The first annual Woods Hole Film Festival, held in 1991 in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, consisted of five films shown in one trailer over the course of a single day. The 20th annual Woods Hole Film Festival takes place from July 30th to August 6th and includes numerous events for the large number of moviemakers and industry professionals who attend the festival. We here at MovieMaker love a good film festival, so we caught up with the WHFF’s executive director, Judy Laster, to talk about the past, present and future of the festival.

Hugh Cunningham (MM): The festival has grown considerably in the 20 years since its founding. Have the overall goals of the festival changed as it has grown, or do you have the same mission as when the festival began?

Judy Laster (JL): Although the number of films has grown from five to over 100, and the length has expanded from one day to eight, the festival’s overall goals and mission have remained focused: Showcasing the talent of the best in emerging independent film. The scope of that talent has increased dramatically over the past 20 years as our reach has extended beyond New England, but at our core we remain a festival that puts filmmakers first. Our goal is to provide the filmmakers who come here–and we have a very high attendance rate–with a first class opportunity to see great work, connect with like-minded filmmakers and learn from the professionals participating in the festival and from each other in order to help advance their careers. It never ceases to amaze me how many filmmakers meet at our festival and then go on to work on projects together.

MM: What are the advantages of holding the festival in a small town as opposed to a big city? Does the seaside atmosphere make it tempting for attendees to stay outdoors instead of inside a theater?

JL: The advantage of a small town is that the whole community becomes a part of festival week. The energy created by the festival permeates all aspects of life during the eight days it’s in town, and people are excited to meet the filmmakers and to support and see the interesting array of films. Seeing as Woods Hole is home to some of the world’s leading scientists, and plays host to many visiting ones, our audience’s level of intellectual curiosity is quite high, resulting in Q&As that are more thoughtful than average.

We don’t perceive the sea as being a distraction. It’s more of a perk, in much the same way as the mountains are a perk at Sundance. We say that the festival is the perfect combination of sun and screen! Not to mention that the sea is an inspiration for many of the films we show. Our screenings generally take place from late afternoon into the evening, leaving plenty of time to enjoy Cape Cod’s beaches and fabulous seafood. It’s also not uncommon for filmmakers to go for a midnight swim! For those who feel the need to make every minute of their time here count, there are opportunities all day long to connect with filmmakers at Woods Hole’s charming coffee shops and bakeries, as well as at workshops, panel discussions and informal chats held in charming locations with beautiful views and refreshing sea breezes.

MM: What kind of opportunities are there for moviemakers at your festival in terms of networking? Do you have regular industry folks who attend the fest?

JL: Besides interacting with filmmakers at screenings, there are several filmmaker-only events, such as a filmmaker brunch and luncheon. There are also panel discussions, workshops and meet-and-greets with industry folks. We are definitely all about networking, and as I mentioned earlier, numerous projects have emerged as a result of filmmakers meeting at the festival. There are also many networking opportunities provided by the the Filmmaker-in-Residence program, which brings at least one, and sometimes as many as four, established filmmakers to the festival each year. This year’s Filmmaker-in-Residence is Heidi Ewing, an Oscar nominee for her film Jesus Camp, who also contributed to the film version of Freakonomics. Last year we hosted two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple, who mingled freely with filmmakers and was very generous in terms of offering advice and contacts.

MM: Five films were shown at the first year of the festival. Now there are premieres of films starring celebrities like Jackson Rathbone and Janeane Garofalo. How does it feel to have come this far?

JL: It feels great! To be able to sustain this level of energy and momentum for 20 years is nothing short of amazing. Even though we show world premieres starring celebrities, many of whom have attended the festival, it is more thrilling when we find diamonds in the rough that go on to have a successful festival life and get distribution. We are lucky that, along with the great films, we have also gathered a stellar collection of filmmakers who like to return to the festival with their subsequent work. That has been a very motivating factor in keeping the festival going strong.

MM: Are there any projects or events that you are most excited about this year?

JL: There are so many exciting films this year that it is hard to pick favorites! I’m especially excited about two of our panel discussions: “Filmmaking and War,” which features Sebastian Junger (Restrepo), Beth Murphy (Beyond Belief) and Michael Sheridan of Community Supported Film in a discussion moderated by Global Post’s Charles Sennott, and “Producing Feature Documentary & Narrative Films” with this year’s Filmmaker-in-Residence Heidi Ewing, documentary filmmaker David Heilbroner (Stonewall Uprising) and feature filmmakers Dorothy Aufiero (The Fighter) and Michael Corrente (The Door in the Floor, Outside Providence).

Our opening night film, Oceans, was lent to us by Disneynature, and will be a great way to kick-off the festival in this community that is so dedicated to the ocean. Opening night also features Isabella Rossellini’s Animals Distract Me, a totally wild and woolly (literally) ride about her obsession with animals (she plays Charles Darwin in the film). Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher’s (Oscar nominees for Troublesome Creek) latest film, Raising Renee, will eventually screen on HBO. On a local note, we have We Still Live Here: Âs Nutayuneân, a remarkable story of cultural revival by the Wampanoag of Southeastern Massachusetts, and Charlotte, about the building of a 50-foot gaff rigged wooden schooner on Martha’s Vineyard, directed by Jeff Kusame-Hinte (co-producer of The Kids are All Right). On a personal note, we are showing a retrospective of the films of the late Karen Aqua, a Boston-area animator who was a regular contributor to “Sesame Street” as well as a filmmaker in her own right.

MM: If you had to attribute the fest’s longevity and success to only one factor, what would it be?

JL: The one factor is definitely the people. Over the years we have developed a board of experienced and quality film professionals with connections to other top-notch filmmakers and professionals who enhance the festival each year by participating in panel discussions and leading workshops. Our screening committee is comprised of a tightly-knit group of individuals who collaborate beautifully on the selection of films. We have a robust annual screenwriting competition organized by Jean-Paul Ouellette. Our jury members represent some of the top talent in the film industry. Our dedicated community of volunteers handle everything from fundraising to ticket and merchandise sales to ushering. The community of Woods Hole has been incredibly supportive–each year a number of our films come from connections to the Woods Hole oceanographic community, and many residents support the festival by selling out screenings.

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