The small town of Middleburg, Virginia is
known for three major things: wine country—for its surplus of vineyards that stretch
on for miles; horse country—for the farms where the horses gallop freely and hunting country—and hunters riding on horseback, often accompanied by hounds.
But as Senator Tim Kaine said on the opening night of the second annual Middleburg Film Festival, which took place from October 30 to November 2,
Virginia is for film lovers.
Despite taking place in the midst of one of the U.S.’s
wealthiest counties, the Middleburg Film Festival maintained
a genuinely cordial atmosphere between filmmakers, buffs, industry folk and
politicians alike. They came from New York, Los Angeles and around the Virginia-D.C. area.
Its charm and success—marked by ticket sales that surpassed
the first year’s—has solidified Middleburg’s status as a film festival that’s
kicked off the kids boots and is fully equipped to compete with big boys for
years to come.
Powerhouse philanthropist and businesswoman Sheila Johnson keeps the festival alive. It was Johnson who built the Salamander Resort & Spa, a sprawling luxury delight that took 11 years to create and is home base for
Middleburg’s festival activities.
It’s this very location, rich with autumn foliage, imbued with small-town intimacy, isolated from big city distractions but reasonably close to viewing venues (Middleburg does not have a single theater) that defines this relative newcomer to the festival circuit and makes it a perfect location for four days of film viewing.
In an interview with Indiewire, Johnson said she was delighted when the festival was labeled an “itty-bitty Cannes” by the Washington Post in its inaugural year. “What they were saying in a tongue and cheek way was that we
nailed it,” she said. “We nailed it without all of the fuss and complexity of
bigger film festivals and we made a lot of people very happy.”
And of the
festival’s proximity to Washington D.C., including its politics? Johnson laughed.
“We’re nonpartisan,” she said, adding that executive director Susan Koch helps sustain the proceedings more than any ideological slant. “Susan is very connected with film. She’s been in it all her life, that’s her career. So she has the people that she’s known for years
and we put together an advisory board from Hollywood. They aided us in helping
put together a great team to find a programmer to bring the best films in.”
The festival opened last Thursday with
“The Fisher King” director Richard LaGravenese’s movie adaptation of the Broadway musical, “The Last Five Years.”
Popcorn and glasses of Virginian red wine accompanied LaGravenese’s
introductory warning of the film.
“It’s a musical, and not everyone likes musicals,” he joked. A celebration of his birthday, complete with cake, followed at the screening after party.
Audience attendance included Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood, who was this year’s Distinguished Costume Designer award recipient.
night, clips from films she worked on ranging from “Edward Scissorhands” to “Big Fish” played on the big screen in Salamander’s ballroom, where most major events were held. The video tribute ended with the Roaring ‘20s stylings of the last dance number in “Chicago.”
Atwood was presented her honor by fashion designer Kay
Unger, dressed as a wickedly chic Cruella de Vil. That night, a masquerade ball
was held in Atwood’s honor, where Halloween, elegant costumes and masks
convened for more wine, caramel apples, magic tricks and fortune telling.
Atwood joined the festivities for a brief while—with a black top had to match
her striped Yves Saint Laurent pantsuit—before retiring for the evening.
On Saturday, Marco Beltrami was honored with the
Distinguished Film Composer award and a live performance of his scores from the
films such as “Snowpiercer,” “The Giver”
and “The Homesman” was played beautifully by members of the Shenandoah Conservatory
The evening gave way to the festival’s centerpiece film, “The Imitation Game,” which received a round of enduring applause. Director
Morten Tyldum, screenwriter Graham Moore and actor Allen Leech were in
attendance and also lingered at the after party, where Leech—who also plays the beloved Tom Branson on “Downton Abbey”— took photos and shook hands with fans.
In the Q&A session, Moore described the story
of Alan Turing (portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in a performance garnering Oscar season hype) as a “secret queer history
of computer science.”
Notably, “The Imitation Game” won the Middleburg Film
Festival’s Audience Award for Best Narrative, with “Dior and I” and “Red Army” tying
for the Audience Award for Best Documentary. Former Senator Chris Dodd, now CEO and Chairman of the Motion
Picture Association of America, wrapped up the festival on Sunday with his morning keynote address on why films matter.
Joined by Librarian of Congress James H.
Billington as a guest speaker, Dodd spoke of the power of film to change,
motivate and educate. “When people say the industry is fading, they’re not watching
what’s occurring around the world today,” he said in his address. “In China, they’re building 18 movie screens every day…in
other countries, television and film are exploding. There is a global audience
anxious for these creative works.”
This year the festival showcased 20 films,
including highly praised works such as “Escobar: Paradise Lost,” and “The
Clouds of Sils Maria,” as well as Italy and Sweden’s entries for the Oscar
foreign language film race “Human Capital” and “Force Majeure.”
also held other special events, including a panel on film distribution and financing.
“The beauty of keeping this film festival sustainable is
keeping it small,” Johnson said, emphasizing that she is businesswoman—and noting that the festival must keep within a budget and gain long-term sponsors. “I want to keep this festival around for the next 30 years, she said. “I
want it become a real fixture just like Telluride or Toronto.”
But she has more specific aims than that. “I want movie houses
to fight to get into this festival,” Johnson added. “I want to build a reputation of excellence,
quality and class.”