Woodstock Turns Five, Choosing 'Quality' over 'Quantity'
by Brian Brooks
The Woodstock Film Festival capped its fifth annual event Sunday night with its awards ceremony, culminating the five-day event of films, panels, and parties that brought a parade of filmmakers, industry, and film buffs to the famous Catskills town and surrounding communities. Debra Granik's "Down to the Bone" received the festival's "Maverick Award for Best Feature Narrative," while "Double Dare" by Amanda Micheli took the Maverick Award for Best Feature Documentary. The awards preceded the closing night film, "The Woodsman" by Nicole Kassel, and were followed by a party.
"Down to the Bone," starring Vera Farmiga, follows a young mother as she attempts to raise two boys amidst a troubled marriage, while hiding her voracious cocaine habit, was shot nearby in the Hudson Valley. "Double Dare," which also won the "Maverick Award for Excellence in Editing," profiles two Hollywood stuntwomen, who pursue their craft in a male-dominated industry.
Other honorees included Jessica Sharzer's feature debut, "Speak," which won the audience award for feature narrative. The film, based on a novel by Laurie Halse Anderson, centers on a distinguished high school freshman who "has been stunned into silence by an unspeakable event," but can only confront the trauma by expressing herself. Nina Davenport's "Parallel Lines" won the audience award in the feature doc category. The film looks at the lives of Americans throughout the country post-9/11, which unfolds during a road trip from California to New York the filmmaker made after the September 11 attacks. Davenport stops to talk with people about their lives en route, who share their own personal stories of loss, although the catastrophic events seem to fade as the journey progresses, and the lives of the individuals Davenport speaks with move to the forefront. This was Woodstock's first year presenting audience awards.
Frank Reynolds and Sam Neave's "Unknown Soldier" took the editing award for narrative feature, while the Haskell Wexler Award for Best Cinematography went to Xavi Gimenez for "The Machinist," directed by Brad Anderson, which opened the Woodstock Film Festival along with Dylan Kidd's "p.s." The best short narrative prize went to Taagen Swaby's "Flavio," while Sascha Paladino's "Obstinato: Making Music for Two" won best documentary short. Paladino's film, which screened along with two other music doc shorts on Friday night, profiles his brother Bela Fleck and musician partner Edgar Meyer on tour. The duo also played a concert at the festival the prior night. "Woodstock was a great place for my film because it provided an intelligent and eager audience of arts-lovers," commented Paladino in a conversation with indieWIRE on Monday. "The whole weekend, I bumped into people around town who had seen my film and wanted to share their thoughts on it."
"Cosmopolitan" director Nisha Ganatra echoed the audience sentiment, chatting with iW following the festival. "The audiences are very eclectic and they are really into watching movies of all genres. They also have questions that [one] just wouldn't hear at other film festivals." Ganatra said that many who attended the screening of her film, which is a romance with a Bollywood twist, had also come to see her debut feature during the event's inaugural year. "A lot of the people in the audience were there because they saw 'Chutney Popcorn' at the first festival and wanted to see what my next film was all about, that was really cool." The filmmaker also gave kudos to the fest for fomenting a relaxed event that still lures a distinguished crowd. "It's great because [one] gets to meet amazing artists and important industry supporters of independent film [and] all in this very peaceful setting."
Rocker Peter Gabriel joined the celebrity contingent at Woodstock. He showed up for a Friday night screening of his daughter Anna Gabriel's doc "Growing Up on Tour: A Family Portrait," which screened along with "Obstinato" and Steven Lippman's David Bowie doc, "Reality." Gabriel mixed informally with the audience, and seemed equally at ease at an event honoring filmmaker Mira Nair with the Honorary Maverick Award the following evening. For her part, Nair was beaming prior to the ceremony, and seemed genuinely touched by the praise from Gabriel, who introduced her. She appealed to the audience to support filmmaking before referencing her thoughts to the upcoming election. "Please vote for peace and change," she commented, reminding everyone that America's vote also has a major impact throughout the world. Nair also introduced her family, including her son, husband and father-in-law, who all posed with her for photos after the short ceremony.
"I think the festival in general was very family based," commented festival director Meira Blaustein in a chat with indieWIRE on Monday. She mentioned a litany of people who attended the festival along with family members including Gabriel and his daughter, Sloss Law/Cinetic's John Sloss and his wife Kathryn Tucker and their newborn, as well as Newmarket chief Bob Berney and his wife Jeanne among others. "It was great to see a sense of family physically represented [and that] people felt comfortable in bringing their families."
Blaustein recalled the festival's humble beginnings when asked how the event has evolved over its five years. "It began as a grassroots organization with myself and [co-director] Laurent [Rejto]. It started with a bunch of volunteers and little money, but our industry members were enthusiastic from the beginning. We had 300 submission the first year, and now [there were] 1,200 submissions. The caliber of the industry participation has [expanded while] the substance and quality of the films we have seen continues to grow, and that's our priority. Size and quantity are lesser in importance, [while] the artistry and quality of the work is the main focus."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Woodstock programmer Ryan Werner, from Wellspring, echoed that sentiment in a separate conversation with indieWIRE. "It was a transitional year, but I think we are really going in the right direction. It's increasingly hard to get films, and we might be a bit unfashionable in the festival scene by not trying to score a ton of world premieres. However, I think our reputation of taking care of filmmakers and selecting high quality films is starting to pay off." Woodstock's winning combination of a mellow atmosphere with a high-octane film loving audience has proved a successful formula for the festival. "We aren't flashy and we present films in a low-key environment with incredibly smart audiences. It might not get the acquisitions world excited, but it's about the filmgoer and I think they left the weekend very charged."
The town of Woodstock itself, complete with its history of support for the arts and political rebellion also seems to be a clear draw for filmmakers and industry. Although clearly a very prosperous community (at least most of its residents seem to have certainly mastered the capitalist game) the town still remains firmly wary of corporate culture. The proposed construction of a CVS pharmacy continues to be a source of local controversy, as it was last year, and the festival itself committed a faux pas some years back when Hummer joined on as a sponsor, offering attendees complimentary rides, which garnered the scorn of some locals who protested. "The festival is very much an extension of the surrounding community," said co-programmer Tom Quinn, from Magnolia, who joined the festival this year. "I doubt there will ever be any cell phone reception, which is ultimately the festival's key to success. There's no industry agenda at all, except the sole appreciation of great film."
The Woodstock Film Festival hosted 120 films, panels and other events in the famous town 100 miles north of New York City as well as the nearby communities of Rhinebeck and Hunter.