Film Festivals

Festival Lights

1 Sep , 2004  

Written by Hilary Barraford | Posted by:

There’s a new festival in town or, more accurately, out of town. Drop by Newburyport, Massachusetts on October 1-3 and catch a charismatic collection of documentary films when the Northern Lights Film Festival premieres.

The film community in New England is about to evolve. The first weekend of October marks the debut of the Northern Lights Film Festival in Newburyport, the first all-documentary festival this side of the Hudson hatched by first-time festival directors Michelle Fino and Hailey Klein.

Don’t be fooled by the novelty of the project: this veteran duo has done everything for independent film but organize a festival. With nearly 100 submissions vying for fewer than half as many slots, this international magnet for burgeoning documentarians has imported a global stage right in our own backyard.

Unlike the grassy pens many of us possess, this yard crams culture into each square foot and boasts a striking ocean view around every corner. Newburyport is more than a great backdrop for the festival; it simply makes sense. Downtown, everything is walking distance, including the festival’s three venues — the Firehouse Center for the Arts, independent film house The Screening Room, and restored mill complex The Tannery.

Fino leveraged the venues’ proximity, staggering start times so that the overflow from one venue can still motor to a larger venue and catch another flick. Perhaps as film fans dash about town, they’ll salivate over a restaurant or spy a dynamic shop. After all, the town itself is an attraction. Klein empathizes, "I used to live in Boston and thought there wasn’t much going on outside of the city, but we do want to draw from afar… because nothing’s really that far. We want people to immerse themselves in the town — it’s a great place to be." And in the Fall, it’s an amazing place to be.

This place has already embraced independent film. Klein, who hails from the film world on the production side, moved to Newburyport in part because of its independent theater. And Fino, a seasoned producer of theater and arts events, successfully launched the Firehouse Film Series two years ago, introducing Boston’s indie buzz to quaint Market Square. Long-time collaborators on arts events, the pair made it official by creating a non-profit — Aurora Arts Inc. — for the festival. The inspiration for the project, however, sparked long before they incorporated.

"It wasn’t even about doing a festival and making it fit a niche," Fino says. "I love documentaries. Hailey loves documentaries. We’ve been showing them up here and they do well, so why not just put them together over the weekend and make a whole festival of it?"

Armed with their concept, they approached Aloft Group founder and Renaissance man Matt Bowen. To borrow from "Field of Dreams," "If you build it, he will come." As the festival’s organizing sponsor, he has indeed come through for these women. Klein recalls, "From the very beginning he said, ‘Absolutely’… His first answer is always ‘yes,’ then he realizes, ‘Oh god, what did I get myself into?’" A lot, it seems. Aloft, a local advertising and branding company, designed the posters and web site for starters. "The whole company is behind us," beams Klein.

Fittingly, Aloft injected a momentum that buoyed the movement. Townspeople chimed in, volunteering their time and even their own chain of connections. "The enthusiasm level is astounding to me," Klein gushes. "We must have heard that 100 times: ‘Great idea. So glad you’re doing this.’" The judges, too, jumped aboard. The distinguished trio includes Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr, WBUR film reviewer and author (and Newburyport native) Lise Carrigg, and one of Errol Morris’ film editors, Karen Schmeer. Between the generosity of the film world and the locals, the festival is truly the "community event" its founders envisioned. Community reigns as "the soul of this festival."

If community is the soul, then Fino and Klein are certainly the heart of the festival. Their dedication to, and compassion for, the filmmaker is evident as they struggle with the selection process. Since there is no specific theme for the festival, their choices are more subjective.

Still wading through submissions, Klein reports from the trenches, "It’s a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. A good film can be a good film, but you think, ‘Okay, well I have a couple other films on this same topic.’ How do you decide?" Both blessing and curse, she understands the filmmaker: "I used to work in that world and know your film is your baby… you just want everyone to see it." For this reason, every film is given a chance. In fact, as Klein told one filmmaker, "You get 99% of the points just by finishing the film." For the other one percent, sometimes it’s as simple as a fascinating topic that would play well to a crowd. Often, the checklist is more discerning than that, assessing nuances of quality.

Nuances, indeed. As Klein exclaims, "It’s astounding that so many good films have been submitted. They may not all have the best production value, but they’re well made. They tell good stories and they’re fascinating points of view. That’s the part that surprised me — the overall quality." In discovering these top-notch cinematic "vignettes," team Aurora has emerged as champions for the overlooked filmmaker — the ones whose films might not get picked up, who poured "their heart and soul and probably every last penny into making a good film." This festival strives to bring these artists into the spotlight. "If we can get the filmmakers who might not get their films shown in other places, that’s thrilling," explains Klein.

They have already welcomed two of their overlooked favorites from the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina (the "big grandmama of all documentary festivals") — "Alone Across Australia," about an adventurer’s continental stroll, and "Where the Girls Are," a peek into the LPGA Dinah Shore golf tournament. Prepare yourselves: we may have a couple of Aussies running amok in Massachusetts.


At the core, Northern Lights is a filmmaker’s festival, thanks to the input of documentarian George Kachadorian. He advised Fino and Klein how to structure the festival so that filmmakers would not only submit, but also attend. They "took it to heart." Post-screening Q&A’s are a staple, giving the filmmaker a chance to interact with his audience and vice versa. They’ve also blurred the lines of celebrity: "Our filmmakers are our VIP’s, but so are our audience members, so the limited number of passes that we sell will be all access… Everyone gets to go to everything." Fans will mix with directors, who may in turn mingle with producers and even distributors. Just connect the dots to fame and fortune.

The festival founders, on the other hand, seek neither. For them, it’s a labor of love that consumes most of their days. As Klein explains, "For me it’s joyful work. But it’s a lot of work. We’re both so passionate about this because we love — we love — documentaries." Like good kindergartners, they’re sharing their passion with us. Fino hopes for "a well-run event where everyone has fun," and Klein will listen for great discussions around town. Whether people "get enraged or cry or laugh their heads off, all of that range is what we’re going for — the experience of filmgoing." A great festival experience, Fino hopes, will inspire folks to get involved, too.

With opening night only days away, Fino and Klein are confident that their niche festival will resonate with an audience that has become as sophisticated as the documentaries themselves (you won’t see the life story of an amoeba, promise). Klein quips, "You know how the Maine slogan is ‘The Way Life Should Be’? Well, that’s the way we feel about the festival." Even during the final countdown to launch, they keep it light. At least until they hit the dark screening room that awaits them on a sparkling summer’s day. Now that’s love.

For more information on the Northern Lights Film Festival, debuting October 1-3 in Newburyport, visit
Itching to get involved? Or just give kudos? Contact the ladies directly.

For more information on the Northern Lights Film Festival, debuting October 1-3 in Newburyport, visit Itching to get involved? Or just give kudos? Contact the ladies directly.

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