Foreign flicks make for great fest… again

CHATHAM—The Sneak Preview (October 29) has sold out. The first-ever benefit party, with a high ticket price and a bevy of movie stars, has sold out too.

But the 17th annual FilmColumbia festival still offers some 49 films and at least two parties that have not sold out, events that beckon to the film buff and the mildly curious alike, from October 22 through October 30 in the Village of Chatham and in Hudson. Schedule and ticket information is at filmcolumbia.org.

Asked what most pleased him about this year’s festival, Peter Biskind, a founder of the festival and now its executive and co-artistic director, had a long list.

First, he was happy about the three extra films that were added at the last minute, all playing on Sunday, October 23 at the Crandell Theatre: “Aquarius,” a Brazilian film with Sonia Braga (1 p.m.); “Inferno,” a documentary about volcanoes directed by Werner Herzog (4 p.m.); and “Jackie,” with Natalie Portman playing Jacqueline Kennedy in the days right after her husband’s assassination (8 p.m.).

“I’m also pleased that we have the Salute to Cuban Cinema, which is long overdue,” said Mr. Biskind. Cuban films are screened at the Crandell Monday, October 24 beginning at noon and ending at 8 p.m. with a restored print of “Memories of Underdevelopment,” a 1973 film set in the Cuba of 1961, shortly after the Bay of Pigs invasion.

“The Companion,” a 2015 film that tells a story of gays and AIDS in Cuba in the 1980s, is screened a second time on Friday, October 28 at the Hudson Opera House (7 p.m.).

Mr. Biskind also noted the local connections with several of the films. Attending “Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan” will be Ms. Whelan, former principal dancer for the New York City Ballet, and Bob Eisenhardt, editor of the film. Both of them live locally. County resident Frank Serpico plans to attend “By Sidney Lumet,” a documentary on Lumet, who directed “Serpico.”

Tony Stone, a co-owner of Basilica Hudson, will attend the October 29 screening of his documentary “Peter and the Farm.” Courtney Hunt, who lives locally and was director of “Frozen River,” is back at the festival with her new film, “The Whole Truth.”

In fact, Mr. Biskind spoke enthusiastically about almost every film playing at the festival. “There’s also ‘Elle,’” he said thoughtfully, “the so-called rape comedy. We’ll see how that goes down.”

He is also proud of the greater number of international films at this year’s festival, “about real things that most people face that Americans don’t face. U.S. films are about coming of age, or relationships.”

Films like these—independent and international, hits from the New York, Cannes and Toronto festivals or not—resulted in more than 7,000 tickets sold last year.

Most of the films are screened in the Village of Chatham (population 1,770) in Morris Memorial and Tracy Memorial buildings, in addition to the Crandell and in Hudson—this year at the Hudson Opera House. The historic Crandell is by far the largest venue, with 534 seats in the restored single-screen theater.

Mr. Biskind stressed that the nine-day festival is a team effort. Co-artistic director is Laurence Kardish, senior curator emeritus for film and media at the Museum of Modern Art. Managing director is Calliope Nicholas. Mr. Biskind, an author, film historian, contributing editor at Vanity Fair and past executive editor of Premiere Magazine, and Mr. Kardish do most of the programming. Ms. Nicholas did programming for the Morris Memorial this year.

The festival is put on by the Chatham Film Club, and “without them and the Crandell, there would be no festival,” said Mr. Biskind.

The result is what Mr. Biskind called a “small, regional festival that is amazingly successful.” Viewers come mainly from the region: Columbia County, the Berkshires and the Capital District. But the venues are full—most evening movies sell out—and “restaurants are filled throughout the festival, and filmgoers shop in between films,” Ms. Nicholas said in an email. Many are attending the festival for the first time, she added, and are charmed by Chatham.

“When we first started, 17 years ago, the festival was a pain in the ass,” Mr. Biskind recalled. “It was only one weekend, and except for the James Schamus films, the line-up was pathetic.

“None of us were sure we should expand into the work week. We didn’t want to expand faster and wider than the community would support. We didn’t want to face empty theaters.

“But we built an audience that takes our word for it, that these are movies worth seeing. People come every year, and some of them watch 10 to 15 movies.

“People plan their vacations around the festival,” he said. “One woman moved to Arizona, but she’s coming back for the festival.

“Now the festival is a pain in the ass,” said Mr. Biskind, “because every year we have to make it as good, or better, than the previous year. But we can’t always punch it up. We’re at the mercy of what’s out there.”

Being “at the mercy of what’s out there” has led to less than 10% of this year’s films being directed by women, despite the controversy during last year’s Oscars, of a lack of diversity in film production.

“OK, there could be more,” said Mr. Biskind, “but we do tend to go with the best films we can find, and those that have been honored in other festivals before ours. What we get also depends on distributors, and timing” of a film’s release.

“That said, yes, there probably should be more women and African Americans among the directors,” he said.

Still, the festival gives the community an opportunity to see films they would not see at all, or not for a long time—on the big screen.

“Even with the larger TV screens, seeing a film in a theater, on a big screen, is much different,” said Mr. Biskind. “In Chatham, people stand outside afterward, under the marquee, and discuss the movie. It makes for community.”

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