What started out as a simple attraction to the Beloit area has evolved into an international draw for film buffs everywhere. Learn what’s in store for this year’s festival and how you can join the excitement.
Filmmakers from across the globe have submitted more than 1,000 films to Beloit International Film Festival (BIFF) over the past year. After surviving multiple levels of screenings, the top 100 films will play at this year’s festival, from Feb. 19-28 in downtown Beloit.
“We pulled back on the number of films this year and focused a little more on quality,” says Rod Beaudoin, BIFF executive director. “As the first affiliate of the Hollywood Film Festival, BIFF has accessibility to films of an elevated level. Our submissions are of the highest quality. Last year we had about 200 films, and now we show half that amount. We repeat the films more often, so people have more opportunity to see their favorites. I think we were far more discerning this year than we’ve ever been. This is the best lineup of films we’ve ever had.”
Now in its 11th year, BIFF has upwards of 400 volunteers who make the event happen. Work begins 11 months in advance with pre-screenings of films, booking of venues and financial planning. During the festival, volunteers take tickets, welcome viewers and help run question-and-answer sessions after film showings.
“I think BIFF is one of the most significant cultural events ever created in this city,” Beaudoin says. “You can spend an entire weekend in some of the finest hotels and enjoy some of the finest restaurants for only a few hundred dollars. It’s a super buy and you’ll see world-class films.”
The Selection Process
Beaudoin ultimately selects the films shown at BIFF with the help of programming coordinator Adam Fogarty, board president Marty Densch, a handful of other BIFF employees and a festival pre-screening team. First and foremost, the team bases its selection on direction, cinematography, script and acting.
“The production values are important for me,” Densch says. “You want to see that the filmmaker knows what they’re doing, because you’re not going to like a film where you can’t hear the dialogue well, or if the acting is poor.”
However, the feel of the movie is also important.
“I need to see that the filmmaker accomplishes their goal,” Densch adds. “What was their intention and how effectively did they achieve what they set out to do? That, for me, is the bottom line.”
Films in this year’s festival include dramas, psychological thrillers, family dramas, comedies, foreign language films, documentaries, short films and one experimental documentary. Films shown during the first weekend of the festival have a heavy emphasis on filmmakers from Wisconsin and Illinois, while the second weekend has more foreign films.
Six venues around Beloit will showcase films: Bagels & More, Bushel & Peck’s, Domenico’s, Hendricks Art Center, La Casa Grande and Luxury 10 cinema. Each venue has become known for a specific style of film, Beaudoin says. Bushel & Peck’s is known for showing comedies and narrative features, Domenico’s for showing documentaries, while La Casa Grande – the largest venue, with 200 seats – has repeat showings of all styles of film.
Luxury 10 shows the festival’s only non-independent films: a sing-along, a classic film and a silent film. Each showing is a main event, Fogarty says. This year’s sing-along is “Hairspray” (2007), the classic film is “The Maltese Falcon” (1941); and the silent film is “The Wizard of Oz” (1925).
“People get dressed up for the sing-along – it’s one big party,” Fogarty says. “And there’s always a rush to get tickets for the silent film. That’s become a huge event at BIFF.”
The Social Atmosphere
Beyond the films themselves, BIFF is about interacting with filmmakers, other film enthusiasts and the community as a whole.
“We’ve fine-tuned BIFF over the years to become a very social festival,” Beaudoin says. “There’s a bustling of people and an energy as you walk downtown. Filmmakers have their passes that they wear around their neck, so it’s not unusual to see dialogue going on between people on the street. And, of course, that’s carried into the restaurants and shops in the downtown area, making it a very interactive festival.”
After a showing, viewers can engage in question-and-answer sessions with the filmmakers, grab a bite to eat downtown, or simply chat about the film with other festivalgoers. Beaudoin enjoys seeing the lively discussions happening all throughout downtown, often between neighbors who are strangers to each other.
“It’s a very social atmosphere where people are warm and inviting,” Beaudoin says. “A group of friends will be sitting at a table, discussing a film, and someone walking by can stop and give their viewpoint. It’s a very unique vibe that speaks to Beloit’s charm.”
To Densch, the accessibility of filmmakers is an important component.
“They sit in the audience with the people that they made this film for,” Densch says. “They get to see the audience’s reactions and feel their responses. It’s got to be just magical for a filmmaker.”
Films to Watch For
Of all 100 titles, a handful especially stand out to Fogarty, Densch and Beaudoin.
Fogarty’s top five include “Hell’s Heart,” “One Smart Fellow,” “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Waffle Street” and “Child K.”
“‘Hell’s Heart’ is a supernatural psychological thriller that crawls up into one of my all-time favorite films,” Fogarty says. “‘One Smart Fellow’ is brilliant – it’s so economically written that it’s something that should be shown in film schools as an example of how to write a film. ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ and ‘Waffle Street’ are excellent narrative features, and ‘Child K’ is a short film I highly recommend viewing.”
Densch’s top five include “Field Niggas,” “Among the Believers,” “Waffle Street,” “Funny Bunny” and “Kittens in a Cage.”
“‘Field Niggas’ is the one experimental film in the festival,” Densch says. “The cinematographer started out photographing street people in Harlem, and then started interviewing them. I think, as a viewer, you learn more about what life is like on the street for someone like that than any other documentary made on this subject.
“‘Among the Believers’ was extremely dangerous to make,” Densch adds. “It’s about the training programs for the Taliban. ‘Waffle Street’ is heart-warming and engaging, ‘Funny Bunny’ is hilarious – it’ll grab your attention in the first few minutes – and ‘Kittens in a Cage,’ is a rather controversial comedy. Screeners loved it or hated it.”
As for Beaudoin, heart-warming films are the most impactful. His favorites are “Pony,” “Among the Believers,” “Waffle Street,” “Right Footed” and “Glory Daze.”
No matter the viewer’s taste, this year’s lineup promises a diverse collection of stories.
“I enjoy films that leave you filled with hope and belief in man,” Beaudoin says. “But as you can see, we have a diversity of opinions. We each have our own viewpoints that we share, and somewhere down the line, a festival gets put together.”
BIFF Year ‘Round
BIFF has matured into more than just a 10-day festival.
A program called BIFF Year ‘Round screens 37 independent films throughout the year at Hendricks Art Center, in downtown Beloit. Members of the Beloit Film Society can attend all 37 films for free, in addition to receiving complimentary tickets to the annual festival.
“Film societies are important for any festival that wants to thrive, and ours is a great group,” Beaudoin says. “Part of the reason we’ve become such a respected festival is the elite level of our audience. The people from the greater Beloit area have become quite sophisticated in terms of their viewing skills. Filmmakers often note that the questions they get from viewers are some of the best in the festival circuit, which speaks to an educated audience.”
Despite having a budget of just $160,000, BIFF competes with festivals in Madison, Wis., Milwaukee and other large cities that typically have budgets over $1 million. Beaudoin believes the deep community involvement is what allows BIFF to shine.
“We say we bring the world to Beloit and Beloit to the world,” Beaudoin says. “When we initially conceived the idea for this festival, we had a series of meetings with businesses and community leaders, and within a week we were able to get sponsorship. All the banks in Beloit signed on. Normally banks like to be exclusive sponsors, but again, that’s the difference with Beloit. There’s a sense of community that transcends selfish interests.”
The Importance of Film
Why does BIFF resonate with audiences? Perhaps it’s because film is such an accessible medium.
“By nature of being an especially prevalent art, film is easier for a wider audience to gravitate toward,” Fogarty says. “That, and its visual nature allows for ideas to be disseminated in a way that I don’t think you’re as likely to get in any other medium.”
Densch agrees, adding that films represent a snapshot of culture in a given moment. Beaudoin finds that film is a testament to mankind’s creativity.
“Film is a reflection of our humanity,” Beaudoin says. “For that, I think BIFF is one of the most significant cultural events ever created in this city.”
To view this year’s lineup and purchase tickets in advance (shows do sell out early), visit beloitfilmfest.org or call the BIFF box office at (773) 818-5010.