The Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, after a virtual year due to the COVID-19, is back with its seventh edition, Aug. 25-29, celebrating first and second-time filmmakers from around the world. More than 120 films will be screened in-person at Town Hall Theater, the Marquis Theatre, Swift House Inn and Middlebury College’s Robison Hall in the Mahaney Center, plus filmmaker discussions, social events and more throughout the festival.
“Our online festival in August of last year was our attempt to stay relevant, stay connected, and I thought we did an excellent job,” explained Lloyd Komesar, festival producer.
“This festival is a tribute to filmmakers who persevered, had the courage to do the work in very difficult circumstances, and to deliver high quality work, because we had a record number of submissions — 432,” he said. “It’s way, way greater than anything than we’ve previously experienced.”
This year, though, proof of COVID-19 vaccination is mandatory.
“We have to protect the experience and the space where it happens,” Jay Craven, artistic director said. “All of our filmmakers will be vaccinated.”
For Craven, this year’s underlying theme is connectedness and disconnectedness.
“I think it is relevant to the moment,” he said. “We can take a look for starters at our opening night film and our closing night film.”
The opening night film, “Storm Lake” by Jerry Lisius and Beth Levison (7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 25, Town Hall Theater), chronicles a small town newspaper in rural Iowa, which is essential to its community.
“The newspaper provides the connective tissue that is essential in that community in order to have identity and meaning,” Craven said.
The closing night film, “The Ants and the Grasshopper” by Raj Patel (7:45 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 29, Town Hall Theater), follows a woman in Malawi (Africa) who is struggling under the impact of climate change.
“It’s drying up the water and really threatening the future of her family and the entire community,” Craven said. “She tells the filmmakers that she would like to meet with farmers in America. This Malawian woman and her entourage interact with American farmers — again, with the goal of connection.”
Another important and new connection is between the festival and the Bali Film Festival, enabled by a grant from the American-Indonesian Cultural and Educational Foundation. The two filmmakers receiving the AICEF Prize for Cross-Cultural Filmmaking are: from Indonesia, Harvan Agustriansyah for “Sugar on the Weaver’s Chair” (11:30 a.m. Friday, Aug. 27, Town Hall Theater); and from the United States, Anji Clubb for her “Nomad Meets the City” (2 p.m. Friday, Aug. 27, Town Hall Theater).
Between the films, a reception and press event at Town Hall Theater, featuring the Consul General of Indonesia from New York, will be open to audience-members.
Among the festival’s guests, acclaimed director Sam Pollard will be honored with an award for “Sustained Vision, Courage and Excellence in Filmmaking.” He will appear for the screening of two of his films and extended conversations Thursday, Aug. 26: “MLK/FBI” (2 p.m. Town Hall Theater) and Spike Lee’s “4 Little Girls” (7:15 p.m. Town Hall Theater).
“We’ve been fortunate to see, for the last 30 years or so, the emergence of a complex African American cinema voice,” Craven said. “Sam Pollard has been central both in documentary and in narrative, particularly with his relationship with (director) Spike Lee as editor on a number of his films. Again, film has facilitated for discerning audiences a connection to the African American experience.”
Heidi Levitt, a casting director in Hollywood, also committed to independent film, will be on hand for discussion of Wayne Wang’s 1997 “Chinese Box” (7:15 p.m. Friday, Aug. 27, Robison Hall), starring Jeremy Irons and Gong-Li, which she cast and co-produced.
“The work of a casting director is all about creation through connection,” Craven said. “Filmmakers start with literally nothing and they need to build critical mass artistically, and the cast is the central ingredient.
Actress Karen Allen will introduce the festival’s 40th anniversary look at Stephen Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” (7:15 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 28, Town Hall Theater) and John Carpenter’s “Starman” (4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 29, Town Hall Theater), with Jeff Bridges as a man from another planet.
“Karen Allen is everybody’s favorite pop star queen of the ‘70s,” Craven said. “She’s one person who has navigated both the commercial and the independent film worlds. It’ll be a chance for us to have a little popcorn fun.”
This year, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra connection returns, where the professional orchestra provides accompaniment to the winning film.
The 2019 award winner, Mark Smith’s “Two Balloons” (4:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 27, Robison Hall, free), a 9-minute animated short, has had its score by Peter Broderick arranged by Matt LaRocca, VSO special projects chair and a Middlebury grad.
“It turns out that animated films are perfect for the VSO to work with,” Komesar said. “Our new winner, who will be introduced at the VSO event, is Rusty Eveland from Philadelphia, for his animated six-minute short, “Mate,” about a shopping cart who is looking for a mate. It’s gorgeous, with a beautiful score.”
“Mate” will be shown as a short (7:15 p.m. Friday Aug. 27, Swift House), before the Rosalynde LeBlanc-Tom Hurwitz film “Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and the D-Man in the Waters,” a documentary about the past and present of the choreographer Bill T. Jones starting with the AIDS epidemic.
Perhaps the most anticipated film is “Summer of Soul” (7:15 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 28, Robison Hall), Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s documentary about the legendary 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival that celebrated African American music and culture.
“‘Summer of Soul,’ one of our curated films, has had a terrific festival run this summer,” Komesar said. “While Woodstock was running at Yasgur’s farm, ‘Summer of Soul’ was running in Harlem. The film is priceless.”
This year’s Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival is about bringing people back together after a year apart.
“In staging a live festival, we’re basically claiming sacred space where this happens,” Craven said. “In the midst of continuing challenges, we felt it was essential to affirm this really central aspect of community life in Vermont, which has to do with the essential — but fragile — shared experience.”