April 2008 Issue
The Little Festival That Could
Town and gown come together for the Athens International Film & Video Festival.
At first glance, Athens, Ohio, might not seem to have much in common with the likes of Cannes, Berlin, Venice or Park City, Utah. Tucked away in the scenic Appalachian foothills of southeast Ohio, it’s best known as the home of Ohio University. But every spring, thousands of film buffs congregate there for the town’s annual celebration of cinema from around the world.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of the Athens International Film & Video Festival, which takes place April 25 through May 1. Founded by a group of passionate Ohio University students to showcase a handful of independent films, the fest has become a much-anticipated weeklong event: Last year more than 700 entries were submitted (157 of which were selected and shown), and 6,500 people attended screenings and special events.
Festival director Ruth Bradley describes the boldness of the festival’s initiative in the mid-’70s, the mission of which continues to attract audiences: “We still present films, videos and now digital art forms that question, prod, perplex, and sometimes even comfort audiences,” wrote Bradley in a commemorative booklet about the festival, published in 1998.
“We’re one of the Athens institutions now,” she adds. “We’ve got audiences here who are willing to take the chance and see something they haven’t heard that much about.”
Despite its low profile, the festival has attracted a fair share of celebrity guests over the years, ranging from legendary director Howard Hawks to actors Ned Beatty and Steve Buscemi.
Bradley recalls the comments of one attendee several years back. Standing in the lobby of the Athena movie theater, the filmmaker told her that this was the first festival he’d ever been to where people spent more time discussing films than wheeling and dealing on their cell phones.
“He meant it as a criticism,” Bradley explains, although she sees it differently. “I [told him], ‘Well that’s what we’re about here.’ We’re not about deal making. We’re not about celebrity. We’re not about who’s the latest flavor of the year. We’re about the artists’ films here, and we have audiences who love to watch the movies.”
Preparations for the festival begin in January, when boxes of DVDs begin arriving at the post office for Bradley and her small army of volunteer pre-screeners to critique. (By March, the screeners had received 1,018 entries.)
Each film is assigned to one of three categories: Narrative, Documentary or Experimental. The group will spend the next three to four months logging, watching, debating and ultimately selecting the best entries.
“We say, ‘Is this an engaging film? Is it trying to tell us something new about the world?’” Bradley explains.
Although watching movie after movie after movie can at times seem like an arduous task for no financial gain, pre-screener Chris Iacofano, a graduate film student at Ohio University, sees it differently.
“We’ve never really had a problem finding at least five or six people who are willing to sit down for three or four months sometimes, four nights a week, for four and a half hours to watch these films,” Iacofano says.
Once the 100 or so films are selected for screening, they are placed in cohesive show order. “We stare at them and put all the titles on 3-by-5 cards, and we lay them on a great big table, and we start playing cards with them — this film goes with this film,” Bradley says. The volunteers look for unifying elements in the submissions and organize them according to those themes. Last year’s line-up, for instance, was grouped under headings such as Working People, Arts & Letters and Heroic Nerds.
In addition to entries for the competition, the festival features a showcase of recently distributed independent and international films. Last year’s offerings included “Killer of Sheep” (originally shot in Los Angeles in 1977 and recently restored), “The Lives of Others” (a German political thriller and human drama), and “The Cats of Mirikitani”
(about Japanese-American artist Jimmy Mirikitani).
“My favorite thing to do is just stand in line in the lobby as people are leaving the films, because you get an immediate sense of how they felt about [them], and you just get this palpable energy — people were excited about it, or talking about it, or maybe they’re not talking about it,” Bradley says. “Maybe it was so powerful, they just walk out, like, I can’t speak.”
This year, Bradley hopes, will be no different. She is enthusiastic about the schedule, which features “Beaufort” (a war film from Israel), “Times and Winds” (a coming-of-age film set in a Turkish mountain village) and “King Corn” (an American documentary about the sources of our food supply).
The film festival isn’t just a hit with tourists. Many residents also view it as the highlight of the year. “Athens is a town that nurtures young and old artists and allows the freedom of creativity to come through,” says festival advisory board member Jim Fuller. “I think a lot of the filmmakers who come, and the people who watch the movies, understand this is a special thing that’s happening here.”
For more information on the Athens International Film & Video Festival, and a schedule of films and events, visit www.athensfest.org
. Athens International Film & Video Festival director Ruth Bradley at the Athena theater.