The Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF) will no doubt look a little different this year, with a mix of drive-in screenings and virtual viewings and talks offered. However, one thing that will remain the same is the Festival’s commitment to presenting world-class cinema.
We caught up with Anne Chaisson, Hamptons International Film Festival Executive Director, and David Nugent, Artistic Director, about the unique 2020 iteration, the amazing “A Conversation With…” Series participants and much more.
2020 has certainly been a challenging year for all. Are there any themes throughout this year’s films or messages the Festival was trying to convey through programming?
DN: The films were produced pre-pandemic. All that we’ve dealt with in 2020, all of the films that we have in the Festival, all of them were produced before that. So, I wouldn’t say there’s a specific theme other than just trying to highlight what we think were the best films that have come around at this time of year.
One thing I think that has emerged is we’re opening and closing the Festival once again, in this case, with films by artists of color, and they really deal with very timely issues. The Opening Night Film With Drawn Arms, which is about Tommie Smith, who along with fellow runner, John Carlos, held their hands up high in the 1968 Olympics after winning medals, and all of the controversy that ensued. It is a film that resonates as much now as it did 52 years ago, when they made that bold statement.
The Closing Night Film, One Night in Miami, which Regina King directed, is about a night when Sam Cooke, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown and Malcolm X were together for a night in Miami, and the things that they discussed that are very relevant. In that sense, there are films that deal with issues that are very topical.
Our lineup this year is comprised of films 47 percent of which were made by artists of color and 49 percent of which were made by female filmmakers. It’s been a continued interest of ours to have a diverse lineup of both subjects of the films, as well as the filmmakers that have produced those works. I would say that is one theme that is something that’s not new to this year specifically. This is the fourth year in a row we’ve had our Opening Night Film by either a female filmmaker or a filmmaker of color. We opened last year with the film Just Mercy, which focused on a man who was unjustly on death row. These are continuing themes, but perhaps have emerged even more strongly this year.
The 28th annual Hamptons International Film Festival is a hybrid of drive-ins and virtual screenings. How many will be in person and how many will be virtual and could you speak to this year’s programming?
AC: Wonderfully, the Town of East Hampton is allowing us to do some separate drive-in cinemas in. We’re showing five nights of drive-ins – one screening each night. So, nine total because the first night we’re showing the Opening Night Film at both, as well as virtually. We are also doing two outdoor screenings at the Southampton Art Center on the Sunday and Monday of the Festival, social distanced of course, outdoors. The rest of the program is virtual – that includes all of our A Conversation With, all of our Winick Talks with the filmmakers and industry conversations. Also a panel from SAGindie about inclusion. Many of the filmmakers will be on that panel to talk about how it works to get their projects made and if things are starting to change for them or not. As well as every film, even the ones in the drive-ins – except one – are all available virtually. The exciting thing is that people from all over the country, except in a few cases, 95 percent of the programs can be watched virtually. We’re over the moon that people in California or Louisiana, where I’m from, or in the Midwest can watch.
DN: Anne and I and two other programmers went to the Sundance Film Festival in January, where we were blissfully unaware of things that were heading down the pipe and we found a number of films that we liked. Sundance is one of the premier festivals in the US, it really kick starts the festival season. We saw a lot of films we liked there. We’re bringing what we think are some of those great films out for the Festival this year, such as Minari, which was the best reviewed film there this year. The Father, which we loved, The Truffle Hunters, there were a lot of great films we saw there.
Afterwards, when we got back, we opened for submissions for the Festival. The Festival gets programmed from a combination of both films that we see from out there or through films that are sent to us by filmmakers or distributors, or sales agents, and then also blind submissions, which are the roughly 2,000 films that get sent to us by filmmakers from all around the world. We open that up in February, and then about a month later is when COVID got as bad as it got. Everything in the world slowed down a bit, except COVID, sadly, and then things picked up again in April and May, and we got another onslaught of films.
My colleagues and I have been looking at these films since February. It’s been different because I haven’t seen my colleagues, one of them since January, and one of them since March. We’ve been just doing all of this virtually. But, otherwise, it came together as it does in many other instances. I didn’t go to any screenings like I usually do. We didn’t get to go to any other festivals. Anne luckily got to go to the Berlin Film Festival in February and saw some stuff. But, after that, South by Southwest was canceled, Tribeca and Cannes. So, we weren’t able to go and have meetings and go to the screenings that we would go to. We watched a lot of stuff at home on computers and TVs, and put it together that way.
AC: And we’re roughly half the size we normally are.
DN: Yes, usually we tend to have about 65 or 70 features. This year, we have 30 features.
Did that make curating the programming more difficult?
DN: It made it more difficult just because there’s always films that we really like that we don’t have room for. I always felt that that was the case, even when we were at 65 or 70 features. But, it certainly felt a lot more like that when we’re down to the smaller numbers. Every year, the most miserable day of the job is the day or two that we spend sending out the letters to those whose films didn’t make it – and that was even harder this year, just because we had a lot less slots.
AC: The good thing about this though, is that we still managed to pull together what we do best, in terms of how we separate our programs. So, there’s still a competition. We’re still honoring our signature programs like Conflict + Resolution. Our Opening Night Film this year is winning the Conflict + Resolution award, With Drawn Arms. We’re still going to have Air, Land + Sea films. We’re honoring our Compassion, Justice & Animal Rights and Views From Long Island, so although it’s smaller, it’s representative of what we do year after year.
DN: As Anne said, this year they may be a bit smaller – the Views From Long Island isn’t necessarily – but everything in that sense will be the same, just with a little bit less of it.
The Festival will welcome a trio of special guests taking part in the “A Conversation With…” Series. Could you please speak about what stood out about the careers’ of this year’s participants?
DN: Anne, I’m going to let you talk about Leslie Odom Jr. since you’re a big fan.
AC: Leslie stars in One Night in Miami and David’s saying that because I’m a massive Hamilton fan. I love it so much and have for a long time. So, I just think he’s super, super talented. He has since been doing such great television and now film work, on top of being a beautiful jazz musician. That talk is going to be extremely exciting and illuminating. I’m just happy that people around the country get to see it and listen to it.
DN: Steven Yeun is an actor who I’ve long admired. He was in the show The Walking Dead, which is the most popular show in the history of cable television, which I really enjoyed. He was in this film Burning, which we had at the Festival two years ago. It was the best reviewed film out of Cannes, we loved it. He was in a film called Okja, a Netflix film, which we did a screening of, by Bong Joon-Ho who would follow it up with Parasites. This year, he’s a star of a film called Minari, which was the best reviewed film out of Sundance this year, a film which we really loved by Lee Isaac Chung. He just consistently did such interesting performances. So, I love Steven Yeun, have for a long time. We’re really excited that he’s going to do this.
And then Kate Winslet, she’s a legend. There’s not much I can say that hasn’t been said about her. We’re thrilled that she’s doing it. She has a film called Ammonite in the Festival, which we like a lot. We’re very excited about that. She’s someone we’ve long been interested and glad it worked out this year.
Typically, the Festival highlights some of the films’ talent in post screening conversations. Will that be happening this year?
DN: There won’t be much in person stuff with a few possible exceptions, if there happened to be local filmmakers, and we’re doing their screenings, either outdoors or drive-in, and they might wave hello or something, and maybe do a socially distanced Q&A. But, we’re recognizing the situation that we’re in. We’re taking a pause on the in person components of the Festival this year. It’s not something we’re actively pursuing. But, we do have a couple of films by filmmakers that are local that we’ll be exhibiting and we’re not going to stop them from coming to their screening.
AC: We are recording intros and Q&As. Virtually or during the drive-in it will still feel somewhat like you’re at the movie theater for the Film Festival. You’ll see the trailer, you’ll still see a director introducing and people from programming or one of us, and then there will be the post question and answer.
Is there a cap on the virtual screenings?
AC: There is, depending on what film it is. We have different rules with different distributors. With talks and things that we are producing ourselves, or certain things that will have a little bit more access to and some of the films you have to watch it within a certain window. So, looking online and downloading our PDF and our schedule, or looking at the East Hampton Star film guide will give you all of that information so you know exactly how and when to access what you can.
Besides the Festival, what can we expect from HamptonsFilm this fall and winter?
AC: We are going to continue doing what we immediately moved towards the second we all moved indoors, which was offering programming virtually. So, we’ll still have a virtual cinema all year, where you can download a good film. We are also planning to do some in school educational virtual work. Unfortunately, we couldn’t do our UN programs this year where we invite students from all over the area to come to the Festival and view work from around the world and then the teachers bring them back into the class and do a Q&A around it. We’re not able to do that, obviously. The kids are starting to get back into school, but we plan to bring those programs to the teachers to offer in full. So, we’re very happy that we’re going to be able to do that because we’ve had to sort of stop anything in person, especially our film camps and some of the other school programs we have started in the spring – like our documentary program with the Montauk school. So, education and virtual cinema – that’s the name of the game for this year.
The 28th annual Hamptons International Film Festival will take place Thursday, October 8 through Wednesday, October 14.
For more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.