Fatigue seems to be the primary reason Mira Niagolova decided to take a leave of absence as executive director of the Vermont International Film Festival, which unfolds each October in Burlington. "I just needed a break," explains the Essex resident, who had held the position since 2002. "I was exhausted because we got so many submissions, more than 250, that it became overwhelming. We were all drained."
Consequently, the 2007 cinematic event is itself scaling back. Traditionally, there's been a call-for-entries process in which judges choose most of the festival fare by looking at submitted work from filmmakers around the world. This time, it's invitation only. (The changes will not affect the Vermont Showcase or the student films.)
Moreover, instead of a few dozen motion pictures, the non-Vermont line-up will spotlight just eight or nine. The competition in three categories - justice and human rights, war and peace, and the environment - is kaput. For now.
"This is all temporary," assures Niagolova, who remains on the programming committee. "It's just for one year. We need to regroup and strategize."
The Waterfront Theatre and Merrill's Roxy Cinema will once again serve as festival venues, and there will be plenty of opportunities for chatting. "We wanted to leave more room for discussions between films," Niagolova acknowledges. "And people have requested more screening repeats, so there's a chance to see everything. We also intend to start later each day and finish earlier on Sunday."
VIFF is to planning to hire an administrative-minded coordinator rather than a replacement for Niagolova. Her job will stay vacant during this transition period, with certain duties taken over by board members. She has been attending other festivals around the globe - including those in Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague and the Czech Republic - to search for features and documentaries that fit the Vermont extravaganza's mission.
Launched in 1985, VIFF is considered the oldest human rights and environmental festival on the planet. In the Reagan era, the focus was primarily on U.S.-backed conflicts in Central America and the dangers of nuclear proliferation. Flash forward to George W. Bush in the White House, Iraq and, lately, an apparent rekindling of the Cold War.
With grim news from such places as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, justice has become more relevant than ever. And largely thanks to Al Gore, the Earth is an increasingly hot topic.
"We'll touch on the same range of issues," Niagolova vows. "I'll be looking for all the good films that would resonate with the Vermont audience."
VIFF board president Deb Ellis points out that the strong commitment to filmmakers will go on during the short-term partial hiatus. "We're feeling very positive and moving forward," she suggests.
Ellis' predecessor, Barry Snyder, continues to assist the festival in an advisory capacity. But his attention has been somewhat diverted by a new project: the attempt to resurrect a repertory-friendly film society in the Queen City. This endeavor will begin with a public exploratory session at 5:30 p.m. on June 13 at Burlington College, where he heads the cinema studies department.
"We've become so dominated by commercial movies, which are there to get the audience to buy popcorn. That keeps our knowledge shallow. We're exposed to only a small portion of the great film heritage," Snyder notes, adding that he'd like to establish a mechanism to enjoy the art form that encompasses dialogue.
"The idea is to promote film culture," he says. "I think there's a growing interest. People yearn for that collective big-screen experience desperately missing in the age of Netflix."