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Reel World Experience 

Ruth Bradley sifts through 1,000 movies to present the annual Athens Film Festival

Dec. 15, 2009


It’s 11 p.m. on the last night of the weeklong Athens International Film and Video Festival in early May and Ruth Bradley, the festival’s director, is outside the Athena Cinema, changing the letters on the movie marquee. She’s been on the job since early this morning. Among today’s tasks were opening the theater, “wrangling” festival judges, mailing films to their next destinations, and squeezing in a popcorn dinner during her shift at the concession stand.

“You never want to see laws or sausages being made,” Bradley says, paraphrasing the famous adage. “Well, the same thing pertains to a film festival.”

To the 7,200 film fest goers, however, the 36th annual festival was another resounding success. Viewers had 170 movies to choose from, from full-length features to shorts. The award categories indicate the diversity of films the festival showcases: documentary, experimental, narrative, and animation.

film_festival_image_1

Photo: Rick Fatica

“For better or for worse, we try to do a little bit of everything,” Bradley says. The common thread in what she looks for in films to show—and she’s the only prescreener who looks at every one of the nearly 1,000 entries—is the filmmaker’s personal involvement with the medium. For example, she points to this year’s winning documentary film, Beauty of the Fight by director John Urbano, which takes place in Panama. “You could feel the hand of the filmmaker, his point of view,” she says, comparing it to a great opinion essay.

Although directors whose films have shown at the Athens fest include Robert Altman and Gus Van Sant, this isn’t Bradley’s claim to fame. “What I think is our strength is that we take chances on younger artists and emerging artists—we are the first festival that shows their movies,” she says.

Bradley is always on the hunt for new work through contact with festivals, blogs, distributors, and filmmakers. “Because of the film festival,” she says, “I’m able to keep very current with new developments in the world of film.”

She shares this work with students enrolled in her courses on experimental film and documentary film. She recognizes that today’s students have been raised on the language of film and video, and so are somewhat sophisticated in their viewing, but they also have been fed a fairly restricted diet of mainstream Hollywood narrative films. Not only do her students learn to deconstruct narrative films, they learn to appreciate abstract and experimental films as well. “I explain to them Beethoven’s fifth doesn’t have words but it has meaning,” she says. “A film can have the same kind of impact.”

Bradley, who worked the Ann Arbor Film Festival while earning her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, splits her time as an associate professor of film and director of the university’s Athens Center for Film and Video, a sponsored program of the College of Fine Arts. She no longer has time for Wide Angle, a film journal she edited and contributed to in the late 1990s, but she still sits on thesis committees and arts funding boards. And, of course, she oversees the 40 or so students who work on the film festival as promoters, box office attendants, and prescreeners for the films that will eventually make it to the theater.

But the biggest change for Bradley in the last year has been her new role managing the day-to-day operations of the Athena Cinema, which is now owned and operated by Ohio University. The Athena aspires to be the premier art house cinema in the region, showcasing the latest in independent and international film. An average bill might include the latest features from indie darlings Jim Jarmusch and Woody Allen as well as political documentaries and collections of short animated films.

“It’s really an extension of the film festival into year-round programming,” Bradley says.

The week following the fest, Bradley is sitting in her oversized office that’s piled high with stacks of papers, envelopes, boxes, and films. Her wan smile rarely makes an appearance, but she exudes a calm persona around her students. As she answers interview questions, she puts her white-framed Ray Ban glasses on her nose to check her e-mail and also dispenses orders to the students who call her by first name and pop in and out of the office: “Would you go fetch that movie for me ... Don’t lose that key; I’ll have to kill you.”

Ben Rist, an undergraduate recreation man- agement major, is in Bradley’s office, packing up films to be mailed. He is wearing a Cincinnati Flying Pig marathon sweatshirt. “It’s event planning,” he says of his work for the film fest. He hopes to apply this experience some day as a race director for a marathon.

Roxana Gilani is an undergraduate film student who worked the festival this year. She looks up to Bradley. “She’s assertive, she’s tough, she always gets what she wants,” Gilani says. “I hope to achieve that status one day.”

Bradley is not a filmmaker herself (“I wouldn’t dream of it”), but rather, she calls herself an arts enabler, someone who helps gather people to watch art together. “I think the best thing is standing in the back of the theater with a lot of people in it. You can just feel the pulse of the audience,” she says. “It’s vital, interesting, and comforting.”

By Mary Reed

This article appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2009 issue of Perspectives magazine. 

Editor's note: The 2010 Athens International Film and Video Festival will be held from April 23-29. Visit www.athensfest.org for more info.

For more information about the School of Film at Ohio University, visit: http://www.finearts.ohio.edu/film/index.htm