By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Every year, thousands of film lovers flock to Venice, Manhattan and Park City to catch a glimpse of the latest crop of films from legendary and unknown directors alike.
Buoyed by delirious hype, the festival environment breeds a communal spirit, one that Patti North and Margaret Wohler, two of the founders of the Alexandria Film Festival, aim to create this year with the 13th annual Alexandria Film Festival.
From Friday to Sunday, cinephiles will be able to see 53 films ranging from short and feature-length films to documentaries from local, national and international filmmakers. Audiences will also be able to take part in question and answer sessions with directors, producers and cast members after each screening.
In the age of streaming services, film festivals might seem antiquated. But, North argued, festivals offer audiences the opportunity to connect with films and filmmakers in a more intimate way.
“Sometimes people will say to me, ‘Well, I can get almost anything I want on Netflix at home. Why should I get out of the house for a film festival?’” North said. “And I say, ‘This is an experience you are not ever going to get on Netflix.’ We’ve had filmmakers that have gone on to win Oscars, and to see them and talk to them about their passion in a firsthand situation is pretty special.”
An all-volunteer endeavor, the AFF has been a passion project for North and Wohler, two former members of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts. The festival began as an attempt to expand Alexandria’s arts presence beyond tradition.
“I used to say to [the commission] all the time that we’re promoting the same art that would have existed in the Renaissance,” North said. “… There’s this digital thing going on that’s going to be increasingly huge. I guess I made myself a bit of a squeaky wheel because eventually they said, ‘OK. Do it.’”
Storytelling has always captivated North, she said. Growing up in Vermont, she was a voracious reader with a hunger to see the world outside her town. North said going to Saturday matinee screenings at the local movie theater was one way she connected with people and worlds outside her frame of understanding. Films helped her build empathy for those on the screen and behind the lens, North said.
“The movie camera has sometimes been called an empathy machine. I think there’s a lot to that,” North said. “People will see a film about something they had not been familiar with before, and it literally does change how they view the world.”
In 2006, then-chair of the Commission Pat Miller supported North’s vision for a local film festival and secured funding from the city. Wohler, who now serves as chair of the festival while North serves as executive director, got involved in 2007. Together, the team worked to get the festival off the ground.
The communal aspect of a film festival – the way it can transform a two-hour long digital product into a meaningful conversation between complete strangers – was the spark of inspiration for those involved.
“The audience really becomes part of the show,” Wohler said. “I feel like that’s what makes film festivals so different than just sitting in the multiplex and then driving in the car on the way home without any sort of unpacking of the feelings you have about it.”
After a city staff member who was connected to the project relocated in 2012, the city and commission pulled funding from the festival. But that didn’t stop North and her team. They applied for status as an all-volunteer 501(c)(3) nonprofit and pushed forward on their own.
Between selecting the lineup each summer, negotiating contracts with filmmakers, spreading word to the community and scheduling screenings and various other events like filmmaker dinners, organizing the AFF is a full-time job, Wohler said.
Over the past 13 years, that hard work has resulted in a festival that brings roughly 1,000 film enthusiasts and dozens of award-winning local and international filmmakers together in one place.
Unlike some film festivals, the AFF doesn’t have a theme. It’s an opportunity to celebrate the best of the best in filmmaking, regardless of genre, North said.
“We really have every genre that you can imagine. It’s always very eclectic,” North said. “A lot of film festivals have a theme, and we don’t do that because we want to be able to show the best of everything that we can acquire.”
The board ends up dividing the films into themed showcases. This year, audiences will be able to watch a women in film showcase featuring “Daddio,” a short film from Saturday Night Live and T.C. Williams High School alumna Casey Wilson, and “This Changes Everything,” Tom Donahue’s documentary chronicling the history of sexism in the entertainment industry.
There’s also a family showcase that features films by student filmmakers and family-friendly films, a late-night showcase that features darker, more mature films and the annual veterans’ showcase on Saturday, which admits veterans and their guests without charge.
Every year, the festival has grown, as more filmmakers have become aware of the opportunity and the AFF has forged community partnerships. After 13 years of hard work, it’s been rewarding to watch the festival grow from less than a dozen filmmakers to a lineup worthy of the festival label, Wohler said.
“It’s really meaningful because for years Patti and I were just thrashing ourselves to just get a film festival out there. Just 10 films and two or three filmmakers, just anything,” Wohler said. “And now we feel like we got it. We know how to run this rodeo and now we’re looking at larger, bigger ideas, not just throwing a festival out there.”
This year marks the start of an official partnership between the AFF and Northern Virginia Community College’s film program. Starting at 2 p.m. on Friday, the first official day of the festival, audiences will be able to see six films from NOVA students at the Charles E. Beatley Jr. Central Library for free.
“People often say to me, ‘Oh, is Steven Spielberg going to come?’ and I say, ‘Wouldn’t you like to have met Steven Spielberg before he was Steven Spielberg?’ Here’s really your chance to do that,” North said.
Moving forward, Wohler said the team hopes to encourage other local arts organizations to get involved. The AFF has already reached out to the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra for a potential project for AFF 2020.
The AFF team has its eyes set on big things, but the focus remains on the screen and the theater-going experience. Streaming has changed the way people consume media, but there’s still value in laughing, crying and screaming in a dark room alongside total strangers, North said.
“Film is something that is meant to be consumed on a screen that is bigger than the one you have in your living room, no matter how big it is,” North said. “And that can obviously be a very solitary experience, but it need not be. We should be seeking out opportunities that actually involve engagement with other human beings.”
Screenings take place Friday through Sunday at Beatley Library and AMC Hoffman Center 22. For more information, visit www.alexfilmfest.com.
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