My MDFF Viewing Wishlist

Australia is amazing, and here is another reason for documentary fans to go: The Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, which runs July 6-14, 2018. In its third year, the festival program deftly balances the global and local, the political and popular, and the serious and fun.

I played virtual festival-goer for this one, perusing the program and developing my own viewing “wishlist” if I could attend in person.

MDFF programming addresses international issues while highlighting national and local ones. Environmental concerns in the Amazon are addressed in Peiman Zekavat’s Timbo and Ada Bodjolle’s Amazonia Damned, as dam projects threaten the rainforest and indigenous peoples’ ways of life. Australian national concerns arise in Jane Hammond’s A Crude Injustice, which examines how an offshore oil spill devastates seaweed and fishing industries in West Timor while those responsible deny the spill’s impacts. One film that particularly caught my attention was Not Just Another Mountain, directed by Chris Davis, about a felled deeply symbolic tree and the various groups’ values surrounding it.

The festival also honors its city with stories specifically about Melbourne with two “Melbourne Stories” events. The first occurs July 7, 2018, with Big in Japan and the second occurs July 8, 2018, with a series of shorts. Rachel Morssink and Ian Tran’s short Olympic Nick poses the most thought-provoking question: “What happens when a $3.7 billion dollar regional rail project gets derailed by a 76-year-old Melbourne man and his humble doughnut van?” Those must be some awesome doughtnuts.

Political titles mingle with popular culture titles with a particular focus on unique stories. One title that busts boundaries is Jemma van Loenen’s Bam Bam, about a Lebanese Muslim girl hailing from Australia who seeks victory at world amateur boxing. Out of My Head, directed by Jackie Ochs and Susanna Styron, looks at migraines as more than “just headaches,” raising questions about their places as a neurological disease. Two films tell stories about taxi drivers in Ireland. Siri Nerbø’s Men in the Mirror follows four Nigerian taxi drivers working in Galway, while Mia Mullarkey’s Throwline follows activist taxi drivers in Kilkenny who work together to prevent suicides.

Popular culture is also well represented in the program. While we probably know the fate of the Marty McFly actor from Back to the Future, how many of you are asking, “But what about Biff?” Ismael Lotz’s I Am Famous visits actor Tom Wilson and the role’s impact on him and his career. Tony Zierra’s Filmworker casts a lens on Stanley Kubrick’s life through his assistant Leon Vitali, who worked with the auteur for more than 20 years.

Music by far is one of the most popular subjects for documentary, and MDFF pays homage to that genre with features about EDM and rock, not to mention other music bios and music-related topics. Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami captures the artist’s expansive and expressive life. Nicholas Dobkin’s Touching Sound The Technika combines music, video games, and their players to show their evolution into a community.

Overall, the program of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival offers a great variety of documentary titles — shorts and features, animated / experimental and more traditional, serious and fun — sure to appeal to the most discerning documentary festival-goer. Tickets are available via moshtix, Film Freeway, and eventfinda.

Observations from a Film Festival Judge

In January 2018, I had the privilege of serving as a festival judge. Out respect for the process, I will not mention the festival or the individual films in this post. Instead, I wish to share some observations on the overall procedures.

My primary responsibility was the shorts category, which meant viewing 38 films ranging from 8 minutes to 28 minutes. Shorts is a broad category that can include all genres — fiction, documentary, animation, experimental. A short also is incredibly challenging to do well, as managing timing is key for grabbing attention and keeping it. Many can tell a good story. With festival submissions, you hope that everything tells a good story, but few tell amazing stories — the ones that grab you and make you forget you’re watching a film for the next few minutes. Some shorts feel incredibly long despite their running times.

What I really appreciated was the breadth of international submissions to this festival. So many languages and stories, including some that connect with contemporary global news headlines and some that perhaps should be global news headlines. For comparison, at least with documentaries, Sundance received 1,635 sumbissions in the feature documentary category — 740 domestic and 895 international. Of those, the festival accepted 47 films, with 37 domestic and 10 international.

Serving as a judge makes you a member of three audiences: the festival, the potential viewers, and yourself. Every festival has a mission, and that mission guides everything from promotion to programming. In a couple cases, I wondered if people read the festival’s mission before submitting their film.

The potential viewers also sat in the back of my head as I watched. (I wish I could draw that image.) People attending festivals generally seek something different from television, movie theaters, and streaming options. But how different is too different? How different is just different enough?

And then there’s me. I have judged student festivals and organizational competitions before, but never something on this scale. I have a healthy sense of what I think works in a documentary and in fiction films, but I’m not like mainstream critics who have a well-worded and strong slant to their views. (They’re critics — that’s their jobs.) With how I approach this kind of viewing, I try to understand each film on its own terms, waiting to see what and how it wants to show me. Sometimes I agree with those terms, and sometimes I don’t.

Technology has changed festival judging. In my previous experiences, one instance involved a stack of DVDs and another involved a long afternoon in a screening room with other judges. While home viewing has its advantages, I actually enjoyed the group screening because I heard the other judges’ opinions in real time alongside my own.

Today’s streaming services make this kind of activitiy much more convenient but also much more insular. This festival used two submission services: FilmFreeway and Withoutabox. Of the two, I liked FilmFreeway better — nicer interface, more structure for comments and ratings, and clearer navigation overall. Withoutabox felt more clunky to me, more difficult to inuit my way around. Withoutabox did offer the chance to upload descriptions and connect to IMDb pages (Amazon owns both sites so those connections make sense). To their credit, both sites allowed direct upload of the film files.

The application that offered the most trouble? Vimeo. Many filmmakers submitted their films using that site, and I understand why — convenience in sharing, monitoring who is viewing, and conserving bandwidith perhaps. But some filmmakers changed their passwords or added expirations to their passwords so I couldn’t see their films. Vimeo also had a lot of trouble streaming through the embed into the fest submission sites. I had to set the resolution to the lowest possible just to get a stream that didn’t judder or choke. One five-minute title paused 25 times — on an unshared ethernet connected to a fast box. Every time I reset to the lowest resolution Vimeo prompted me to use the automatic option. Nope.

While international selections understand that closed captions are necessary due to language comprehension issues, I do wish more domestic filmmakers would add titles to their own films. Though I do understand why some filmmakers refuse them due to aesthetics and cost issues, I see neither as valid excuses for excluding captions. Captions help with for more than just aiding those with hearing impairments. They do take time to complete, but they include more people in viewing your film. Costs vary, but Movie Captioner starts at $130 for a single license. Plenty of paid services also are available.

My previous experiences with festivals included volunteering at the information desk and serving as an audience jury member. Serving as a festival judge offered another layer of insights, ranging from artistic to technical, into the process.

Speechless Film Festival Offers Marathon Viewing with 52 Films in 24 hours

Serving as an audience jury member for a film festival makes for quite a different experience from playing octopus at the information booth. I watched 52 films in less than 24 hours during the Speechless Film Festival in Mankato, Minnesota, in mid-March.

A banner with a quote from Alfred Hitchcock
A banner at the Speechless Film Festival reads, “We should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.” The quote is from Alfred Hitchcock.
Celebrating its fifth year, the Speechless Film Festival focuses on the art of visual storytelling to connect cultures and transcend genres. A banner quoting Alfred Hitchcock conveys this philosophy: “We should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.” Many programmed films relied primarily on the visual to convey their messages with little to no spoken words.

The festival maintains strong educational connections with the local liberal arts college, Bethany Lutheran College. Professors from there, Minnesota State University – Mankato, and South Central College served as organizers and judges. Regional arts and media organizations also were represented among the judges and organizers.

The audience jury was a new feature that the festival organizers wanted to try this year. The idea seems a strategic way to gain more participation from the greater community. I was happy to volunteer and help decide the audience award winners.

Though the program included four feature-length films, short films running between one and 20 minutes dominated the schedule. Films came from countries all around the world: Azerbaijan, Brazil, Canada, France, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Switzerland. A couple documentaries snuck in there, but almost all films were fictional narrative.

The programmers grouped films thematically into 17 categories. Some themes followed generic lines such as experimental, animation, and fantasy, while other themes consisted of a key idea such as “journey” or “short and sweet.”

My badge and audience jury button from the Speechless Film Festival.
My badge and audience jury button from the Speechless Film Festival.
Serving as an audience jury member required that I attend eight sessions. I chose fantasy, animation, experimental, journey, Minnesota loud, Minnesota quiet, animation (family), and art. My favorites were both animation sessions and the journey one.

Animation, both adult and kids, featured strong storytelling, sometimes stronger than some of the live-action pieces. Some narratives, such as Alto El Juego (Walter Tournier) and Hope (Michael Scherrer), offered both harrowing views and, well, hope even within a short runtimes. Some stories appeared simple, such as meeting a girl in Lion Dance (Tim Pattinson and Zheng Kang) or chasing a seashell and the ocean in Au revoir Balthazar (Rafael Sommerhalder).

In the journey category, RM10 (Emir Ezwan) stood out for its focus on a piece of currency’s trip throughout an evening. The currency travels from vendors to sex workers to children to indebted parents to loan collectors to wealthy debt holders, coming full circle in a surprising way at the end.

The festival recognized films with Minnesota connections in the program book, the awards, and the thematic groupings. The program book labeled regional and local films with an “M” within a blue circle to mark “Made in Minnesota.” This category carried two awards of “Best of Show” and “Honorable Mention.”

According to the program, the “Minnesota Loud” category featured “extreme situations, strong aesthetics, or boisterous characters.” The group I watched this category with enjoyed The Car Pool, a short film by Mike Sorenson. Four people car pool to their jobs at a bank, with the usual annoyances of personality quirks, inane chatter, and indecisive coffee ordering. One twist lies in their jobs at the bank: To rob it. The other twist lies in who survives to take the carpool home.

I also appreciated Bobby’s Run Off, directed by John J. Kaiser. Its central plot involves an abused wife accidentally murdering her husband, though the premise suggests that the husband has disappeared. The film handles this delicate subject in an even way, avoiding the salacious spectacle that sometimes results in representing these stories.

The “Minnesota Quiet” category gathered more “contemplative and highly personal stories.” In their collective subtleness, most of these films failed to stand out for me. I suspect their grouping had something to do with that. Directed by Joe Kessler, Half Smile perhaps stood out the most. Forced to clean out a storage unit, a man confronts his past and his losses.

Interestingly enough, none of these films featured strong Minnesota geographical connections within the films themselves, such as particular cities or regions, or strong Minnesota-based plots or people. The connections to the state occurred with the filmmakers and their production locations instead.

In all, the Speechless Film Festival was quite a different experience from the Frozen River Film Festival, and not just in my minor roles in them. The overall festival was much smaller, confined to one venue, and in general its audience skewed younger. Frozen River involved greater swaths of the community than Speechless did. While Frozen River featured multiple titles about Minnesota, Speechless featured films made in –but not necessarily about — Minnesota. Still, though, serving as an audience jury member for Speechless made for an overall cool experience.

Frozen River Film Festival Maintains Strong Commitment to Regional Identity and Documentary

Picture of a volunteer pass from the Frozen River Film Festival
A volunteer badge from the Frozen River Film Festival in Winona, Minnesota.
My first time volunteering for a film festival introduced me to rural festival culture and helped me perfect my octopus impersonation.

In February 2017, I volunteered for the information desk at the Frozen River Film Festival in Winona, Minnesota. Winona nestles among the bluffs along the Mississippi River. Sugar Loaf, a unique bluff on the National Register of Historic Places, contributes to a mountain town feeling. This rural community of about 27,000 hosts multiple other festivals throughout the year, including the Great River Shakespeare Festival and the Minnesota Beethoven Festival.

Celebrating its 12th year, FRFF programs only documentaries in order to bring global issues to local audiences. The Hunting Ground, Do Not Resist, Life, Animated, and In the Game topped this year’s feature-length documentary offerings. The programmers balance these international documentaries with strong commitments to supporting regional identity and community.

The program cover for the Frozen River Film Festival in Winona, Minnesota
The program cover for the Frozen River Film Festival in Winona, Minnesota
FRFF involves multiple venues throughout the city, including Winona State University, the historical society, the public library, and local businesses. I staffed an information table located in the university’s science building, which also housed two theaters, an open performance space, and food vendors.

That location — not to mention the festival itself — proved a hub of activity. Saturday featured a volunteer fair for area organizations and programs, and local musicians performed both days. Volunteers I sat with named all of the familiar faces they knew from attending the other area festivals.

FRFF recognized both state and local identities with its programming. Five documentaries appeared in the “Minnesota Made” category. For examples, The Seventh Fire examines gang cultures on a Minnesota reservation, while Iraqi Voices breaks down stereotypes through stories of Iraqi people living in the Twin Cities.

Local identities also received attention. One special session included works about two prominent historical figures. Directed by Mary Farrell, The John Latsch Documentary explored the life of this Winona businessman and philanthropist who donated sizable tracts of land for preservation and parks, including one that now bears his name.

The other work-in-progress screening in that session honored Minnesota politician and poet Gene McCarthy. Along with clips, the session included a question-and-answer session with director Bill Kersey, Kelle Green, and Mary Beth Yarrow.

A picture of Sugar Loaf Bluff with a frozen lake in the foreground. An ice fisherman walks to his shelter in the foreground.
A view of Sugar Loaf Bluff in Winona, Minnesota. Despite 50-degree temps, people still fished on the frozen lake as others in shorts jogged around it.
The line for that event started to form about two hours before the doors even opened. Many people brought individual tickets just for that event. The room reached capacity quickly, and ushers turned many people away. Individual ticket-holders turned away received refunds, fortunately.

Working the information booth provides much opportunity to observe happenings such as these. It also involves a lot of pointing as part of answering questions about where to find venues, food, bathrooms, audience voting, and festival personnel. All that pointing in all of those directions makes you feel like an octopus after a while. In all, it was a great experience.

And despite the 50-degree weather that weekend, people still fished on the frozen lake while others jogged around it in shorts. Aside from FRFF, I don’t think you can get much more Minnesota than that.