From 10 films in 2 days to 70 films in 10
CHATHAM—FilmColumbia begins its 20th anniversary season Friday, October 18, and on tap among some 70 films from 15 nations are two that kicked off the first festival, 20 years ago.
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (October 19) is part of a salute to James Schamus, who wrote and produced the film and made it part of the fledgling festival. “Dinner Rush” (October 24) is now digitally restored.
“I’m delighted to bring them back—on the big screen,” said Larry Kardish, who, with Peter Biskind, programs FilmColumbia. Kardish is senior curator emeritus for film and media at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Biskind is an author and film historian.
A film festival that has lasted 20 years generates stories. Calliope Nicholas has been managing director of FilmColumbia for all of that time. She was 43 when the festival opened, with two preschool children. Both children grew up with the festival, volunteering for it, and going through the high school film project that Nicholas founded in 2000.
What stands out to Nicholas is the Saturday night Sneak Peek, a film that is not revealed until the lights go down in the Crandell Theatre and the curtain is pulled back.
The Sneak Peek began as a necessity, according to a press release from the festival. In 2002 “The Pianist” was scheduled for a Saturday night screening. Focus Features, which was run by Schamus at the time, agreed to lend the film, with the condition there be no public pre-screening mention of its title. The request was met and ever since then the Sneak Peek has become a FilmColumbia tradition that typically sells out well before Saturday.
“I remember years ago we were going to screen ‘Brokeback Mountain’  as the Sneak Peek,” said Nicholas. “Right before the screening, a crew member came to me and said that I had to announce the film and say what it was, before the screening.
“I said I couldn’t do that.
“The crew member said I must, because her priest had just walked into the theater.
“I didn’t make an announcement—we don’t do that—and the priest stayed for the whole film.”
Twenty years ago, did they expect the festival to last 20 years? “No,” said Nicholas, “we’re all kind of blown away by it. We’ve been figuring this out since Day One. Yes, we’re proud of it, but we laugh in some ways that we pulled this off.”
“I never thought about it,” said Kardish. FilmColumbia, he said, grew out of a Columbia County Council on the Arts annual festival that celebrated filmmakers in the region. “When that stopped,” he said, “Carole Roseman had founded the Chatham Film Club, and with Carole, we used that membership list as a base to start FilmColumbia. Now we’re a major minor festival.”
And over the years, said Nicholas, they have strived to make the festival open to the community as well as to visitors. She noted the after school program, the children’s international shorts that are screened annually and the 100 community volunteers that keep the festival going each year.
“I also love that Chatham is one block long,” said Nicholas, “and the venues are within walking distance of each other.” In those blocks, “filmmakers and audience members run into each other,” she said. “They create a dynamic that we all find exciting.”
There have been glitches, of course, in 20 years. In 2007, just hours before a Friday night screening, as long lines of patrons gathered outside the Crandell, the print of the film hadn’t arrived.
Realizing that something needed to be done, Biskind and Nicholas made the announcement while the FilmColumbia crew handed out cash refunds. “The error wasn’t on our end,” Nicholas said in a press release, “but it didn’t matter to the crowd. We just handled it with as much grace and humor as possible.”
Asked for trends in filmmaking, Kardish noted the plethora of comic book movies in the last 15 to 20 years. “But foreign language cinema is all over the place in themes and styles,” he said. “You can see it this year in FilmColumbia.
“From France we have ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire,’ a middle-class domestic drama brilliantly shot, and ‘Les Miserables,’ a film about life in a French suburb with a Muslim population and a police force not sympathetic to the people they police,” he said. “Both are interesting and successful in their own ways.”
“Production values are so high,” said Nicholas, “along with CGI [computer-generated imagery]. And the risks that some younger filmmakers and international filmmakers are taking, their bravery and the subjects they hit on are really exciting.”
FilmColumbia has taken risks too. “I recommended ‘Head-On’ , then worried it might be too hard for our audience,” said Kardish. “It’s an emotionally violent film by Fatih Akim, about a passionate romance between two people who are not keen on life. But the audience loved the film. They shared the enthusiasm of the Berlin Film Festival, which gave the film its Golden Bear award.”
“People come to the theater with their cushions,” said Nicholas. “They love the choices we made. They sit in a section they like and see people nearby that they saw last year. They talk between screenings. They love film, and the celebratory aspect of what we’ve got going on.”
Tickets to FilmColumbia 2019 go on sale to the public Saturday, October 12. For tickets and a complete schedule, go to filmcolumbia.org.