Not Your Father’s Film Festival
nonfiction festival has documentaries as foundation
WIilliamstown Film Festival’s artistic director Paul Sturtz says the new Wind-Up Fest will use documentary films as its centerpiece.
Photo by Jake Borden
It seems like every region has its own film festival, and that cluttered landscape makes it hard to know which one is worth attending or even the differences between them. Organizers of the newly named Wind-Up Fest promise to shake that all up, creating something experimental, immersive, and alive.
Wind-Up Fest, October 15 to 18, is a presentation of the 17-year-old Williamstown Film Festival that will use documentary film as its center, with programming that spirals into a variety of other media. New artistic director Paul Sturtz says the approach is part of a current golden age for nonfiction as a way of presenting narrative.
As the new managing director, Sandra Thomas took a close look at the way people interact with films, especially films that many people could already access online. It was necessary, she says, to build more of an inclusive experience to lure people out of their homes.
“This change really isn’t about us, it’s about our community and the desire to both engage with our neighbors and to share with people attending the festival what is fantastic and intriguing about the northern Berkshires,” she explains.
The biggest change is the retirement of former festival director Steve Lawson and the entrance of new director Sturtz, who is also co-director of the documentary-centered True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri. Thomas had previously attended the Columbia festival and was inspired by the energy of both the event and the whole town surrounding it. It was as much a party as a film festival, she says. Now in its 12th year, True/False has grown to feature nine venues, including a 1,700-seat theater, all boasting full-house attendance with over 40,000 attendees each year. Both Sturtz and Thomas are betting they can bring comparable growth with Wind-Up Fest.
Sturtz’s first suggestion was to drop the name, Williamstown Film Festival, a move directly connected to the new festival’s mission of bringing together North Adams and Williamstown. “You can’t do that if it’s just named after one of the towns. I think both towns have a lot to offer, but I don’t think such a specific name would do that justice. And it didn’t have a resonance around the country at this point.”
The event planning that followed included the Weekly Wind-Up, a meet-up at the Parlor Café in North Adams, where community members have input to the festival’s programming and programmers collaborate with them in forming ideas.
Among the new elements of the festival are the replacement of the traditional and brief Q&A segment with Show & Tell events that offer extended dialogues and multimedia presentations related to the films. There will be detailed, intense conversations by movers in the field of nonfiction who come from a variety of mediums—long-form journalism, comedy, podcasting, storytelling, and film. There will also be a dance party, performances, and a live-radio podcast presentation.
It’s film programming, though, that will make or break the festival, and Sturtz champions a strictly curated experience that creates a shared space for the attendees. He attended plenty of film festivals that offer a sprawl, with hundreds of films piled on for patrons to choose from. Sturtz doesn’t think that’s helpful in attracting the non-cinephile, nor does it give a festival any discernible identity that allows it to stand out from the rest.
“To me, that’s not a badge of honor, that just means you didn’t really work very hard as curators,” Sturtz says. Resisting the traditional festival move of over-programming, he envisions something more personal for Wind-Up.
It’s also important to Sturtz and Thomas to tie in the festival as much as they can with the locale, choosing specific and unconventional screening spaces within the area as well as the more traditional ones like MASS MoCA and Images Cinema. The idea is for audiences to see their own environment in a new way, using Wind-Up as the arbiter of the new context and the venue as the point of reference.
Sturtz admits this year is only the start of something that he and Thomas both believe will grow much bigger, and the trick is to make strengths out of the first-year limits. This makes the directorship a dual position. One is administrator of current events; the other is long-term planner, ensuring each decision made now is part of a collection of building blocks that function as sturdy foundations to an exciting future for Wind-Up Fest.
“Half of me is thinking about this year, how we do this beautiful beta-version of the festival, and half of me is plotting on a more grandiose scale,” says Sturtz. “But you learn as a festival organizer that you can’t go too fast. All these things take so much time.”