An absolute film feast
By Susan Green
Hundreds of volunteer hours culminate each spring in the seven-day, nearly 75-film festival running simultaneously at three venues on or near the Ohio University campus. This year's event, the 30th annual, is April 25 through May 1.
"The time was ripe, and film was happening everywhere (in the '70s)," says Ruth Bradley, director of the sponsoring Athens Center for Film and Video -- a nonacademic department within the College of Fine Arts. "Once you become an integral part of the cultural landscape, it's difficult to stop."
Bradley is proof of how hard it is to withdraw from an iconic event. This is her 16th year with the festival, an undertaking she juggles with her class load as an associate professor in the School of Film. She has been involved with film societies and festivals since her undergraduate days at Wells College in upstate New York. While pursuing a doctorate in American studies at the University of Michigan, she immersed herself in the Ann Arbor Film Festival, eventually becoming its director.
Meanwhile, in Athens, an enterprising undergraduate by the name of Giulio Scalinger, BGS '77, was organizing the first Athens International Film Festival. His goal was to provide a showcase for independent and student-produced films from around the world. The festival began as a volunteer, grassroots organization and remains so today.
Among the most labor-intensive tasks is the yearly ritual of selecting the competition and feature films. The process begins in late summer when Bradley places a call for entries in trade publications and on industry Web sites. Filmmakers can submit as many entries as they choose at a cost of $35 per film.
Within a few months, hundreds of entries clutter Bradley's office in the Central Classroom Building, where posters, programs and pictures from 29 festivals crowd file cabinets and line the cement-block walls. She attributes the abundance of entries to the festival's long and successful history.
"People trust us to do a good job with their work," she says.
Beginning in early January, Bradley and six to eight volunteers sequester themselves for hours every night in the tiny, airless festival headquarters down the hall from its director's office. There, they prescreen the competition films, a grueling process that requires several rounds of judging and, Bradley says, a somewhat nutty disposition.
"Initially we watch all of the entries, usually around 400 videos and films, without judging," she says. "We look at the work as a snapshot of what the independent world of filmmaking and videomaking is up to. You need to get the full picture of what's happening in those genres before you can judge anything."
Fifty to 60 competition films and videos are chosen each year, and both subject matter and screen time are important considerations. Prizes totaling $6,000 are awarded to the best in each genre. But the real reward for new and experimental filmmakers is the opportunity to say their work has been screened at a film festival.
Selecting the 15 or so feature films isn't as challenging, and suggestions are made in surprising venues.
"One year I was standing in the cheese department of Kroger when someone came up to me and said, 'You're with the film festival, aren't you? I want you to show this film next year.' So I added the title to the growing list of nearly 200 films (under consideration)," she says.
Bradley and her crew begin by researching the feature films to see if there is any possibility they will be shown on cable television. If so, they are eliminated from contention. The next step is to make sure the films are diverse in country of origin and language; Bradley wants to make sure half are in English. Then there's the need to round things out with two or three comedies. Bradley also looks for films tied to current events and checks out what's being shown at other festivals -- to avoid and emulate the norm.
Among the feature films being screened at this year's festival is "Bloody Sunday," which won the 2002 Sundance Audience Award in World Cinema and the Golden Bear Award for best movie at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival. Based on Irish journalist Don Mullan's book, "Eyewitness Bloody Sunday: The Truth," the film tells the story of the tragic events of Jan. 30, 1972, when 13 protesters were killed by British troops in Derry, Ireland.
Mullan, who co-produced and acted in the film, is expected to attend the festival as a guest artist this year and may conduct workshops with journalism and film students. Past festivals have featured such luminary directors as Francois Truffaut, Louis Malle, Robert Altman, Howard Hawks, Vincent Minelli, Gus Van Sant, Ned Beatty and experimental filmmaker Holly Fisher, to name a few.
"It's one of my two favorite annual events," says Rhinehart, who attended her first festival as a student and has "done time" as a volunteer. "There's a lot of energy during the festival."
As the event approaches, Bradley often is asked what new things filmgoers can expect, and it's a question she's loath to hear.
"The films make it new," she says. "I think there is a kind of comfort knowing the festival remains the same. It's something to look forward to, like wrapping yourself in your favorite blanket."
Another familiar aspect of the festival for Bradley, although perhaps not so endearing, is its shoestring budget. The College of Fine Arts, the Ohio Arts Council and some creative bargaining and fundraising contribute to an annual budget of $50,000. A $10,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant is new this year.
One of the more interesting fundraisers is cow plop bingo, which involves a large grid, a cow and wagering on where the beast will be when nature calls. Athens' Passion Works Studio is donating the design for this year's festival poster and other materials. The original art will be auctioned, with proceeds going to the festival.
Bradley says the late-night screenings and inspired funding approaches are worth the effort if the festival is able to challenge how we see the world -- and how we see each other.
And to hear School of Film Director Charles Fox tell it, that's exactly what it does: "The film festival gives voice to aspects of our humanity seldom heard. At a communal event such as this, we have an opportunity as audience members to discover and share our common humanity and to experience and reflect on the complex relationships we have with others and, perhaps, even with ourselves."
Susan Green is a writer for University Communications and Marketing.
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