An inside look at the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival
STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY MIDDLEBURY NEW FILMMAKERS FESTIVAL
When Producer Lloyd Komesar and Artistic Director Jay Craven joined forces to create the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival (MNFF) in 2014, they only had one goal in mind: to bring the best and brightest new filmmakers together in Vermont for a dynamic celebration of independent cinema.
In the years since MNFF’s inaugural run in 2015, they have managed to stay true to their original mission while continuing to expand the festival. “We have found success by devoting ourselves exclusively to first and second-time filmmakers,” Komesar notes. “We’re dedicated to showcasing the work of filmmakers who are on the cusp of breaking out and achieving that next level of success. It’s been incredible to see how receptive the independent filmmaking community has been. We have had tremendous support from our sponsors, as well. We are boundlessly grateful to them for all that they have done to ensure the continual growth of the festival.”
“We’ve also been pleased to attract leading artists to share their experiences and craft with our filmmakers and audiences,” said Festival Artistic Director Jay Craven. “Oscar-nominated writer and director Paul Schrader was here in 2019 to discuss his film, “First Reformed,” and Cannes-winning British director Ken Loach joined us for our 2020 online edition.”
“We’ve also hosted actors Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Emmett Walsh, Michael Murphy, Polly Draper and Bruce Greenwood; Pulitzer Prize finalists Russell Banks and Dick Lehr; Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple, and Oscar-winning production designers David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco. These guests enlarge our conversation and add terrific depth, breadth, cultural relevance and fun to our annual gatherings.”
By forging strong philanthropic partnerships with generous private donors and nonprofit organizations, MNFF has been able to offer numerous annual cash prizes to filmmakers in a variety of niches and disciplines. Specifically, the Hernandez-Bayliss Prize celebrates films that capture the triumph of the human spirit and the CLIO Visualizing History Prize for the Advancement of Women in Film honors women filmmakers whose films showcase stories of historically noteworthy figures or occurrences. The Gaia Prize for Environmental Filmmaking is awarded to filmmakers who deliver work with exceptional insights about environmental and sustainability issues. Two awards are exclusively dedicated to Vermont filmmakers - the Shouldice Family Prize for Best Vermont-Made Film and the Thaddeus Stevens Award for Social Engagement by a Vermont Filmmaker. As Komesar points out, “There are some truly incredible films being made in Vermont with moving messages and narratives, and we want to honor this work with these prizes.”
Komesar considers the Vermont Symphony Orchestra [VSO] Award for Best Integration of Music Into Film to be one of his favorite cross-institutional artistic collaborations. “It honors a single short film every year that integrates music in an exceptionally artistic and thoughtful way. The VSO actually performs the film’s score live while the film simultaneously plays on a projector. To our knowledge, there is no other film festival that does this type of live integration in the same way.”
Additionally, MNFF has established the AICEF Prize for Cross Cultural Filmmaking, creating a symbiotic partnership across international lines. “AICEF is an acronym for the ‘American-Indonesian Cultural & Educational Foundation,” Komesar explained. “We received a generous grant from AICEF to create a filmmaker exchange program between MNFF and the Bali International Film Festival. Hopefully, beginning this year, we will have a new filmmaker from Indonesia - whose work embraces cross-cultural themes - come to Middlebury for MNFF, and we will also select a U.S. - based MNFF filmmaker to travel to Bali to screen their work in the spring of 2022 at Bali International. We were unable to do so last year due to travel safety concerns.”
One of the Festival’s creative development initiatives that both Craven and Komesar most value is the MNFF Franklin Film Development Fund, which awards cash grants to MNFF alumni filmmakers who submit original drama or comedy scripts for consideration.
The scripts are reviewed by a panel of professional screenwriters, and two of them are awarded a $10,000 grant over the course of the year. Thanks to a generous donation from Churchill and Janet Franklin, the Fund was established in the summer of 2019 with an initial goal of raising $100,000 in support of narrative filmmaking. As of January of 2021, 75% of that total has already been secured. “Our ultimate hope is that one day, an outstanding film initially funded by a grant from the Franklin Film Development Fund will be shown at MNFF,” Komesar noted. “That would be immensely rewarding and exciting.”
In 2020, a year where the film industry was forced to instantly adapt to unforeseen circumstances, MNFF seized the opportunity to grow their audience by pivoting to an online streaming platform. By making their 6th Annual festival available on an online platform, they were able reach hundreds of new viewers outside of Vermont. Following this success, MNFF has launched Split/Screen, an online monthly movie screening event in partnership with Vermont International Film Festival. Split/Screen began in November 2020 and will run through June 2021. The two festivals are each curating a selection of four films on an alternating monthly basis, which screen for a period of 10 days on a secure and attractive online video platform known as CineSend. “Split/Screen has enabled MNFF to maintain its connection with our audience and achieve continuity in our programming during this challenging time,” said Craven. “It means a lot to us to be able to successfully use online streaming platforms to offer really amazing films.”
Moving forward, both Craven and Komesar are optimistic about staging MNFF’s
seventh annual festival in person in Middlebury this year from August 26-29. “One of the best parts about holding the festival in Middlebury is that it’s a small and welcoming Vermont village,” Komesar explained. “At big-city film festivals, most filmmakers typically show their films, do a brief Q&A, and that’s about it. That’s not the way it is in Middlebury. The energy never goes away. There’s a genuine family feel to the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival. It’s a place where you can converse at length about film and develop deep and lasting friendships with filmmakers and film lovers. We’re one of the top 100 best reviewed film festivals on Film Freeway, where filmmakers go to submit their work to festivals, and we’ve worked really hard to maintain that designation. We go above and beyond to make sure that MNFF provides its attendees and filmmakers with a true ‘festival’ experience in every sense of the word. Jay and I feel the festival itself is every bit as vibrant and creatively stimulating as the wonderful independent films that we show there.”