Yonkers, just north of New York City, might conjure images of political intrigue, Son of Sam, or the quirky characters in Neil Simon’s play (and film adaptation) Lost in Yonkers. But a visit to this unique Hudson River city—part old-school Bronx, part leafy suburb, and pretty much everything and everyone in between—makes clear that though it takes pride in its identity and history, it is also working on big plans for its future.

It probably isn’t a coincidence that the 5th Annual Yonkers Film Festival (YoFiFest for short) is running parallel to the city’s recent burst of artistic and economic energy. Festival co-founders and Yonkers residents Dave Steck and Patty Schumann are longtime New York City film and television professionals, and are a natural bridge to the metro area’s vast creative scene. So it’s not surprising that 2017 featured a number of gems by New York–based directors, along with an eclectic program of thoughtfully curated U.S. and international narrative and nonfiction features and shorts.

Reception at the 2017 YoFiFest. Photograph by Donna Davis

With a dedicated street-level downtown theater and a second screening room, YoFiFest 2017 presented over 100 productions. Stories addressed a wide diversity of topics, from the U.S. government’s persecution of its own citizens to village cooking in Thailand to survival in rural Russia to bad hair in 1980s suburbia—and the list goes on. Feature-length screenings ranged from a selection of strong micro-budget narratives and quality documentaries to a pre-released independent feature from Magnolia Pictures.

The festival is also attentive to local issues and interests. For instance, the screening of Fanatic Heart: The Story So Far of Black 47, a documentary about the New York City Celtic rock band, was enthusiastically attended by Yonkers’ Irish contingent—and it concluded with an energetic Q&A that afterward flowed merrily into a local pub. Organizers also take pride in their support of local filmmakers, students, and activists, with specific programming giving a voice to new and promising talent.

Yonkers is only about a half-hour by train from midtown Manhattan, which makes it easily accessible. In fact, this year, 65 directors attended—more than half of the festival program’s talent. This proximity to New York, as well as Steck and Schumann’s professional contacts, also allowed YoFiFest 2017 to lure some important industry professionals to lead workshops in producing, scriptwriting, social marketing, and post audio.

Matt Braunsdorf shows off the Golden YO award for Best Narrative Short given to his film “This Is That Night”

With great food from downtown restaurants and drinks by local craft brew and small batch liquor producers, after parties were hosted by venues around the Yonkers riverfront. The festival’s lounge—high above the river, with an expansive view of the spectacular Palisades cliffs—was also a perfect place for attendees to connect and trade notes.

“Golden YO” trophies, sculpted by a local artist, were awarded for best narrative feature, documentary feature, narrative short, documentary short, and student work. But beyond the competition, what stood out at YoFiFest 2017 was the organizers’ obvious respect for the people who craft cinema and video. Steck commented that the festival strives to be “a welcoming place for directors to test their work in front of a live audience.” And he also knows how important it is to draw in and excite an audience. “Without you,” he mused to a packed house before a Saturday-night screening, “there would be no reason to make a film, and we’d all just be sitting here in a dark room.” MM

YoFiFest 2017 ran from November 3-11, 2017. YoFiFest is currently accepting submissions for the 2018 edition, to be held November 2-8, 2018. 

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