The 2013 Toronto International Film Festival screened nearly 300 feature films, but you'd expect a number like that in a city of almost three million. By contrast, 64 features are playing at the 10-day Green Mountain Film Festival, which begins this Friday. Thinking per capita, that means one film for every 123 residents of Montpelier — not even counting short films or special events. None of the big festivals can boast such a ratio.
It may not be gigantic, but the GMFF can boast a wide-ranging program of films from all over the world. The festival screens digitally at just a handful of venues, but its offerings will likely satisfy even the most demanding of Vermont cinephiles.
Now in its 17th year, the GMFF is unlike other local film festivals in eschewing any particular theme or purpose. Terry Youk is the president and acting director of the festival, as well as the owner of Montpelier's Savoy Theater, site of two of the festival's three main screening rooms. As he puts it, "We don't have a social agenda or an environmentalist agenda. We're steeped in the art-house culture of film. If we toe any line ... it's to represent as many great films as we can from every genre."
Besides its many new films, this year's fest offers screenings of recently restored or forgotten classics, showcases of local filmmaking talent and a number of special programs. Among the events in the last category is a retrospective of the films of Sutton resident and acclaimed actor Luis Guzmán, who will be in attendance. Other special programs include a panel discussion called "Creativity in the Digital Age," with speakers such as Vermont Public Television's Hilary Hess and recently anointed Cartoonist Laureate of Vermont Ed Koren; and a one-of-a-kind multimedia event with banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck.
Youk is particularly excited about the last event, which will include a screening of the documentary Béla Fleck: How to Write a Banjo Concerto, a live performance and a discussion with Fleck. The unusual way in which the event came together epitomizes the festival's friendly vibe.
Youk saw Fleck perform in 2011 at Burlington's Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, where the banjoist played part of a concerto (Youk calls it "jaw-dropping") that he was then composing for the Nashville Symphony. Upon learning that the concerto was the subject of a new documentary, Youk thought the film was a natural for the GMFF. As it happens, Paul Boffa, the festival's director of special events, is a close friend of Fleck's stage manager. After a simple request from Boffa, the musician to agree to accompany the film to Montpelier.
Events featuring celebrities such as Fleck and Guzmán may attract the most attention, but the GMFF's main strength lies in the diversity of its film programming. Films of note include Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, a new documentary about the brassy Broadway legend; Faust, the most recent feature from Russian master director Aleksandr Sokurov; and Peter Bogdanovich's first feature, the semi-obscure 1968 film Targets, which will screen in a restored version.
Several of the new films in the festival, including the Stritch doc and Don McKellar's The Grand Seduction, are one-time-only events known as "sneaks." These screenings are win-win-wins: Audiences get a chance to see films not yet in wide distribution, the films' distributors get a chance to spark word of mouth and the festival pays little or no money to show significant works of current cinema.
If the GMFF appears robust now, two years ago it nearly dissolved when its board of directors resigned en masse. Though Youk won't point to any single issue, he notes that when he stepped in as president, he decided to make a number of structural changes to the organization. "Truthfully," he says, "the way that the festival had been run previous to last year was pretty archaic ... It was incredibly complicated, inefficient and expensive."
Since that 2012 shake-up, the GMFF has adopted a somewhat unusual film-selection process. Youk is careful with his words when discussing this subject, but implies that an insufficient number of people made programming decisions in the past. Now, the festival has a "working group" with a membership hovering around 25 people, any of whom can suggest films. The use of a simple one-to-five-star rating scale imparts a bit of mathematical rigor to the discussions. A six-person steering committee reviews the judgments of the working group and makes the final programming decisions.
Eric Reynolds, the festival's (and the Savoy's) programming coordinator, is an avid cinephile. He concurs with Youk's assertion that the festival's mission is simply to program the best possible films. In a phone conversation, Reynolds enthuses about such films as A Field in England by Ben Wheatley (whose Sightseers played at the 2013 GMFF); the double screening of George A. Romero's horror classic Night of the Living Dead and the documentary about that film, Birth of the Living Dead; and the recent period comedy Computer Chess.
Wait, though — isn't that the same Computer Chess that's currently sitting in many a Netflix queue? It is, and Reynolds acknowledges that such competition does sometimes make things tricky for smaller film festivals. Still, he says, "Our audiences are interested in films that aren't the blockbuster of the week. They're interested in thoughtful and insightful films that deal with important subjects. It's a discerning crowd."
The festival is ambitious not just in its programming but in the scope of its exhibition. Less than a week after the GMFF wraps in Montpelier, Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury will host several "sidebar screenings." Some of the films playing there will also have screened in Montpelier. But many events are unique to the Northeast Kingdom location, including the fifth annual High School Filmmakers Showcase and several programs of 2013 Oscar-nominated short films.
Youk is cautiously optimistic about the festival's finishing in the black, especially since it's operating on an approximately $30,000 shortfall from last year, due in part to several donors withdrawing their contributions. He's been streamlining festival operations and "trying to do as much in-house as we can," he says.
But attendance may depend on factors beyond the control of even the most prepared festival director: More people buy tickets when the skies are gray. "We're really hoping for lousy weather," Youk says. He's joking, but only partly. The Green Mountain Film Festival is both large and small enough to be sensitive to forces of all kinds.