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No Politics Allowed at New England’s Largest Film Festival

No Politics Allowed at New England’s Largest Film Festival

Articles - Festival Beat

Julien Bessette and George Marshall

Julien Bessette (l) presents an
award to George Marshall for his work with the Franco community.

The desire to bring quality cinema to an appreciative
audience struck George Marshall at a young age. In 1978 he began
running films with friends at dinner parties, screening movies they
could not see elsewhere. In 1982 these informal gatherings eventually
turned into Flickers-The Newport Film Society, an organization which
grew to 375 members. By 1987, the organization moved into a production
phase, producing a weekly television series, Between Takes, that
was broadcast to 4.5 million households in the New England area.

In 1997, the Rhode Island International Film Festival
was born and quickly supported by local moviemakers, including the
festivals’ Honorary Chairman Bobby Farrelly (who world premiered There’s Something About Mary at the 1998 installment). Says
Marshall: “The rest, as they say, is history.” From August 7 – 12
of this year, RIIFF is back for its sixth installment, and the event
keeps getting better. Cited by critics as a “Best Kept Secret Festival,”
RIIFF’s Executive Director George Marshall spoke with MM about what makes his event different, the needless competition among
festivals and how a screening itself is its own reward.

Jennifer Wood (MM): MM has named Providence
one of the 10 best cities for a moviemaker to live for two years
in a row. Why do you think the city keeps landing on this list?

George Marshall (GM): Frankly, because the
film festival and the Convergence Arts Festival have created such
a welcoming environment for filmmakers to have their work premiered.
Last year alone RIIFF hosted 246 filmmakers who registered with
the festival. Credit also needs to go not to politicians who bask
in someone else’s work, but to the terrific schools like Rhode Island
College, Brown, RISD and URI, which have shaped the careers for
so many budding filmmakers. Film companies land these students as
interns and discover [a] level of commitment and dedication hard
to find elsewhere. Local heroes like the Farrelly brothers and industry
figures like Tom Ohanian (co-inventor of the Avid editing system)
have also caused the region to shine.

Providence has so many forward-thinking arts leaders
who have done all of the groundwork to put the city on the map.
Thanks to state, federal and corporate support (we would not exist,
for example, without the unbelievable support of Brooks Pharmacy
and its great CEO, Michel Coutu), Providence has become a cultural
oasis.

MM: You assert that, geographically, your
festival is in a unique position to further the artistic exchange
between American and Canadian moviemakers. How are you working to
facilitate this cooperation?

GM: We are actively working with the government
of Quebec, Telefilm Canada, Tourisme Quebec and the Festival of
New Cinema and New Media, Montreal. Thanks to RIIFF’s creation from
the Jubile Franco-Americain, we have access to many Canadian artists
and filmmakers. Now we have an outreach in all of the provinces,
not just one. We actively encourage Canadian participation, provide
a special sidebar and even have an award for their work. This year,
we will be hosting the 25th Anniversary of the Spira Films Collaborative
(from Quebec City) with a special retrospective and art gallery
presentation. Our opening party at the Rhode Island State House
will be dedicated in their honor.

We also hold to the belief that perhaps might seem
a bit like heresy, but we feel that filmmakers should collaborate
with artists worldwide. We encourage our filmmakers to work in Canada
and vice versa. Film should have no borders and no boundaries. It
is a universal language for communication and perhaps is the best
ambassador in today’s troubled world.

MM: You seem genuinely interested in promoting
film as an art for all ages. In addition to the KidsEye Film Festival,
you also offer a summer film camp for kids. Can you talk a bit about
your reason for doing this, how it works and what it accomplishes?

GM: If it isn’t obvious, it’s the teacher in
me (and with many of our board). I love sharing what I know and
what I love. The kids camp is now in year five and we have about
30 kids signed up for a fun week in mid-July. We teach everything
from make-up, costuming, scriptwriting, camera, editing and sound.
As a carrot for the future, the folks at the Feinstein IMAX in Providence
do a special screening and a tour of the equipment. I must confess
that I really envy these youngsters who take part in the camp. Most
already have camera experience and many are light years ahead of
where I was at their age. They have so many opportunities in front
of them. They are the future and I think it’s part of our mission
to lead them in a positive direction that encourages their creativity
and vision.

MM: Going one step beyond most festivals,
RIIFF presents a yearly workshop to run concurrently with the festival.
This year, the workshop, Take 1-2-3, will focus on all aspects of
moviemaking. Who should be interested in this? What topics will
be covered and who will be teaching them?

GM: This is the third year for Take 1-2-3.
This industry workshop is more about the stuff they don’t teach
you in film school. It’s very hands-on and it’s a great networking
opportunity. It works this way: the workshop will focus on the screenplay
that wins our screenplay contest. We invite the writer(s) to attend
and work with our visiting guest director. In the past we’ve had
Robert Downey, Sr. and Lloyd Kaufman. This year it’s Richard Schenkman
(who works a lot with Jon Cryer). Every element that would go into
realizing the creation of the screenplay into a finished film is
addressed-we even host a staged reading. Then, working with the
writer, the director will block out about five minutes of the work
to shoot.

Members of the class first are instructed in the techniques
of the shoot and then get to undertake it. This year, Sony has been
great in letting us work with their new HD camera. Rule Broadcasting
has also been a wonderful supporter. Finally, the finished work
will be posted at two houses: one will use an Avid editor, the other
Media 100 and Final Cut Pro. Academy Award winner Tom Ohanian is
our resident expert.

Given the time of the class and the low cost, we work
on digital format in order to achieve a product for presentation.
This class is extremely accessible for all who attend and provides
real hands-on experience. It has in the past created the perfect
bridge between film and video and fostered networking that, for
many graduates, continues today.

MM: What do you see as the key differences
in RIIFF as opposed to other festivals, both regionally and internationally?

GM: There are many excellent festivals in our
region. I personally know many of the directors whom I hold in the
highest respect. RIIFF serves in many ways as a complement to some
of the festivals and additionally reflects the 20-year experience
of the Flickers’ board (and me). We’re big on education, so we hold
classes. We’re big on spurring the work of young artists, too, so
we do scholarships. We love the visual media and have made it our
goal to present the work of international creative artists. We are
also lovers of old film buildings and have found a great cause with
the Columbus restoration.

Given the volume of films we screen, RIIFF is the
largest festival in New England (206 films screened at RIIFF 2001
in five days; about 175 will screen this year in the same time frame).
Our goal is not to be the best; it is simply to be the best that
we can be. I’m really not into competing with other festivals. Frankly,
I detest the competition. We are here for the filmmakers. Period.

I will not ax a film from consideration if it played
another festival or won an award from them. I don’t care if we have
an exclusive premiere. That is not what we are about. It never ceases
to amaze me that with over 1,200 film festivals worldwide, so few
of the festivals actually work with one another or collaborate.
I’ve always dreamed of a festival trade organization on the same
order of AIVF that would help encourage fledging fests and share
experiences. When we got into this gig, there was no manual on what
you should or should not do. I wish someone had been there to lend
some friendly advice.

MM: Which aspects make RIIFF a unique experience
for festivalgoers and moviemakers?

GM: RIIFF also now has a unique accolade in
New England: we are an official qualifier for the Academy of Motion
Pictures and Sciences in the Short Film category. Only 47 festivals
worldwide have this affiliation with the Academy. It means that
our best short film winner is, as they say, a contender.

As for the RIIFF experience, well, Providence is a
neat place and the people who work for the fest are very accessible
and friendly. Myself included. We all roll up our shirtsleeves and
are visible throughout the festival. I think last year was the first
year I actually got to change from shorts before the opening gala-my
staff made this happen since Julie Andrews was present. And since
she was a bit of a childhood idol, they made sure that I didn’t
embarrass myself.

As far as what makes our experience so much different
from others, it’s the sheer volume of work we present. There is
no way you can see everything. We simply offer a lot of choices.
Why? Frankly, we want to provide a platform for as many filmmakers
as possible. We want them to be able to say that they played a film
festival, even if ours may be the only one. Of course, from RIIFF
1998 when we received 207 films in competition to this year with
over 800 entries, we’ve come a long way. The odds are now greater
to get into our festival. However, our overall festival is made
up of about 90 percent of the films that are entered in competition.
We are not about screening something that will be in the multiplex
within a week. Let’s just say that we have an ethics issue with
taking hard-earned money for an entry fee then not screening the
work.

Someone recently met with me from a festival in Europe.
She told me that she had not heard of about 80 percent of our titles
that were screened in 2001. I’m sure the comment was meant to be
cutting; I took it as a compliment, however. I know what’s happened
to our films and the filmmakers after they played RIIFF-and actually
so does the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I’m very
proud of the films we’ve screened and feel privileged to have gotten
to know so many talented and exceptional filmmakers.

MM: What are some of the events/screenings
you’re most excited about this year?

GM: Yikes. Far too many. Our opening film, Blind Spot, with James Franco, is a personal favorite. There’s
also our Jewish Film sidebar, our gay and lesbian festival, our
Japanese anime workshop, our Lifetime Achievement Award, our IMAX
screening (that benefits the Patricia Neal Scholarship Fund) and
our closing Gala with Grease and our ’50s party. My favorite
parts of the festival are the morning coffee talks and filmmaker
mixers. I also love seeing the films that, up until the fest, I’ve
only seen on VHS screeners, being shown in their original format
on a big screen. It is a very satisfying experience. Actually, when
I see a filmmaker’s reaction and the smile they have from a successful
screening, I know it’s all been worthwhile.

MM: What are the three things you’d like
to tell all guests who are visiting Providence for the first time?

GM: Relax. A film festival is a unique experience.
It is not something that happens every day in a multiplex. For filmgoers,
talk with the filmmakers. Meet. Greet. Reach out. For filmmakers:
have fun. Meet the audience. Meet fellow filmmakers. The point about
being at the festival is to have your work shown to new audiences.
It is not about winning an award. Having your work showcased is
the reward. Actually, having your dreams realized and creating your
vision is the award. 

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