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The Film Festival Experience

Capernaum

The Film Festival Experience from the Inside Out

by Frank Gonzales (5/30/2019)

One of the things that CinéArts is genuinely proud of is the relationship we have with film festivals around the country. Not only those that show the latest documentary, or experimental, or foreign film by new or acclaimed directors, but the niche ones that specialize only in short films, or have a particularly relevant cultural theme, or feature specifically targeted genres.

We are fortunate to host many festivals throughout the year in our theatres, or are able to attend others, and the quality and consistency of these events continue to excite us. Whether large or small, niche or not, we love the idea of introducing the wider public to films that awe, inspire, captivate and move us.

CinéArts recently talked to two men who have grown their festivals into respected events, garnering worldwide acclaim in the process: James Faust, the Artistic Director of the Dallas International Film Festival, and Mark Fishkin, the Founder and Director of the Mill Valley Film Festival. Both are seasoned vets in the festival game, but their journeys to reach this point are as varied as the types of movies they show.

Faust came to his position from the filmmaking side, as a young graduate of SMU’s film school. “I was working as an electrician and key grip on several films. Eventually I became a producer on a few commercials and TV shows like Walker, Texas Ranger.

“I was working for a local company and the guy who was running it was a filmmaker who wanted to start a film festival to raise money for a charity. We called it the Deep Ellum Film Festival and I helped him do some commercials. Then I saw people watching movies and I noticed that it was really the volunteers doing all the watching, all with good hearts, but they didn’t have much of a film education besides what they saw.

“So I came in to be one of the programmers of films and eventually became the Director of Programming. Then the festival became the AFI Film Festival in 2007 and the Dallas International Film Festival in 2010 and I’ve been Artistic Director ever since.”

Fishkin, on the other hand, had no filmmaking experience but was an artist with an idea. “I was an English major with a creative writing emphasis and just through the way life goes I wound up as a ceramic sculptor and a potter. All those things converged as I happened to be at the first Telluride Film Festival.

“I had set up shop as an artist in a nearby town and actually I caught the first few Telluride festivals. So it became an epiphany for me in that I wanted a different kind of palate to express myself. Though I didn’t necessarily think it was film festivals, it did rekindle the idea in me.

“So when my girlfriend and I moved to Northern California my hope was to use my skills in business and writing to work on screenplays and producing. Then I realized how expensive it was to live in this area and I was looking for something to do. So I looked into some options and one of them was to acquire a theatre, which I did. I took over and programmed a series called the Saturday Night Movie in downtown Mill Valley at the Oddfellows Hall.  I used that theatre to start the first Mill Valley Film Festival.”

Over the years both Fishkin and Faust have continued to evolve their festivals and effect change in the way they are interacting in their communities. “The biggest change since I started many years ago is that there are a lot more festivals with a lot more variety of themes and outreach,” Faust notes.

“Originally they would show any movie that they could and may or may not have seen before or have a distribution deal. Now there is a lean to more film education and a more targeted festival. Now you can find a horror festival, or a Japanese horror festival. Or even an Indian horror festival as well as just a general Indian festival. You’ll see these niche festivals within some communities and organizers trying to build a film education program where they bring in filmmakers within that realm and talk production and marketing and raising money.”

Fishkin also likes the fact they can be on the forefront of trends and technology. “The MVFF introduced music videos way before MTV; these really unusual things that combined music and images. We had workshops for kids and films for all ages. We introduced panel discussions. We were one of the first festivals to include experimental work in videos, side by side with films.  We utilized CinéArts’ own Sequoia theatre for midnight shows. One was Woodstock, which featured another local filmmaker, David Myers, since he was the co-cinematographer.”

The interaction of movie lovers and movie makers is one of the high points of film festivals both men feel are crucial to the experience. Faust remarks that “the best thing about a film festival in general is the opportunity to meet filmmakers.

“I think that film is the number one art form in the world because it is the most accessible and the most egalitarian. Everyone has a favorite movie or a favorite movie that they love to hate! So it’s pretty much equal across the board. And you see everything on the screen for the most part when you see a film.

“And at a festival you can see the director, the actors, the producers, and sometimes even the sound designers. You can get into the craft of the film. So that accessibility and the whole festival vibe is all around you. You’re a part of the film community for however number of days it lasts. You’re immersed in it!”

Fishkin also relates the fact that it works the other way too, with the relationships developed between festivals and filmmakers as a key to keeping the quality high from year to year. “Mill Valley has been around so long that we can land these relationships with film makers over a long time.

“For instance this year Ang Lee has a new film. Going back to his first film we were able to do the US premiere of that and were maybe only one of two theatres to actually play the movie in the states. So he’s been back and has had more films opening our festival than any other director.

For Faust, his event is just a stepping off point for keeping awareness of high quality films out there. “I like the fact that I get to show people movies and introduce people to filmmakers that they may not know now but they may know later.

 “At the same time think about art museums. People go to see an exhibit they may not see anywhere else. A film festival gives people the same chance. It’s like a motion picture museum. You get to go see a certain kind of niche movie you may not get exposed to on a regular basis. So it’s great to be a part of that.”

Fishkin continues on the impact of his festival on a larger scale. “We had the world premiere of Longtime Companion and were invited to the Moscow Film Festival to a retrospective of Mill Valley. It was the first time a film about gay individuals and AIDS was shown. We went to the Russian White House and met the Minister of Culture and asked him to show it on Russian TV and they did!

“Another film at Mill Valley that we did the premiere of was something called Walking on Water.  That little film was ultimately renamed Stand And Deliver. We had everybody from the film there including Edward James Olmos, Lou Diamond Phillips and the director. Their strategy was to show it at Mill Valley then in New York. It was a sight to behold, since this was before the cell phone age, as a half a dozen directors of acquisition from the studios were running and fighting for the single pay phone in the lobby of the Sequoia to call their bosses for approval to buy the movie!”

At their basic core, each man loves movies and passes along that love into the films they present to audiences. Faust notes, “I love those movies that are small but get picked up and made into something bigger. There was the movie Me & Earl and The Dying Girl that I saw at Sundance. Fox Searchlight picked it up and it went on to great acclaim. It just destroyed me when I saw it. That was one that made me so happy that a large audience got to see it. 

Fishkin also remembers a couple of movies that were seen in Cannes but were important additions to their festival legacy. “Last year I saw Capernaum, directed by a Lebanese filmmaker I had long admired. I had no expectations and it just blew me away. There was a 15 minute standing ovation so that film made its way to Mill Valley.

So CinéArts says thank you to Mark and James for the great work they do. These are but a couple of the amazing folks who continue to keep movie making of all kinds vital and important by bringing those creative visions to you.

If you haven’t been to a film festival before, you owe it to yourself to check out the scene, the panels, the tributes and the movies. You’ll be a bigger fan of movies than ever before.


MVFF42 is October 3-13 at the CinéArts Sequoia Theatre, and at the Smith San Rafael Film Center. http://www.mvff.com/

The 13th Dallas International Film Festival was April 11-18, 2019. It is an annual springtime event in Dallas, TX. http://dallasiff.org/