark boa to the awards brunch. Other prizes handed out at a waterfront ceremony on Saturday afternoon went to Nicolas Cazalé for his work in “Le Grand Voyage“; Andrew Semans for his short “I’d Rather Be Dead Then Alive In This World“; and Chris Landreth‘s animated film “Ryan.” Andrew Bujalski nabbed screenplay honors for “Mutual Appreciation,” succinctly registering his gratitude: “Thank you for this bag and all this other stuff.” The audience also recognized Gillian Grisman‘s doc, “Press On” and short, “Positively Naked” by Arlene Donnelly Nelson.
When it comes to programming, said Sitney, “We don’t target to a specific audience — it’s about an encompassing program. We think about broader spectrum of audience, including the film lover who travels to festivals and kids looking for something more challenging.” So it was no surprise that the youth of Newport got in on the act, from high school students jurying their own category (which went to “Four Eyed Monsters“) to a children’s feature award for “The Color of Milk.” This sensitive and beautifully shot Norwegian film about a scientifically-minded young girl avoiding love plays to an audience of any age, and even if not in 3D, puts any shark boy or lava girl to shame.
Beyond the films, the festival also had an ancillary slate of special events, from a golf tournament to a master class with cinematographer Ellen Kuras, back in Rhode Island for the first time since her days as an undergrad at Brown (where she intended to study Egyptology). Kuras delivered a retrospective of her work that was both anecdotal and inspirational in content. “We’re losing track to how films can be a mirror to who we are,” she said at one point about the industry’s reliance on remakes. “They know what the craft is, but they forget what the meaning is.” My favorite life lesson was when Kuras implored top-level filmmakers to properly set the tone on set, “Don’t be an asshole.”
Michael McKean received the annual Claiborne Pell Award for lifetime achievement, and was feted by longtime collaborators Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer. Under the banner MSG, the trio performed a selection of “Spinal Tap” and Folksmen favorites before a sold out crowd of fans, explaining that it was one of the few instances when they had performed as either band without costume changes.
As entertaining as the week was, the festival was not without its hiccups: a panel on documentaries dissolved into an unmoderated grab for free legal advice, an event at the Newport Art Museum left me wandering from building to building (who knew there collection wasn’t under one roof?) There was extra drama on closing night when the screening of “Beautiful Country” started an hour late because the print needed to be helicoptered in. To Newport’s credit, not only was there not a stampede when the doors finally opened, no one left during the Q&A. That detail didn’t go unnoticed by co-star Damien Nguyen, who was “really touched to see every seat still filled.”
While it seems petty to swipe at the parties, some guests who had attended events in previous years were surprised at how spartan the spread was, especially given the sumptuous settings. It’s a festival that could really use some big time sponsorship, as it had in the early days when Vanity Fair played host. But the real pity then about Newport is that the seats weren’t filled as they could — and given the quality of the films — should have been. It’s great not to have to jostle for seats, but there is such as thing as too intimate a setting. Sitney and festival exec director Laurie Kirby were unfazed; both had met their goals and surpassed last year’s numbers, with six screenings selling out before opening night.
“It’s a town with a lot going on,” said Sitney about the natives. “The festival hits at the start of the summer season, and it was bright and sunny all week. You can see that it’d be a tough sell to get people to forsake the outdoors.”
For her part, Kirby explained that year round programming is on her to do list to build awareness of the festival. “Newport has the potential to be a sold out program like Sundance. We’re just not there… yet.”