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The Mendocino Film Festival 2019: A Conversation with Claudia Puig

A successful Film Festival involves countless hours of planning, preparation, and networking; and I found the wide variety of films, special guests, panels, and events fantastic at the Mendocino Film Festival. Program Director Claudia Puig works on the program years in advance; I recently caught up with her to chat about the May 30-June 2, 2019 festival.

One of Puig’s goals is to get people really thinking, even questioning assumptions about art and life in general, and finding ways to articulate their reactions, and to engage in substantive conversations with fellow filmgoers and filmmakers. Providing smaller venues with intimate audiences serves a purpose, as it’s a less intimidating setting. Puig observed filmgoers during the festival comfortably asking smart, incisive questions of the filmmakers during the Q&As following those smaller screenings. Yes, there are also large venue screenings, with buzz titles; what you will find at the Mendocino Film Festival is variety.

“We had quite a few crowd-pleasing films, but we also had a few that were challenging, not necessarily for everyone," says Puig. "And I made it a point to moderate those Q&As and observe how the audience responded. I was so heartened to see that festivalgoers embraced the challenges and engaged the filmmakers in frank and intriguing discussions.”

When asked what surprised her the most during the festival? She replied “I’m not sure I was ever super surprised at the festival, since I had a general sense about how the films would play, from having seen them all—often at other festivals. But some of the ones that I thought would be the big favorites were not—for example, “The Farewell” was well-received, but not the audience’s favorite—and some of the films that I thought would get a good, but not great response, like say “Pavarotti” or “Maiden,” were more embraced than I expected. Oftentimes with documentaries, it’s the subject, even more than the quality of the filmmaking—that drives audience reactions. For instance, last year’ our audience choice winners were “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”—both about beloved, admired subjects. I love seeing what audiences really take to. Of our three audience winners, only one had an attending filmmaker, which surprises me. I would think hearing from a filmmaker could really enhance the experience. Our three Audience Choice winners were: “Pavarotti,” “Maiden” and “Gay Chorus: Deep South” (which may be the only film of the festival that got a standing ovation.)  I learn something new every year I program this festival.”

How about reactions from filmgoers, do any memorable ones come to mind? “Besides the standing ovation, which was thrilling, we tend to have similar reactions from festival attendees who have never been to the area. They are usually overwhelmed by the natural beauty of the coastal setting—and the redwood forests surrounding the venues.  

Continuing with reactions, Puig said, “I often hear comments on the high caliber of the films, which particularly makes me happy. I heard many people say that this year was the best festival ever. I heard that repeatedly this year, and this was the fest’s 14th year, so that comment was very gratifying.  I got a lot of responses from attendees, and most of them were along the lines of “Thank you for programming such a great festival.” I did get one negative comment, but even that had a silver lining. A woman said she had really liked all the movies she’d seen at the festival, except for one, which she didn’t like at all, and she commented on aspects of the filmmaking.  I’m OK with that. I was glad she was honest. It was a film that I debated about including, and thought it might divide people, but the filmmaker—a first-timer—is so interesting and passionate that ultimately I decided for it. I understood the woman’s complaint, and while I certainly prefer that people embrace all our films, I also believe festivals should have an occasional challenging, or even divisive, film in the mix. It makes for impassioned discussions and fascinating debates.”

I asked Puig what were some of the events, or screenings that she was most pleased about? “I was very pleased that several of the screenings drew really large audiences—some even had lines snaking around the venues!”

Myself, I find film festival panels enlightening, and served as a participant last year, 2018 at Ebertfest, Roger Ebert’s Film Festival in Champaign, Il, where I met Puig as she served as the moderator for our panel, “Critical Mass: The Future of Film Criticism.” The panels during Mendocino were: "Women Filmmakers Panel: Where are we post #timesup?" and "Diversity in Film Panel: Have “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” Changed the Film Scene?"

“I was very happy about the two festival panels and how they came together," she says "So many filmmakers wanted to participate that we ended up with far bigger panels that I had originally envisioned—which made them even more lively, interesting, and informative."

“I appreciated the strongly-held sentiments and astute observations expressed on both panels—and I particularly valued when people spoke of their personal struggles and also obstacles they’d overcome. The panelists tended to underscore what many of us have also realized as film critics and film fans: Fresh, innovative storytelling from a wide spectrum of voices is what is sorely needed in the film industry. And, to this end, women and people of color need to seek out mentors and like-minded, forward-thinking people, and also mentor others and generally help one another on their journeys. Inclusion, acceptance, and championing diversity means working together, not holding tightly to one’s own turf or feeling protective or threatened. The wider the variety of filmmakers and stories, the more room there will be for everyone. I found both panels inspiring—there was a sense of hope and encouragement, even amid the general discouraging sense that the industry is not yet where it should be. I’m eager to hold similar panels next year and see if things have changed at all."

My observations from the Women’s Panel included the fact that photography is still a very male-dominated field. The power of an individual does matter when you take into consideration the quote, “A million feathers can sink a boat.” Filmmakers said that it’s important to emphasize the female story and that structural changes in the filmmaking profession are needed to be sustainable. Lastly, film distribution problems were discussed and the hazards of giving up rights to projects in order to get them sold. I was encouraged by the rising statistics in female directors, yet feel woman do need to work together by collaborating on projects to continue to make this change.

My observations from the Diversity Panel: The punk culture accepts all ethnicities, and in Brazil, people feel ‘an even playing field’ as ethnic labels aren’t used to define a person. Some filmmakers felt that “Black Panther” simply checked a box, and that it’s not going to be a trend. The need for more American Latino stories is an urgent concern as the Latino population has grown so much; also, it is easier to get funding for Latino documentaries than narrative films. A concern with the atmosphere of diversity, is now that there is more diversity, there is more divide. Change is needed at the corporate level structure as everyone is welcome on the bus, but the white guy is still the one driving the bus.

Puig is exceedingly grateful for those who undertook a long trip to attend—especially for those beyond the Bay Area. She said, “Mendocino is a gorgeous destination, but not easy to get to. I firmly believe it’s worth the trek, but I especially appreciate those who had to take a few flights and car trips to make it to Mendo—such as Jacqueline Olive, the director of the incredibly powerful documentary, “Always in Season” who came from Atlanta, and other filmmakers like David Charles Rodrigues who had just come directly from other festivals in New York and North Carolina. Filmmakers are busy people—as most humans are—with careers, families, and all kinds of responsibilities and constraints. And yet they come to our regional festival enthusiastically, and with such open hearts. 

We had a few films that brought several filmmakers, and crew members to the festival—Windows on the World had two actors, a writer, and associate producer on hand, and “Ai Wei Wei: Yours Truly” brought up their director, editor, two producers, and a few other film personnel. They all stayed in the same house and had a reunion. We love that! I was also very happy that so many people brought family members, spouses, and significant others with them to absorb Mendocino’s stunning scenery and small-town friendliness.”

For myself, attending the Mendocino Film Festival as a member of the narrative juror surpassed my expectations, as chatting with filmmakers and festivalgoers, viewing films, handing out awards, attending panel discussions and introducing films are the icing on the cake in my film critic profession. Being immersed in a film festival while also participating brings my job to life. Here, I’m the benefactor, and even though I spend hours viewing films, researching directors, actors, etc. and critiquing, my payoff is seeing the reactions of festivalgoers, the joy of filmmakers, the education and empathy film provides, and above all the promotion of film as an art form, which always tops my list.

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