BRATTLEBORO—Unlike any other American film festivals, the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival not only awards its winner a coveted prize, but provides them with a tour to show their works at prestigious venues across New England.
Festival organizers say they’re strongly committed to raising the profile of its winning filmmakers after the annual August event concludes. The New England Tour is the direct fulfillment of this commitment.
“At all other film festivals, you win a prize and that’s that,” says filmmaker Jesse Nesser, whose documentary Walk With Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith won the festival’s jury award for best documentary feature in 2016. “But with Middlebury, you also are booked for screenings in places that a new filmmaker could only dream of showing his film.”
The festival champions the work of new filmmakers. Films in competition must be either first- or second-time efforts.
During the 2016 Festival in August, Middlebury hosted 40 visiting filmmakers from around the globe and more than 80 screenings of shorts, features, narratives, documentaries, animation, and experimental films. In keeping with the Festival’s promise to its winning filmmakers, the Vermont-based festival takes its outstanding films on the road to share them with audiences across each of the six New England states.
As a stop on this year’s Best of the Fest New England Tour, on Saturday, April 15, in Brattleboro, the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival will present a six-film program at the Latchis Theatre in a series of three double bills offered at 3:30 p.m., 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.
The winning films include an eclectic mix of documentary and narrative works that have collectively screened at Traverse City Film Festival, Denver Film Festival, and many other festivals.
Festival Artistic Director and distinguished Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven will host the event.
“We’re excited about the Brattleboro screenings, which mark the Vermont stop in our tour to a venue in each of the six New England states,” Craven says. “We’ll have two of the filmmakers present for their screenings: Allie Humenuk from The Guys Next Door, which won the Audience Prize, and Marlboro College film alumnus Jesse Nesser, whose timely documentary, Walk With Me, won the Jury Prize and has been making waves at leading film festivals across the country.”
Question-and-answer sessions will follow those screenings.
“The Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival tour stopped here at the Latchis Theatre last year,” notes Jon Potter, executive director of Latchis Arts, “and the diversity and quality of the films had audiences spellbound. It’s an honor for us to play a role again in introducing audiences here to this great festival and the rising filmmakers it champions.”
“We love the Latchis,” Craven says. “I’ve played my own films there since 1984. And it’s exciting to bring the Festival’s New England Tour back to the theater for a second year.”
Best of the Fest begins at 3 p.m., with Best Dramatic Feature Broke paired with Best Narrative Short, The Best and Worst Days of Georges Morales’ Unnaturally Long Life.
Co-directed by Seth Cuddeback and Benjamin Dohrmann, Best and Worst is an allegorical film written and shot in a style that is a throwback to a gentler version of storytelling. Directed by Heath Davis, Broke is an Australian feature about a disgraced Australian rugby star whose bottomed-out life haltingly turns around when he is “adopted” by a widower and his daughter.
At 6 p.m., The Guys Next Door will play with the winner of the festival’s Audience Award for a short feature, Pony. A comedy directed by Candice Carella, Pony concerns a hardworking single mom forced to leave her 5-year-old daughter with her uncle, a rock musician in his 50s still running on the fumes of his glory days.
The Guys Next Door, co-directed by Amy Geller and Humenuk, is an intimate portrait of a gay couple whose friend Rachel is a surrogate for their two daughters.
Humenuk believes that her documentary is character-driven.
“We followed this unusual family of two gay men and their friend and neighbor who became a surrogate mother for them, but we had no agenda,” she says. “As directors, Amy and I were just curious to watch how the story unfolded.
“While we did perhaps hope to promote the issues of surrogate families and gay fathers, this is not an issue-based movie. Amy and I make films about people and not events. We want to follow everyday life and see how meaning comes out of that experience.”
The judge’s tale
At 8:30 p.m. Walk With Me will play with Best Short Documentary Jury Winner Phil’s Camino.
Co-directed by Annie O’Neill and Jessica Lewis, Camino follows a man living with Stage 4 cancer who dreams of walking the 500-mile spiritual pilgrimage Camino de Santiago across Spain.
Walk With Me tells the story of U.S. Justice Damon J. Keith, 94 years old and a senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Michigan.
Craven says filmmaker Nesser is something of a local hero in Brattleboro, and suspects that many will be eager to see him at his homecoming. Nesser attended Marlboro, where he studied under Craven.
“I met Jay Craven the very first day I was visiting Marlboro to decide if it was the place to go to school,” Nesser says. “He invited me to sit in on his class, and I was so impressed I studied with him when I joined the college. He remembered me from that day, and soon I was working under his guidance. My Marlboro thesis was the feature documentary I made with Craven’s encouragement.”
Craven adds, “Although Jesse and I go a long way back, and I am very proud of him and his work, I had nothing to do with his winning the jury prize. His film’s merit alone made that possible.”
Nesser’s documentary originated when he was assigned to do a two-minute sound bite film for a promotional video for a book Keith wrote about his life.
“Judge Keith does not tell two-minute stories, and I soon realized it would take a full feature to do him justice,” Nesser says. “I came away from that initial meeting thinking what a great character he was, and what a fascinating story his life made.”
It took Nesser a few weeks to talk Keith into the project of making a feature documentary about his life.
“When Judge Keith finally agreed he said, ’Jesse, okay, let’s do it. I think Morgan Freeman would be perfect to play me,’” continues Nesser. “I told him that he would be great actually, but I was thinking of Keith playing himself. He had no idea what I was proposing was a documentary.”
Walk With Me documents four civil rights cases over which Keith presided while serving as a federal judge in Michigan between 1967 and 1995.
“Judge Keith was only the third full-time black judge in Detroit at the time, and all four of the cases we follow came before him in his first five years as a judge,” Nesser says.
“They involved issues of diversity in school, the police and housing, issues which are all still being litigated, and it was Keith who set the legal precedents for current cases. I began my film before Black Lives Matter and [the shooting of Michael Brown in] Ferguson. This subject could not be more relevant today.”