How do dinner and a movie sound? Better yet, how about a hundred of ‘em? (Movies, that is—not dinners!) The 15th annual Durango Independent Film Festival kicks off March 4th in downtown Durango, and it’s turned into a can’t miss event for locals and visitors alike. “Every year seems to get better. And every year, I leave there having had an amazing time with a truly special group of people,” said Fred Fontana, a producer, and writer whose credits include “Vegas Vacation,” “The Specialist,” and “Soldier.” Fontana’s film “Florida Road” was included in the 2009 festival, and he’s been back almost every year since as a juror. DIFF, as it’s known in these parts, started in 2006 on the heels of a smaller failed festival, but it’s hard to keep cinephiles down. Festival Director Joanie Leonard was a real estate appraiser who started as a volunteer that first year and took over the job full-time in 2008. She got her introduction to the film festival life while living in Park City, Utah, home to another popular film fest.
“I went to a Q&A at Sundance, and I was hooked,” Joanie shared. “I always thought only industry people go to film festivals, but it’s for the community. The backstory is what drew me in. The first time I heard filmmakers talk about how hard it was to make their film and how they had to max out their credit cards to do it. It’s inspirational that they went to such lengths to get their art out there.” What DIFF has now is what Sundance and other world-renowned festivals used to have—lots of great films, but also accessibility. Durango resident John Rubano is a longtime volunteer with DIFF. He’s also an alumnus of the famed Second City comedy troupe. John has lent his talents to the festival, hosting workshops and panels on acting, comedy, and even working with agents, offering unique insights into the inner workings of the business. “I like how organic it is, and the accessibility to filmmakers,” John stated. “It’s very Durango in that way, not like a place like Sundance where you have to pay to go to parties to talk to people, and you don’t even get to talk to them. It’s more like, ‘There’s the guy who made that film sitting at the bar; you can go talk to him.’”
DIFF week in Durango is a big party. The festival kicks off with Free Movie Night, offering a program of short films at no charge on a first-come, first-serve basis at the downtown Gaslight Theatre and Animas City Theatre, which are about a block apart. The next four days offer a menu of movie options that include narrative and documentary features and shorts, an LGBT program, family films, and two categories at which Durango particularly excels; Native American and Adventure film programs. Several committees of volunteers thoughtfully and efficiently curate the programs. Scott Rahilly, who chairs the documentary committee, said they received more than 250 submissions of short and feature-length documentary films this year. The committee pared it down to 11 features and three separate programs of shorts. “Resilience” includes stories of people turning obstacles into opportunities. “Our Changing World” is a collection of eye-opening international films; and the “This Life” program showcases biographical narratives of interesting people and the places they inhabit.
“We could’ve picked more,” Scott stated, “but we’d probably have to add another day.”
In between viewing sessions, festival-goers have lots of chances to rub elbows with each other, as well as with the actors, directors, and producers who make the movies. Parties include an opening night kickoff shindig, a “Meet the Filmmakers” party, a Friday late-night VIP affair, and the closing night awards ceremony. There are also several panels, workshops, and Q&A sessions before, after, and in between film showings. Fontana said the filmmakers have as much fun with it as the audience members. He’ll soon start shooting a new movie, “Pellett,” in Montana, and among the cast and crew will be actor Kam Dabrowski and cameraman Jeremy Miller, both of whom Fontana met at DIFF events.
“There are not a lot of festivals that offer free panels for filmmakers to meet experienced producers, directors, and writers,” Fontana explained. “They have coffee talks every morning for people to meet the filmmakers running the films featured in the festival as well as distinguished guests. It is also to their compliment that they bring as many filmmakers to the festival as they can, providing some lodging, local events like the train and a filmmakers’ lounge where artists can meet with colleagues over a complimentary bar, not to mention the well-planned parties that last all week long. It is an impressive accomplishment and one that I am always happy to be a part of and look forward to each year.”
Festival veterans will also tell you that—while [you] can purchase individual tickets for each screening program—a full festival pass is the way to go. While most panels and workshops are free, admission to certain events and prioritized seating are just a couple of the perks that go with a full pass, not to mention full access to four days of films for more than 12 hours a day. Joanie Leonard explained that DIFF has grown every year, with more than 500 submissions received this year. She and her staff are planning for the future. They want to ensure that the next generation gains an appreciation for cinema and the art of the film. An integral part of that future is the Reel Learning program, which opens up the festival and its films to school students in Durango and the surrounding communities. Students are bussed to the theaters to view age-appropriate programs for all grade levels—it’s a field trip that’s become an annual highlight for the students. It’s also a great week for grownups, too. If you’re lucky enough to be in town for this year’s festival, you don’t want to miss it.In between viewing sessions, festival goers have lots of chances to rub elbows with each other, as well as with the actors, directors and producers who make the movies. ---------- IF YOU GO
The Durango Independent Film Festival, March 4-8, 2020 Gaslight Cinema, Animas City Theatre and Durango Stadium 9.
Tickets to individual screenings $15
Festival passes range from $75-$270
Early bird pricing before Feb. 1. Festival week headquarters is located inside Four Leaves Winery, 528 Main Avenue. For more information and to purchase passes, visit www.durangofilm.org
“Every year seems to get better. And every year, I leave there having had an amazing time with a truly special group of people.” - Fred Fontana, Producer and Writer
Story written by: Ted Holteen Photos Provided by: Durango Independent Film Festival