Park City, Utah. Cannes, France. New Haven, Connecticut? OK, maybe New Haven’s ninth annual film festival, vigorous in its youth, doesn’t have a shot in hell of reaching the status of film festivals like Sundance or Cannes. Yet, Film Fest New Haven is slowly but surely turning into a legitimate film festival, capable of attracting both seasoned indie directors and young experimental filmmakers to show films big and small to Elm City movie buffs and to each other.
Established in 1995, Film Fest New Haven’s three founders originally hoped to open a movie theater in New Haven but realizing that collecting the capital and the resources to do so was not feasible, they settled on founding a film festival instead. The festival started off as an extremely modest April event, with all of the pieces screened in a single venue and only average attendance over the course of three days.
However, that was only the beginning.
“It was extremely well-received by the city and the folks in town and it grew from there,” Executive Director Robin Andreoli said. “It’s one heck of a weekend — lots of watching film, talking about film, and going to parties.”
Now in its ninth year, the ninth Film Fest New Haven (stylishly abbreviated as FFNH9) has blossomed into a full-blown cinematic cornucopia. It will span four venues including Yale’s own Whitney Humanities Center and Off Broadway Theater and boast over 70 films, with a fourth Thursday night added this year to accommodate the burgeoning wealth of contributions. Film Fest New Haven now takes place in September, since its original April scheduling effectively excluded much of the Yale community.
“[Moving it to September] made sense in terms of how it fit in the landscape of independent film. In September, there is less competition for the film print: once a film is accepted, you have to make sure the filmmaker has a reel to send you,” Andreoli said. “We were also having the festival when a lot of the young people were getting ready for finals, and moving it to the beginning of the semester means that there will be a lot more participation from Yale.”
Despite the move to the fall, some lament Yalies’ lack of enthusiasm when it comes to events such as Film Fest New Haven.
“I think the general Yale populace doesn’t really know about [the festival],” Elizabeth La Duc ’05, co-president of the Yale Film Society, said. “I think that Yale students don’t really know much about the Yale art community in general.”
Though current students may neglect the festival’s presence, the alumni keep rolling in. According to a Film Fest New Haven press release, this year’s festival will feature four Yale alumni and their respective works. The offerings include “Hammer and Cycle,” by James Cocks ’03, a documentary that follows the story of a group of Yalies who embark on a 4000-mile bicycle ride to benefit Habitat for Humanity. Joining Cocks’s work is “Junebug and Hurricane,” a drama by James Ponsoldt ’01 that stars well-known comedienne Janeane Garofalo. Andrea Williams ’98 delivers another dramatic story with “A Spoonful of Sugar,” which illustrates the unseen side of AIDS, the story of a teenage girl born with the disease who must cope with an insatiable desire to lose her virginity. Finally, fulfilling the colorful diversity that FFNH9 hopes to achieve, Ahree Lee ’93 contributes her experimental piece “Me,” which captures footage of her in one particular location woven together with an austere, artistic edge.
In addition, two more alumni already well-established in the film industry will participate in special events held over the course of the festival. On Thursday night, Jennifer Beals ’86 of “Flashdance” fame made an appearance in New Haven to accompany her new feature film “Break a Leg.”
Greg Pak ’99 will return to FFNH9 to lead a workshop redundantly titled, “Theatrical Self Distribution: The Robot Studies Case Study,” in which he reviews his personal experience pushing his films into mainstream cineplexes without sacrificing the “indie” flavor of his work. Pak most recently enjoyed major success with his feature, “Robot Stories” which had been screened early in its run at last year’s FFNH8. “Robot Stories” went on to wide distribution in cities across the nation and won Pak critical acclaim and over 30 festival awards. The workshop will take place at the Courtyard Marriott at 11:00 on Saturday morning.
Apart from Yale-grown artists, this year’s Film Fest pieces are unusually representative of a healthy array of countries, ages and worldviews. According to Andreoli, this signals larger trends in submissions to FFNH.
“We’ve always gotten a lot of entries from U.S. filmmakers, but this year we’re seeing filmmakers [from countries] like the Netherlands, Korea, Iceland, and Italy — it’s really exciting,” she said. “We’re seeing great quality in the filmmaking. [In particular,] we’re seeing a lot of great student filmmaking with digital equipment. You’re always going to want the look and feel of the film — you can’t beat it — but it’s so expensive. But you can always use that technology to make your first film.”
The Film Fest will screen pieces ranging from “End of the Century,” a documentary about the infamous rock band the Ramones, to “WMD,” a “Fahrenheit 911”-esque documentary that criticizes the media’s poor coverage of the war in Iraq. From beyond U.S. borders, the Film Festival imports movies including Mani Ratnam’s Bollywood flick, “A Peck on the Cheek,” which depicts the story of a young girl who sets out in search of her birth mother.
But even though FFNH9 shows signs of becoming an increasingly international festival, also featured are films that appreciate the Film Fest’s quintessential roots in the Elm City. According to Andreoli, while New Haven filmmakers have long had a tradition of participating in Film Fest, few have ever actually utilized the city as its backdrop making “Whirly Girl,” a film by Jim Wilson, an exceptional entry. Wilson, best known as producer for box office giants like “Dances with the Wolves” and “The Bodyguard,” made it a point to personalize the story and weave New Haven into it.
“He wanted to tell his story,” Andreoli said. “He wanted to shoot at familiar places, like Bar– It’s really fun to watch and to see places that we see everyday.”
As strange a juxtaposition as it may be, FFNH9 promises the Yale and New Haven communities this rich intersection of local and global, experimental and tried-and-true. 3913 miles away from Cannes, Yalies may be surprised to find cinematic diamonds-in-the-rough just footsteps away from campus.
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