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Yes We Cannes: The FilmColumbia Festival In Chatham

By Scott Baldinger

CrandellChatham’s charming Main Street seems to be in a quiescent stage these days, with a noticeable reduction of retail and pedestrian activity on its handful of blocks. (Thankfully, The Blue Plate, Yianni’s, the Thompson Giroux Gallery, American Pie, The Chatham Bookstore, The Main Street Grainery, and the Our Daily Bread restaurants, among other stalwarts, are all still there and doing just fine.) But things will really come to life, as they have for the last 14 years, on October 22-27, with FilmColumbia’s movie festival at the Crandell Theater, which, remarkably (considering the modest venue most of it takes place in), will hold something quite similar to the Sundance, Toronto, or Telluride conclaves we read about in the media all the time; a stellar mass of (mostly) independent filmmaking that forecasts what will be a very good remaining year for the movies. (Tickets to the general public go on sale October 5. FilmColumbia members have had first dibs for a week now, so it’s a real advantage to join the club, otherwise keep checking the schedule for sold-out signs when buying individual tickets.)

starsMore stars than there are in heaven, MGM used to say about its huge number of contracted actors, and this quaint self promotion comes to mind when looking at the festival’s lineup. It’s filled to the upgraded projector room with stellar names both in front of and behind the camera: Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, and Sam Shepherd in a stage-to-screen transition of the acclaimed play August: Osage County, directed by John Wells, The West Wing’s actual originator (Aaron Sorkin was a hired writer); Dame Judy Dench in director Stephen Frear’s Philomena, brought to these shores by the Weinstein brothers and sure to be an Oscar contender (“The Queen’s Speech,” it can be nicknamed); Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis, winner of the Grand Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and starring Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake, and John Goodman; and festival favorite Alexander Payne (Sideways) with his Nebraska, starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte.

armstrong As for documentaries, FilmColumbia will feature films such as The Oath by Laura Poitras, to whom Edward Snowden first revealed his whistle-blowing secrets, as well as The Armstrong Lie by Alex Gibney, who started filming Lance Armstrong in his comeback year, 2009, and was there when Armstrong confessed to doping. Claude Lanzmann‘s The Last of the Unjust focuses on Benjamin Murmelstein, the head of the Jewish Council of Elders, who was appointed by Adolf Eichmann to run the notorious Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Internationally, FilmColumbia will screen features and shorts from Japan, Australia, the UK, South Africa, Germany, Iran, France, Mexico, Paraguay, Spain and Cuba.

“This year’s festival is the best we’ve had. Most of the big movies that we’re showing are going to be nominated for Academy Awards—not that that means anything,” says festival executive director Peter Biskind. “Film distributors make the decision about which festival their films are going to be shown at, so it’s a real feather in our cap that we got the ones we did. They are all going to be released later in the year; if a film is coming out in late September or early October, we didn’t include it in the lineup.” 

“How did they do it?” is the question most asked when the lineup is described. Paradoxically, the high profile and internationally acclaimed work brought to Columbia County this year is actually a result of local cinematic muscle: local residents Biskind, Vanity Fair contributor and author, and Louis Kardish, former curator of the Museum of Modern Art film department, both traveled extensively to choose the lineup. “Louis has his contacts and I have mine, and between us we pretty much cover the waterfront,”  Biskind says, adding that the help of other Columbia County residents, such as Focus Features’ head James Schamus and Brian Swardstrom of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, has been “wonderfully supportive.”

deanMovies made by locals include Beyond Iconic: Photographer Dennis Stock, about one of the most influential photographers of the late 20th century (his iconic photo of James Dean at right), directed by current Falls Village resident Hanna Maria Sawka, who will host a Q&A after the screening. Basil Anastassiou and Paul Kentoffio will discuss their Ballin’ at the Graveyard, a gritty look at the culture and community of pickup basketball, as told by hardcore ballers at Albany’s Washington Park.

book theifOthers planning to accompany their films to Chatham include veteran British TV director Brian Percival, who, after many episodes of Downton Abbey, will be on hand to answer questions after the screening of his first feature, The Book Thief (at left), starring Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. And food icon Ruth Reichl will introduce The Kings of BBQ Kuwait, in which director John Markus organizes the five greatest BBQ Pitmasters from the United States to travel to Kuwait and stage an authentic slow-smoked meat picnic for 5,200. (And, yes, there will be real barbecue at the event, which will be held at the Morris Memorial Community Center, a block away from the Crandell.)

inside2All of the films are distinguished by a visual acuity aided by the Crandell’s transition to digital projection, which was just completed this year and, at a recent preview, looked so startlingly beautiful that one left into the light of day visually handicapped. Biskind is more than thankful for this transition, paid for by an extensive fundraising campaign. “It’s wonderful that the community got behind this, but we’re particularly grateful to Ellsworth Kelly and Jack Shear (director of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation) and PS21’s Judy Grunberg for giving us the ability to show the movies in the best way possible. It all cost about $200,000, including curtains so that the sound doesn’t bounce around the walls, a situation that we had before.”

This time around, the sound might not bounce, but the reverberations for the area will continue for a long time to come.

FilmColumbia Festival
October 22 - 27
Crandell Theater and the Morris Memorial Community Center
Chatham, New York
One Year Membership - Single: $35; Couple/Family: $55
Tickets to individual films available starting October 5

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 09/30/13 at 08:18 AM • Permalink