FilmColumbia no longer pix hick’s flix

CHATHAM—The 16th FilmColumbia festival opens Monday, October 19, with a 15-minute short—“Damnation: The Flashback,” starring Melissa Leo, and a feature film, “Mia Madre,” which stars John Turturro and has played the Cannes Film Festival.

Caught a week before the festival began, Peter Biskind, the festival’s executive director and co-programmer, reviewed what the festival organizers have learned over a decade and a half.

“We started the festival by screening regional films,” Biskind recalled, “but there weren’t enough of them, so we expanded our catchment area to the Hudson Valley—from Montreal to New York City.

“But then we didn’t want to turn down great foreign films just because of their location,” he said, “so we decided to show the best films we could get. That was one major lesson.”

They also learned that they were screening films to a “fairly sophisticated audience.” Gradually they expanded the festival from one weekend to seven days. “We were concerned about weekday afternoon screenings, and at first were lucky to get 30 in the audience. Now we get 100 to 200. People know the films are worth seeing.

“One issue is how big can you go,” said Biskind. “You don’t want to expand beyond the size of your audience, but as the festival expanded, the audience grew.”

They count on audiences turning out for films with recognized actors, so those are scheduled in the 534-seat Crandell Theatre, Columbia County’s largest and oldest movie theater, complete with a balcony. And usually, audiences do line up for those films, which this year include “Truth,” in which Robert Redford plays Dan Rather, and “The Lady in the Van,” starring Maggie Smith.

The fact that such films will soon open widely doesn’t stop film buffs who want to see new films as soon as possible. All-film passes ($250), which allow entry into more than 40 films, are limited in number and were sold out by October 9. “We have about 10 films from the New York Film Festival,” said Biskind. “An all-film pass to the New York Film Festival is $20,000.”

The festival did have at least one low point, in 2007 when “Kite Runner” didn’t arrive for its screening. “We had a huge line outside the theater, and I had to go up and down it to say that the film hadn’t shown up and people could get their money back,” said Biskind.

“Here Come the Videofreex,” a documentary about the Videofreex, a group that included Chatham residents Parry Teasdale, editor of The Columbia Paper, and Carol Vontobel, a social worker who is married to Teasdale. Both will be at the two screenings of the film, one in Hudson and the other at the Crandell in Chatham.

“I loved it,” said Biskind. “I’m of that generation, and I was making documentaries too, in 16mm. The film catches the world of filmmaking at that time [1960s and ’70s]. It made me extremely nostalgic—watching them go to CBS and steal back their footage. You can’t do that now.”

Another film this year with a local connection is “Very Semi-Serious: A Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists.” One of the artists featured in the film is part-time Hillsdale resident Mort Gerberg, the cartoonist whose work appears weekly in The Columbia Paper.

Gerberg drew his first cartoon for The New Yorker 50 years ago. He’s also a prolific author and editor and illustrator. In comments emailed to The Columbia Paper this week he said of the film that it offers “naked glimpses of the persons behind the pens….that provide an overall sense of what kind of people/personalities become cartoonists, a profession in which at least 90% of what they do gets rejected.” For those who miss it in Chatham, the film will air on HBO December 7. See http://mortgerberg.com/.

Biskind stressed that a team puts together FilmColumbia every year. Calliope Nicholas is director of the festival and Laurence Kardish is co-programmer. Kardish, former head film curator at the Museum of Modern Art, attends festivals all year, looking for the right films. “The fact that the festival is so good owes a lot to Larry,” said Biskind. “It makes all the difference to see the films.”

For tickets and a complete lineup of festival films, panels and events, go to filmcolumbia.org.

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