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Why Does the World Need Another Film Festival?

Why Does the World Need Another Film Festival?

With a prolonged global recession putting increasing
pressure on the already fragile financial underpinnings of film festivals all
over the world, what’s the argument for yet another curated offering — and
especially one taking place more than an hour from a major city, in rural
Virginia?  That skepticism greeted the
announcement of this weekend’s first annual Middleburg Film Festival, which was
spearheaded by Washington DC (and Middleburg) entrepreneur, filmanthropist and
sports team owner Sheila Johnson — one of the producers of “Lee Daniels’s
The Butler.” Documentary filmmaker Susan Koch (“Kicking It”) was executive director of the Festival. The four-day experience, centered at Johnson’s new luxury Salamander Resort (and including venues around the historic horse-country town of 720 inhabitants), drew filmmakers and fans from around the world, and provided a rousing answer.

Robert Redford had visited with Johnson, a long-time Sundance Festival board member, before her resort’s construction, and recommended that she think about replicating Sundance in bucolic Virginia. Johnson took him up on it and took advantage of guidance from Sundance staff and the filmmaking community. MFF brought a 25-film line-up of titles in the Oscar hunt from
the US (“Nebraska,” “The Armstrong Lie,” “August: Osage County,” “The
Butler,” “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”) and abroad (including Chile’s “Gloria” and
Turkey’s “Butterfly’s Dream”), and also documentary and narrative gems less known
to the public but already generating substantial critical buzz: “The Square” (about the Egyptian Revolution), “Muscle Shoals,” “The Best Offer” and Italy’s “Slow
Food Story,” to name a few. A number of festivals have drawn loyal
filmmaker audiences year after year because of the combination of top-notch
curation and a more remote setting that make viewing and mingling easy. Bruce Dern and a number of filmmakers at MFF
praised the new festival for offering industry stalwarts a relaxed time with peers and fans, a huge departure from the standard frenetic
film scene.

UPDATE: The festival also gave out audience awards for narrative and documentary features: “I am so pleased that our audience chose to recognize ‘Comedy warrior: Healing Through Humor’ and ‘Philomena,’ said Johnson.  “We had so many compelling titles I know it was difficult to choose a ‘best’ among this incredible fare.”

Panels were top notch, including Janet Maslin’s conversation
with Bruce Dern, an extended discussion by journalists John Horn, Ann Hornaday and
Maslin entitled “What Makes a Good Film” (with critics like Thelma
Adams in the audience), and a keynote talk from SnagFilms’ founder, film
producer and business titan Ted Leonsis.

I particularly enjoyed a live concert tribute to film composer Mark Isham that featured his
scores for “A River Runs Through It,” “42,” “Invincible,” “Miracle” and other hits,
performed by the Shenandoah Conservatory orchestra.  And a crowd of hundreds shimmied nearly to the
ground during a short concert by ”the Princess of Africa” Yvonne Chaka Chaka, a
South African singer and activist, who pulled her homeland’s US Deputy Chief of
Mission Johnny Moloto to the stage to get down with Chaka Chaka and an
unidentified audience member.

More highlight moments below:

  • Bruce Dern’s emotional appreciation of “Nebraska”’s Director
    Alexander Payne, who “gave me a greater freedom than I’ve ever had as an actor
    over 50 years,” in a post-screening panel with the film’s producers Albert Berger and Ron
    Yerxa.
  • Legendary Swampman Jimmy Johnson expressing his surprise that
    “a group of good ‘ole boys from Alabama” could have had such an enduring impact
    on popular music, following the screening of “Muscle Shoals,” which traces how a
    small Alabama town on the banks of the Tennessee River has been an “unlikely
    breeding ground for some of America’s most creative and defiant music”
    – from the Stones
    to Aretha Franklin, Jimmy Cliff to Alicia Keys to Steve Winwood (all featured
    in the movie).
  • Lee Daniels wiping away tears after having seen his film “The
    Butler” for the first time since its premiere, and characterizing the movie as
    “essentially a father/son tale” that is also “a love letter to America.” Daniels was joined in a post-screening
    discussion by Washington Post journalist Wil Haygood (whose true story for the
    paper led to the book and film); the two were questioned by Post reporter
    Krissah Thompson.
  • Ted Leonsis tracing the “tectonic changes in storytelling,
    making self-expression through video” a defining trend of our age.  “Now that the tools of the trade are
    available at a low cost … we can activate genius on a worldwide basis” –
    intermingling cultures and democratizing a medium “too often controlled by old,
    white men” that has nonetheless “created what our culture felt and thought, and
    how our country is expressed abroad.”
  • Stefano Sardo, director of the “Slow Food Story,” noting that
    “food is culture put in motion for regular people,” after a screening of his
    documentary.  The film traces the roots
    and accelerating impact of an eco-gastronomic movement that began in Italy, spread
    worldwide, and – by recognizing a “universal right to pleasure” – promotes
    doing what is “right, fair and clean” to reclaim both pleasure and politics
    through food, in “a noble way that relates to everyone.”
  • Josh Rofé, director of “Lost for Life,” talking about the
    young people in his film who are serving life sentences without parole for
    “unspeakable acts” committed when they were juveniles: “how do we as a society
    consider what it will take for a murderer to construct a life worthy of a
    second chance?”  Rofé’s after-screening
    panel included the film’s producer Leonsis, juvenile justice activist and “Hangover
    producer” Scott Budnick, and me.

Organizer Johnson surveyed the scene with real satisfaction, proud of inaugural results that suggest that the movie world will soon become very familiar with Middleburg.

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