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Stepping Into a Dreamland: A Recap of the 2016 Middleburg Film Festival

They say that good things come in small packages. That description still perfectly describes the Middleburg Film Festival, even as it grows in stature. The meticulously curated event in the heart of Virginia wine and horse country wrapped up its fourth and most successful edition yet on Sunday. Instead of facing swarms of attendees racing around Sundance, Cannes and Toronto, Middleburg feels a like mini vacation graced by early views of some of the year’s best movies from Hollywood and beyond.

With a slate of 28 films—two more than last year, “it’s manageable,” says Executive Director Susan Koch of the four-day fest’s best attribute. “You can see a film, get a glass of wine, take a lovely walk, eat in a great restaurant. We are trying to make it our tag line: Four days of fantastic films in a stunning setting.”

The drive alone to this bucolic getaway is worth the trip. By the time the main route from Washington, D.C., narrows into a two-lane rural road that eventually curves into the quaintly upscale town’s main retail area, you immediately feel transported. That the primary venue for screenings is a ballroom located in the well-appointed 340-acre Salamander Resort & Spa, tucked behind what passes for a downtown, simply heightens the effect. Instead of postcards, you take home memories of great cinema. 

Even director Damien Chazelle in his opening remarks for Saturday night’s jammed centerpiece presentation of his Oscar-touted love letter to old-school musicals, "La La Land," rhapsodized about entering Middleburg for the first time. He described the experience as being like “stepping into a dreamland,” and compared it to how he attempts to transform the city of Los Angeles into a place of romance and reveries. His leading lady, Emma Stone—who charmed the crowd by gamely sampling the festival’s official M&M candies before accidentally spilling them onstage—concurred, declaring Middleburg to be “a magical place.”

Still, there was one less-than-scenic addition this year to the rolling green hills decorated with turning leaves, colonial-style structures and horse farms, an abrupt reminder of the nation’s current state of mind—a sizable Trump campaign sign and various baby versions sprouting hither and yon. At least my first encounter with this hard-to-miss political statement was somewhat softened by being bookended by a pair of black cows, contentedly grazing and doing their part to make Middleburg great again.

Word is getting out about how wonderful Middleburg movie-going is, assures Sheila Johnson, the billionaire co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), whose pal Robert Redford suggested that an annual festival held at her tony 340-acre Salamander Resort & Spa would help ensure it would become a popular destination spot. 

“People are coming from Palm Springs, Los Angeles, the New York metropolitan area,” she says, noting that there were 4,000 advance tickets sales leading to several early sellouts, including Thursday night’s festival opener, “Lion,” a true story of a young Indian boy adopted by an Australian couple who dedicates himself to finding his original family as an adult. “We also have 61 press people covering this year.“

When Johnson and Koch attended Telluride in late August, she says “More and more people looked at our name tags and knew who we were.” Chris Dodd, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, told her that “we really have put Middleburg on the map.” 

That Lionsgate, the distributor behind “La La Land,” actually asked to be part of the lineup and wanted Chazelle and Stone to participate suggests Middleburg is becoming increasingly important as a stop during the awards season. Last year, the eventual Oscar picks for Best Picture, “Spotlight,” and foreign-language film, “Son of Saul,” made the journey to Middleburg. 

Koch, who is ever on the lookout for current releases with a special connection to the area, even convinced Fox Searchlight to screen “Jackie”—about onetime resident Jacqueline Kennedy’s reaction to her husband’s 1963 assassination—by sending the studio a photo of the First Lady and JFK attending church at the Middleburg Community Center. “Loving,” the true story about an interracial couple in Virginia who became the subject of a 1967 Supreme Court case that invalidated a state law against such marriages, also was a natural fit. 

While former Los Angeles Times film reporter and Q&A moderator John Horn suggested that “La La Land” represented a trend against cynicism that could be found in other festival titles, there was another, perhaps stronger current in eight out of the nine films I saw. Namely, the ever-rocky but often rewarding relationship between parents and children—a surefire topic likely to stir emotions in almost any audience member. 

My favorite of these turned out to be “Toni Erdmann,” Germany’s foreign-language Oscar submission that is partly in English. The comedy has a simple-enough plot—lonely divorced father engages in prankish jokes and adopts a bizarre alter ego to engage with his distant workaholic adult daughter—and a rather indulgent 162-minute running time. But even if audience members at the 10 a.m. Friday screening seemed puzzled at first, they soon broke into raucous laughs at regular intervals. Unlike most mainstream Hollywood attempts at humor that touches the heart, I never knew what was coming next. And the feeling of surprise was pure pleasure.

Lion,” which looks at adoption through the eyes of both sets of parents as well as the child, probably had the most sniffle outbreaks. “Moonlight,” about a bullied young boy living with a crack-addict single mom who reaches out to the local drug dealer for fatherly affection and guidance, also had its share. Then there is “Manchester by the Sea,” which deals with family ties and tragic losses while focusing on an aimless janitor who finds himself named as the guardian of his headstrong teen nephew. Even the documentary “The Eagle Huntress” and the almost dialogue-free Japanese animated fable “The Red Turtle” dissected the bond between between parent and child with tenderness.

The only film that disappointed me was “Custody,” despite the consistently stellar Viola Davis as a weary family court judge who presides over a case involving a young single Hispanic mother whose children are taken away when one of them suffers a concussion. Most notable in this glorified TV movie is that the mom is movingly portrayed by Catalina Sandino Moreno, who became the first Colombian-born actress to be nominated for an Academy Award as the star of 2004’s “Maria Full of Grace.” Moreno, now 35, told the audience that this part was her best in the 12 years since. That rather sad fact, which is not uncommon, is one of the reasons that Johnson and Koch are proud that a festival run primarily by women regularly includes films with women directors—seven this year, including “Toni Erdmann”—along with features that focus on female characters such as “Jackie,” Kelly Reinhardt’s “Certain Women” and Kelly Fremon Craig’s coming-of-age comedy “The Edge of Seventeen.”

Of special note was a panel on women in film and efforts being made to improve hiring both in front and behind the camera. Among participants was actress Bo Derek of “10” fame who is one of the producers—along with Johnson—of “W.A.S.P.,” a historical drama about the Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II. Meanwhile, vino was served at the Boxwood Winery during a conversation with veteran production designer Jeannine Oppewall, a force-of-nature four-time Oscar nominee who discussed her work on such films as “L.A. Confidential,” “Pleasantville,” “Catch Me if You Can” and Warren Beatty’s upcoming Howard Hughes-inspired feature “Rules Don’t Apply.”

She has endless anecdotes but one of her more recent ones she shared was how she was hired by Beatty. Early on, the director and star of the film was worried about the production design that is supposed to reflect the late-‘50s. “So he asked his location scout [Lori Balton], who also worked with me a lot, ‘You must know every designer in Los Angeles. Give me the names of five or six who you think I will like so I can talk to them.’ Lori looked at him and said, ‘You’ll only like Jeannine.’”

He said, ‘Come on, I need five or six names. And she said, ‘Nah, I can’t give you five or six names.” He was a little miffed I think. He went back home and asked the lovely Annette Bening, with whom he lives, “Lori only gave me just one name.” At that time, we were both governors together at the Academy, so Annette knew I could hold my own with those men. And she said, “Just hire Jeannine.” One lunch later, she was hired.

Also of note was a Q&A session with Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first African-American and third woman president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since 2013. It was Isaacs who injected the most relevant industry perspective to the festival by addressing the lack of diversity among the Academy’s 7,000 or so members, a hot-button issue last year when all 20 actors nominated were white. When asked how could it happen that no person of color was recognized when there was a lot of good work by such performers and how membership related to nominations, Isaacs had this to say: “‘The Los Angeles Times wrote a story in 2012. The Academy had never kept numbers or statistics on its members. The only thing that was discussed was your skill set. Period. That was it. We didn’t keep records and we didn’t ask,’ Are you male or female or gay or straight?’ We just didn’t do that.”

When the paper’s in-depth investigation came out, she said, “The results were sort of frightening”—94 percent of the membership was white and 77 percent were male. “Obviously, there was something wrong with this, especially when inside the industry you see much more diversity.” She said efforts to be more inclusive started immediately, although the remedy takes time.

“I do want to say that members of the Academy, whatever color, whatever sex, whatever race, whatever gender—and I don’t think I am being Pollyanna about this—I do believe that the mass majority of our members care very much about recognizing talent. So you have to make that pool much more representative of the work that is being done in the entertainment business. The issue then was for us to really step up.”

She adds that there was also an initiative to make the 54 members of the governors board more inclusive. “I’m the only African-American on the board along with one Asian-American. In our 88-year history, there have been four African-American governors, five Asian-American and one Latino.” To improve that record, three governors at large were brought in—one African-American, one Asian and one Latino. Just that alone has really stepped things up and moved us along to the point that this last election year, two more African-Americans were elected by their branch to be governors.”

Efforts are also being made to make the general membership to be more inclusive as well. She quoted from Viola Davis’ speech when she became the first African-American actress to win an Emmy as the lead in a drama series in 2015. The star of TV’s “How to Get Away With Murder” said that the only thing separating women of color from everyone else is “opportunity … you cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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