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The Woods Hole Film Festival: Twenty-One Years Later

Now in its 21st year, the Woods Hole Film Festival (July 28-August 4) has grown from an hour-long series of shorts to an eight-day extravaganza, with films from all genres, workshops, live performances, and much more.

By Donna Sorbello

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A snapshot of last year's Woods Hole Festival

Sundance was in its tenth year when Judy Laster graduated from law school with many documentary filmmakers for friends and a Spaghetti Western already under her belt. She loved organizing events, and she had an idea. What the U.S. needed, she and her friend Kate Davis thought, was the East Coast version of Sundance. And they were the people to orchestrate it. Judy had summered on Cape Code all her live, and Woods Hole seemed the perfect place. It was already becoming an international center with three scientific institutes--The Woods Hole Oceanographic Center, the Woods Hole Marine Biology Center, and the Woods Hole Research Center--functioning in the miniscule town. Their importance and her ties to the area could help provide a community of support that she might draw on.

Thus was the start of what would become the Woods Hole Film Festival, an incredible event that has been running for over two decades. Laster and Davis’s first festival in 1991 was one hour long. It was made up of a few short films. A testament to the critical eye of both Laster and Davis, the original festival filmmakers have all gone on to success in the film world, from Sundance awards to Academy nominations. The second year the festival was extended to two days and six films, the next, three days. Now in its 21st year, the festival has become something of a phenomenon. When the festival opens on Saturday, the 28th of July, running for eight days through Saturday August 4th, it will offer over 50 short films, 30 feature-length films, both narrative features and documentaries, workshops with various film artists, panel discussions, master classes, parties and live musical performances.

As a filmmaker, Laster, made her last film--a comedy about zombies--in 2005. Since then she’s produced, The Love Guide, starring Parker Posey. She concedes, however, that the process of filmmaking has changed so much over the years that she may not have the requisite skills for making films in the future. Yet, possibly because of changes in technology, more film departments in colleges and film training schools, or because of film festivals such as Woods Hole, there are many more people making films than when the festival started. The volume of films the jurists of Woods Hole must sift through is at its peak. With competition so fierce, it has become a sought-after honor for a filmmaker to his or her film selected for Woods Hole. It represents not only an opportunity to have one’s work seen by significant people in the film business, along with the general public, but a chance at a future life for the film as well. Winning the festival’s Jury Award or Audience Award are both coveted honors.

The festival has always welcomed work by New England filmmakers, or those with roots in New England. Focusing on independent filmmakers from the onset, Laster understands it’s impossible for such filmmakers to truly compete with the big studios, especially when functioning far away from the LA sphere. She can, however, provide a window of opportunity for their work. The film Louder Than A Bomb, a documentary about poetry slams in Chicago, which won both Woods Hole’s Best of the Fest and the Audience Award, was not only picked up for distribution in Illinois communities, but eventually distributed nationally.

Laster’s goals have always been: create original programming; find films that “our” people, as Laster describes them--meaning people from both the Woods Hole filmmaking and film-viewing community--want to see; serve as a showcase and place of validation for the work of the filmmakers that are selected; and find interesting, good stories. Along with documentaries and serious narrative features, the festival has always included comedies--apparently a good comedy is hard to find--and over-the-top horror that’s done well. No matter the genre, the festival consistently looks to provide a large range of films that fully engage the filmgoer. Laster doesn’t want her viewers thinking of anything but the story in front of them when they sit in one of the various viewing venues, whether it’s an art gallery or an auditorium.

Though she hasn’t continued making films of her own, she feels that every festival is like making a film. You start with no budget, no actors. Then you slowly put the pieces together. In the process, you create a community of people with shared interests. In this year’s festival, the “community” includes, among many others, producers Ryan Reynolds and Scarlett Johansson (The Whale); Moby, who created the soundtrack for Escape Fire: The Fight To Rescue American Healthcare; Eric Carle, the focus of the documentary short Eric Carle, Picture Writer: The Art of the Picture Book; Film-maker In Residence, Lauren Greenfield, who won this year’s Sundance directing award winner for The Queen of Versailles; RISD Professor and fimmaker, Laura Colella, (Tax Day), whose Breakfast With Curtis will have its east coast premiere at the festival; as well as Sam Reid and The Riot Act, and other renowned musical talent in live performances. Part of the fun of any festival is to hobnob with the various artists that attend--be it actor, director, musician, producer--while walking around the town, participating in workshops, asking questions at the panel discussions, or attending nightly parties. The Woods Hole Film Festival is no exception; it has even sparked several film collaborations.

Some of the other offerings of the festival include a performance by The Persuasions, prior to the screening of Christopher Janney’s What is a Heart? A film monitoring impulses between a dancer’s brain and heart. Prior to the screening of Into the Gyre, a film about scientists investigating the giant plastic mass that has accumulated in the Sargasso Sea, the tall ship used during the mission will be available for tours.

Laster says that even after 21 years, the festival remains challenging and exciting to her. “You make something out of nothing,” she says, with the enthusiasm of a person just beginning such a long journey. Laster likens her work on the festival to being a cultural entrepreneur. When people in her community tell her--as many have--“That film changed my life,” she knows that every one of the past 21 years have been worth her efforts.

For more information on the Woods Hole Film Festival, running July 28 through August 4, please visit its website.