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Michele Willens Headshot

FACE IT: When It Comes to Film Fests, Small Is the New Large

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It's well-known that every city that has a projector and at least four adults, has a film festival these days. And they come in every size, color and religion. (Who new there were enough Jews in Hong Kong to warrant a Jewish Film Festival?) I have been to quite a few since Robert Redford started the ball rolling in what once upon a time felt quaint and quiet in the mountains of Utah. I had about given up on their original purpose,until I went to Middleburg, Virginia this past weekend.

I am not talking about competing studios making distribution deals in back rooms, but rather to see and hear about a variety of movies that you may never get to see anywhere else. What was lovely about the first ever Middleburg Film Festival was how casually it came upon the scene and how even though it is still learning the game, it has a lot to teach some of the others.

For starters, it tucked itself smack into a beautiful area, and visitors were mostly "housed" in one spot, a new resort founded by a powerhouse named Sheila Johnson. (She is also one of the producers of The Butler) So right away, there was a connective vibe among guests. The venues -- not a movie theatre in town -- are all close by and include a local museum, a community center and a private school. Already, I know what life is like in Middleburg, which consists of two long blocks of beautiful homespun shops, farm to table foods and markets and not a Starbucks in sight.

While a rookie festival is not going to get the top tier movies of Cannes or Toronto, this one had a small but smartly-mixed assemblage: documentaries, foreign fare, (the selections turned out to be choice -- three are their country's nominees for Best Foreign Film next year) and three soon to open Oscar-types in Mandela, Nebraska and August: Osage County. Bruce Dern, making a great comeback in Nebraska, was on hand to take part in a conversation with New York Times critic Janet Maslin. He said later it was the best interview he'd done in 55 years.

The locals in Middleburg weren't so sure, at first, about these Hollywood folks invading their territory. (Albeit one surrounded by plush horse farms) Such Townie-City tension is often a fact at film fests. But here, everyone seemed to get over any suspicions and blend happily. One couple in their 90s, who admitted they were unsure about the venture, saw 10 films over three days and can't wait till next year. (They are optimistic too!)

For the festivals in the large and/or cosmopolitan areas, the interlopers are either a nuisance filling restaurants and taking parking spots, or big names they would see anyway. Those in Nantucket, for example, see Ben Stiller all the time, so having him host a panel on comedy at their annual event, isn't all that thrilling. But you get someone like Bruce Dern or Elliott Gould (the latter has made numerous appearances this year on behalf of the indie Dorfman in Love) and it is a big deal in little 'hoods.

What is lovely about film festivals like the one in Middleburg, is that most of the guests actually want to like the movies. Trust me, you go to enough screenings on the coasts -- where bitterness and envy dominate -- and this is a welcome breath of fresh and untainted air. Middleburg had a positive, cozy, inclusive feeling to it and this is a good time to mention that it was run largely by women. (Documentary filmmaker Susan Koch was the director.) Though the films are not female-based, by any measure, there is an overall warmer sensibility. "Women are about sharing, men are about power," says Fiamma Arditi, Festival Director of the three-day Without Borders Film Festival in Rome. "Ours is not a Women's Film Festival, but I do think having so many women involved brings an embracing social engagement to show what art can do."

In a time of multiplexing and maximizing, down-sizing is a beautiful thing. Personally, I haven't set foot in Bloomingdales in 20 years, and I like eateries where the Italian mama can be seen making the sauce in the back. And yes, I prefer character-driven films (Enough Said) to the overblown stuff. (Enough already!) Middleburg had plenty of the former, not one of the latter. It felt like the beginning all over again and I hope it stays that way.