Postcard from Salem, Mass

In it’s fifth year, the Salem Film Fest (an all-doc festival) put cement at the base of the flag it planted many years ago. Strong programming, an active volunteer base, enthusiastic business support, and wild audience response made for a powerful week for filmmakers and film lovers alike.

As I was only in town for a couple of days I couldn’t see all of the films but I was lucky enough to catch the Hot Docs hit, Beauty Day on my first night in town. The following day I enjoyed the justly lauded, Give up Tomorrow as well as Xan Arranda’s stunningly shot Andrew Bird: Fever Year, which profiles the profoundly creative singer/songwriter Andrew Bird. I heard great reports about a locally-produced doc about a reggae band in Jamaica called Reggae in the Ruff, and frankly heard only good things about all the films from everyone I spoke to.

Our film Battle for Brooklyn played to a full house at a 2 pm Saturday screening. The festival programmed a local rapper named Walnut to open for the film. He put on a rousing show that helped to build the energy. The festival programs local music as often as possible before films and in every case that I witnessed it, it was a great fit. I shot a video of Walnut and his pick up band performing “There goes the neighborhood” that I posted to our web site. As our film deals with a neighborhood being bulldozed for a developer, it was a pretty great fit — and a great song.

Programmer Joe Cultera, a film editor by trade (and long-time AIVF member), has a strong sense of what’s important to filmmakers. In addition to assembling a program with festival hits as well as little known films, international, and local titles, Cultera and his team made a major effort to make the filmmakers feel appreciated.

Upon arrival at one of the many hotels that generously donated prime rooms, filmmakers were given bags packed with items from local businesses as well as gift cards to many restaurants and bars. Working with the chamber of commerce, they have gotten the whole town involved in the fest and as such everyone has a sense of ownership and involvement that really bumps up the excitement level around town. While the festival doesn’t have the resources to provide travel assistance it does make sure that every filmmaker is paid a screening fee, and they make a major effort to sell DVD’s for filmmakers in their cafe. Projection is also a priority and they go to the effort of screening on HDCAM which means that the films look and sound about as good as they possibly can. In addition to screening at a local independent cinema the festival works with Peabody Essex Museum and the National Parks Service. All the venues are within a few hundred feet of each other. During our screening I took advantage of the free museum pass and found an absolutely stunning museum.

This year ramped up the number of panels. I was lucky enough to have a great conversation about activism and film with Michael Collins from Give up Tomorrow and Aaron Yeger from A People Uncounted. There wasn’t a huge audience but the discussion was fruitful. We went to a local restaurant called Finz to continue our discussion. The owner, a sponsor of the fest, sent out plates of oysters and other seafood and drinks. It was a fantastic meal.

With the whole community engaged in the festival its clear that it will continue to be a desirable place for doc filmmakers to visit and showcase their work.

Editor’s Note: This is the second year I’ve had a chance to experience the Salem Film Fest firsthand as a member of the jury and moderator of panels and lively post-film conversations. Michael’s sense of it being film- and filmmaker-first is spot on. To that end, the fest ushered in two notable partnerships in 2012 with the Alliance of Women Film Journalists (AWFJ) and American Cinematographer Magazine.

A jury of AWFJ members, including Cynthia Fuchs, Jennifer Merin, myself, Susan Wloszczyna and Jeanne Wolf gave the first-ever festival specific EDA Award for the Best Female-Directed Film to Bobbie Berleffi and Beverly Kopf for Wish Me Away and a Special Mention to Vivian Ducat for All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert. AWFJ also hosted a not-to-miss conversation with Janice Page, Jennifer Merin, and myself on “How media covers documentary film.” For great, on-the-scene reporting, I suggest you check out the Salem Film Fest blog, where videos of these and other events will soon be posted. –ET

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