Green Mountain Film Festival Celebrates 20th Anniversary

by Carla Occaso

MONTPELIER — Twenty years ago Rick Winston, former owner of the Savoy Theater and his workers, brought the Green Mountain Film Festival to town. And he, along with Andrea Serota, Chris Wood, Donald Rae, Carlos Haase, Terry Youk, Rachelle Murphy — and others — helped sustain it for all these years.

This year at the helm is Murphy, who is in her third year as executive director of the festival. She sounded excited to be on the eve of the event, which starts March 17.

Murphy told The Bridge by phone that this year 48 percent of the directors are women — a high percentage in the film festival circuit. Murphy and The Bridge celebrated this female gender achievement during our phone conversation because it was March 8 — International Women’s Day. And one special hometown hero of our gender, Katherine Paterson, is scheduled to speak about the new film based on her novel, “The Great Gilly Hopkins” Katherine Paterson, a longtime Barre resident who now lives in Montpelier, is an award-winning author who wrote many novels, several of which have been made into movies, including “The Bridge to Terebithia,” “Lyddie” and “Jacob Have I Loved.”

Green Mountain Film Festival Director Rachelle Murphy

“The Great Gilly Hopkins” is about the life of a bitter 11-year-old foster child who makes up a plan to get rid of her foster mother and reunite with her birth mother.  Paterson’s son David wrote the screenplay and, he, along with brother John Paterson, produced the movie directed by Stephen Herek, who also directed “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Katherine Paterson will be in attendance Thursday, March 23 at 6 p.m. at The Pavilion for a post-screening question and answer session. Actors include Kathy Bates (as the foster mom), Octavia Spencer (Gilly’s teacher) and Glenn Close (birth grandmother).

“It is a great family-friendly film and she’ll be here,” Murphy said, adding, “who doesn’t want to talk to Katherine Paterson? She is a great author.” The showing is sponsored by Woodbury Mountain Toys.

Another highlight is “Coming Through The Rye” to be shown Wednesday, March 22 at 6:30 p.m. The movie is based on the personal experience of filmmaker James Sadwich, who embarked on a search for “Catcher In The Rye” author J.D. Salinger. Sadwich lives in Woodstock and will appear to follow the screening at the Pavilion. It stars Alex Wolff (The Naked Brothers Band, 2007).  “This is a great cast; It is beautifully photographed. It is a good story,” Murphy noted.

Also new to the festival is the Virtual Reality Salon to take place at the Center for Arts and Learning at 46 Barre St. “A couple of films will be loaded on headsets and people can come to the Center for Arts and Learning and try it out. All of the major film festivals are doing this,” Murphy said. The salon involves a person putting on a headset akin to a full facial View Master-type mask that shuts out all other visual distractions but the movie. Murphy describes it like this: “You have headphones on. Your eyes are locked into a screen. It looks like  a sleep mask. It is not only like you are watching a movie, it is also like you are inside the movie. It is 360 degrees — It is such an immersive experience.”

For example, one of the films takes place in Maine. When you watch this movie at the Virtual Reality Salon, you dive underwater and go right into one of the lobster traps. “It is just a different experience … I don’t know anyone in Vermont who is doing it. We are really excited about being able to bring this emerging technology to Central Vermont. Also, it is free.

This year’s festival will have 32 countries represented with two being new: Vanuatu — a country in Oceania — and Mali.

And what’s the big deal about movies, and/or this film festival? “Movies connect us to our neighbors. It is one of my personal favorite things to do to connect with people I may not have seen in the past year and I really look forward to it,” Murphy said. She also alluded to how movies have a broader importance beyond bringing local neighbors together. “Movies help everyone understand what is going on in the world,” she said.

Green Mountain Film Festival Founder and former owner of the Savoy Theater
Rick Winston

Past owner of the Savoy Theater, Winston and others launched a mini-version of the first film festival a couple of years before the Green Mountain Film Festival started, according to festival co-founder Andrea Serota. A couple of college students asked to use the Savoy for a two-day independent film festival, but did not continue the next year. Then, Savoy employee Chris Wood inspired Winston and Serota to do it again — this time making it a 6-day event showing films from all over the world.

Under the auspices of Focus on Film, a tax-exempt organization the team put together to fund special film events, they began fundraising and organizing for a festival. “It started out as a 6-day event, Serota explained, adding that it quickly moved to a 10-day festival to include two weekends. “It was very international. It was always very topical. There were many documentaries.” Serota said her aim, along with Winston and Wood, was to present “the best films we could get, both feature and documentary … the films we showed were exceptionally high quality.” Another hallmark was to invite filmmakers to present their films and hold discussions with the audience.

And, in addition, Winston would invite a film critic to present a film and then have a discussion afterward. This was a signature part of the event. Serota remembers one time when Stuart Klawans, the critic for “The Nation,” wrote about The Green Mountain Film Festival and called it a “Cinephile’s paradise.”

A big part of the fun is also that people come to Montpelier from all over the northeast at a time of year that is usually dismal. “We had people who would come, take a room somewhere and just go to the movies. They were coming from New York, Montreal and Boston,” Serota said. And the filmmakers themselves fill the streets. Documentarians and feature film directors — sometimes with cast and crew — show up for the event.

As the years went by, the little film festival became a bigger event requiring more people. As Serota puts it, it went from being a “handmade” event to becoming more “professionalized.”

Expenses included the films, honoraria and travel reimbursement for presenters.

Winston and Serota sold the theater and then ran the festival in 2010, but decided to stop doing it by 2012.

However, they stay involved. Both will be attending 10 films and Rick will be doing a film history presentation. Serota praises Murphy, the most recent festival director.

“I am a big fan of Rachelle Murphy. She has done a good job,” Serota noted. “There was a lot of belt tightening just after we left, but it survived. I am taking my 8-year-old granddaughter to one,” Serota added. “It is a great event. Fantastic for the downtown in a time when things are as bleak as could be.”