Something Old, Something New: The newest Director of Programming Re-Affirms AIFF’s past, but is also developing a festival for the future
For any film festival, the Director of the Program is central to the sense and sensibility for the event, setting the framework for what types of films will screen—and whenever a veteran like Joanne Feinberg departs, there is a question about that new vision and attitude will look like.
For 11 years, Feinberg served as the Director of Programming and helped build AIFF as a bell-weather for independent documentary filmmakers, with films from the likes of Lucy Walker, a two time Oscar nominee for her short documentaries, and Rory Kennedy, who screened Last Days of Vietnam at AIFF in 2014, a film that had just entered the film festival circuit and went on to the short list of Academy nominations for feature length documentaries.
Nearly a year ago, Richard Herskowitz, a veteran of film festivals himself, stepped into the role as the new Director of Program for AIFF—and, in his first year, it is already evident that he plans to retain the focus on socially-engaged documentaries, but it is equally apparent that he plans to expand the boundaries of AIFF, and in doing so, Herskowitz may help re-define what film festivals can and should be.
“First is trying to sustain what has been created,” Herskowitz recently told the Messenger, explaining his duty as the newest Director of Programming; he quickly added, “and then finding what I can bring to the table.”
Herskowitz has been the Director of the Houston Cinema Arts Festival since its launch in 2009, and taught cinema studies at the University of Oregon, as well as serving with festivals in Virginia and upstate New York over the past two decades.
The core lineup for this year’s festival reads a lot like the past several years, with documentaries addressing current and heady topics, like The Pearl, about older transgender women. Many of the documentaries are at their first or second stop after debuts at internationally-recognized festivals. Uncle Henry , a haunting story about a filmmaker who died from AIDs in the late 80s, debuted at Sundance just a few weeks ago, and Birth of Sake scored awards at Tribeca Film Festival and is only presenting its first screenings in major markets like LA and NYC (but playing three times during AIFF; noon Thursday, 6 pm, Sat, 9:30 am Sun).
Another documentary, In The Game, is already amassing accolades. Directed by Peabody Award-winner Maria Finitzo, the film profiles a high school soccer team in Chicago made up largely of Latina teens from working class families. If that subject-matter sounds like an updated Hoop Dreams, the groundbreaking 1994 documentary about three Chicago-based teenagers trying to escape poverty through success in basketball, it is no coincidence; the film is produced by Kartemquin Films, who also produced Hoop Dreams, and will be honored at the festival for its 50 year history of producing socially-concerned documentaries.
“Because it’s the fifteenth anniversary (of AIFF),” said Herskowitz, “we’re going to really reaffirm our commitment to independent films, a movement to transform mainstream culture.” He went on to discuss the recent Academy Awards, at which the lack of ethnic and gender diversity became a central concern. “That issue became more and more critical (during Oscar season),” he pronounced. Although Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar as Best Director in 2009 for Hurt Locker—the first for a female director in the history of the Academy Awards—there have since been no other nominations for women directors. But that lack of diversity has not been a problem for AIFF—and, film festivals like AIFF have become platforms for women directors to launch their films. “What was apparent,” Herskowitz said, talking about the hundreds of films submitted to AIFF, “is we have a lot of strong submissions by women directors.”
Ultimately, of the 39 feature films in this year’s festival, 24 were director or co-directed by women, a percentage that dwarfs what is standard for Hollywood and mainstream movies. “We simply didn’t have to force the issue,” added Herskowitz. “We decided to embrace it.”
On Saturday morning, Executive Director for Women Make Movies Debra Zimmerman will moderate a panel, and AIFF is handing out their esteemed Rogue Award to directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, whose film Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You plays at the festival.
Beyond documentary and feature films, Herskowitz also explained that AIFF is pushing what a film festival means and does. Twenty years ago, film festivals served as a clearinghouse for movies that did not have direct access to the megaplexes. Festivals like Toronto and Sundance, as well as Ashland and Bend Film served—and continue to—a function as curators, sifting through dozens of films to find a gem. But that function has lessened as the internet makes the obscure accessible, and films not previously accessible can be downloaded on Vimeo and Netflix.
Certainly, AIFF will continue to serve that function as curator, but increasingly film festivals are positioning themselves as a happening, an event that demands more than double-clicking a download, but actually require physically attending a live event—Sundance is a party, Toronto is a crossroads for North America’s critics and, if Herskowitz has anything to do with it, AIFF will exhibit how film can be an artistic experience more than, well, just a film.
“I have a real taste and commitment to ‘expanded cinema,’” explained Herskowitz, “film that intersects with other art forms—music, visual arts and live performance.”
That concept of “expanded cinema” is apparent in many of the additional and unique events at this year’s AIFF.
Laura Hait is hosting a video installation at Schneider Museum of Art (see Art Watch), and that same artist is hosting a matchbox puppet show at Science Works, where she performs vignettes with puppets on matchsticks, and then projects the stories by video.
This year’s festival also is pushing into new dimensions with the interplay between film and sound. Musician Jeremy Rourke has created a stop-action animated film, also using sound clips, and for He Hated Pigeons, director Ingrid Veninger removed the score, and will host live musicians to play along with the live screening of the movie.
“I love programming,” said Herskowitz, his voice brimming with enthusiasm. “I’m able to create these synergies,” he concluded.