When one thinks of towns in the United States known for their international flair and diversity, Syracuse, New York is probably not high up on the list. But when it comes to film festivals at least, it should really be one of the first noted. In fact, it’s for this attribute exactly that the Syracuse International Film Festival (known as SYRFILMFEST by those close to it) made MovieMaker‘s 2009 list of “Fests Worth the Entry Fee.”

Before the start of the fest, running from April 24 to May 3, operations manager Dan Campis took some time to answer MM‘s questions about the six-year-old event.

Mallory Potosky (MM): The Syracuse International Film Festival is associated with Syracuse University, making it one of only a few well-known, successful festivals associated with an educational facility. What do you believe makes the festival stand out among its peers that also have relationships with schools—and even those without schools attached?

Dan Campis (DC): SYRFILMFEST is a festival for artists, by artists. Our unique relationship with SU presents us with an incredible array of skillful and creative people who donate their time and energy and enable the festival to continue to bring the best in independent and international cinema to Syracuse, New York. Syracuse University has been fortunate to have educated a number of individuals who have become significant forces in all parts of the film world; people such as Jim Morris (Pixar) and animator Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach). 

In addition, the focus of SYRFILMFEST’s entries are the international films and the filmmakers educated at Syracuse University who are now influential in their home countries, such as Sang-In Lee of Korea. Our festival encourages and supports the screening of international works (more than 80 percent of our festival is composed of new, independent international film) and offers opportunities for people living in central New York to meet the artists from other cultures. The festival also creates opportunities for international film programs to become educational opportunities for qualified Syracuse University students. Our focus on international film and establishing working relationships with international film programs has made us unique.

MM: There is no major international airport in Syracuse and it’s not a city that people would typically look to if they’re thinking of a melting pot of cultures in the United States. So why do you think it suits an international film festival?

DC: Syracuse does have a long history of welcoming people from many cultures—Ireland, Germany, Italy, Southeast Asia, Africa—and this is still the case. In addition, for a small city, Syracuse has a vibrant cultural scene: Syracuse Stage was known for Arthur Storch, our opera company is a highly respected regional opera company, our symphony was once led by Christopher Keene… Syracuse residents support the arts. And, of course, we have a film history, from the silent film studio days in Ithaca (35 miles from Syracuse) to the invention of capturing sound on film by Ted Case of Auburn (30 minutes from Syracuse).

In addition, with Syracuse University and Le Moyne College located here, thinking internationally is an important component of the educational curriculum and campus life, and this infuses the thinking of the community as well.

MM: What would you say is the fest’s signature component?

DC: The number and quality of international films screened and the number of international filmmakers who attend—we have a United Nations of film! More than 90 percent of the films screened at our festival have the artists behind them here in Syracuse, giving our audience an incredibly unique perspective into the works showcased.

MM: What makes one movie stand out from others that are submitted? What makes the selection committee stand up and take notice?

DC: The screeners and judges are looking for unique filmmaking that demonstrates the art of filmmaking in all its creative aspects: Cinematography, music/sound, acting, directing, etc. Film is more than just a passive viewing experience. There are films that challenge the norms, push the boundaries and question your morality; these are the types of films that affect our patrons and, in turn, affect us.

MM: The upcoming 2009 festival will mark the sixth year of the event. Are there any specific details that you could divulge at this point about what the program has in store for participants and audience members?

DC: The 2009 festival will have a central location in the “hippest” part of town, Armory Square, allowing for more party/entertainment options and easier access to the film venues for everyone in attendance. We also plan to highlight the world premiere films and showcase the visiting artists in attendance at an increased number of meet and greet opportunities. Each film will receive an increased amount of individual attention and promotion in 2009.

MM: Being that the fest is only in its sixth year, it has come a long way in a short time—from being a local project to promote the arts to hosting some of the hottest tickets on the festival circuit, including movies like Rocco DeVilliers’ The Flyboys. To what do you attribute its success?

DC: Our ability to plan a great festival! Seriously, we always try to make the filmmakers feel special when they come to Syracuse. We work hard to be good hosts. Hospitality is key and the filmmakers appreciate it and tell their friends. 

Visit http://www.syrfilmfest.com for more information.