From Oct. 12-14, I had the chance to travel to Delaware Water Gap for a few days to serve as a judge at the annual Forwardian Film Festival at the Antoine Dutot Gallery and Museum. As a major film festival fan and my times as a film writer, I have seen nearly every part involved in coordinating a festival, from selecting movies to working behind the scenes as a volunteer to being in the audience.
The FFF is part of the film arm of the Forwardian Arts Society based in the Poconos. The organization promotes the arts and supports regional artists with shows, events and festivals like this one. Paul Adam Smeltz is the general manager, and I learned more about the society two years ago when I had a photography exhibit for my “Store Windows” series at the Pocono Cinema & Cultural Center in East Stroudsburg, with Smeltz attending the opening reception. Last spring, Smeltz asked me if I could judge the competition at this year’s festival.
Over the years, I have attended small- and large-scale festivals, from the Dietrich Theater’s quarterly events in Tunkhannock to the Toronto International Film Festival, one of the world’s largest. Film festivals allow for audiences to discover films and directors that may not make it to the local box offices, especially in a small market such as Scranton/Wilkes-Barre/Hazleton. And while some selections like to brag about being chosen in festival A, B or C, it doesn’t mean it’s a great movie.
I previously volunteered at the Tribeca Film Festival as a crew member of its press department. In a way, I have briefly worked for Robert De Niro as he is the festival runner and Donald Trump as he sponsored all the volunteer departments. I gained insight on how public relations work in the industry and how more organization goes into putting a large, influential festival together.
With all that in mind, I still wasn’t prepared for what happened at FFF.
More than 3,000 short and feature films entered the festival, and 15 were selected for screening. The three-day festival was divided into three sections: an art exhibit and opening, a night for shorts and a day for features.
Friday was devoted to the art exhibit portion of the festival, with a reception with a reception with the artists, a silent auction and an art raffle. Saturday was for shorts with 11 titles for viewing. Another judge and myself were tasked to select a best short film out of the field that night and awarding a winner. There was just one problem – only four of the shorts were available for viewing and attendance for the free film festival was miniscule. The small museum room filled with two rows of folding chairs, a tiny projector with not-so-great sound and a warped viewing on a white wall felt claustrophobic but also empty. Outside of the organizers and the judges, there was only one audience member. There were technical problems as to why the program’s other half was not shown, but the four that were ranged greatly in quality and content.
In under three minutes, “Passenger” by Sami Ala of Finland documents a short train ride through Russia with the rhythms of African singing and the many colors of train graffiti. Christopher Key’s “Within” from the United Kingdom shows how a grieving father gets a second chance to be near his daughter again. “Tides of Wyrd” by Lehigh Valley’s Louise Devery is a historical Western romance of a couple who reconnect after decades apart.
My fellow judge and I awarded the best short film award to “Mousse,” a 40-minute comedy from Sweden about a Frenchman who robs a betting place during harness racing and keeps two people hostage. It’s a parody to the trigger-happy American cops-and-robbers variety of films with mild-mattered officers giving into the robber’s demands, like vintage American muscle cars and streets lined up with people waving French flags. The police tell some of the worst and best jokes to keep the robber, named Mousse, calm but also to lighten the mood. Its trailer has probably had more views than the actual short, but it is well worth watching.
Technical issues and timing also plagued Sunday’s screenings of features. Out of the three films slotted for the day, only one could be shown. A miscommunication on when the Sunday screening would start meant that I was the only judge on duty. “Charmed Life” by Katerine Delaney is a 2006 documentary on drag queens performing in various New York City clubs. Its undeniable star is Daniel T. “Sweetie” Boothe, who died last year of cancer and had a small role in 1995’s “To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.” Other queens featured in the documentary included Mother Flawless Sabrina (Jack Doroshow), the inspiration behind Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character opposite De Niro in 1999’s “Flawless.” Mother Flawless Sabrina also died last year.
The documentary illustrated how no one drag queen has the same journey, background or act. Their act is an expressive part of who they are, no matter the time of day, the political climate, their age or the style of wig they wear.
“Charmed Life” was not without its mishaps. Gil Coronado, a Monroe County-based talent manager and a member of the Pocono Alliance’s board of directors, introduced the film and presented a statement from Delaney. However, good-old technology created a two-hour delay in showing the film, but it gave me the chance to be technical support in a pinch. The final result was watching the feature on a laptop.
“Scumbag,” by Mars Roberge, was also a victim of technology. Smeltz could not get a copy to download, and Kris Pierce, who appears in the film, had traveled from New York for the screening. I asked since he had ventured so far for the screening if he could give a 30-second synopsis of the film. Pierce described it as “a telemarketer who really wanted just to rock and roll.” I was looking forward to see another movie this year about a telemarketer at a shady company. But Pierce and his guest were great sports about what happened. Also, I learned later that it’s available on iTunes and other video-on-demand platforms, so I will check it out on a later date. “Charmed Life” won best feature film by default, but “Scumbag” received honorable mention.
“Mousse” was also awarded best overall film, and “24H,” a short about the bond between two brothers as one is about to leave, was given honorable mention in the shorts category. “24H” did not screen at the festival, but the entire short is streaming on Vimeo.
Having experienced the judgment side of film festival, I would really like to be in this position again, watching and critiquing films that I probably would not have exposure to otherwise. I admire what Smeltz and FFF were trying to accomplish with this small festival, but organization and publicity would have helped it reach more people. Nevertheless, I was honored to be a part of this festival and hope that it will grow in the future.