Launched as a volunteer-driven celebration, this burgeoning festival is quickly gaining notice among film buffs in Geneva and around Chicagoland.
Since its start in 2007, the Geneva Film Festival has steadily grown into a local juggernaut, gathering increasing attention for its selection of films, sponsoring organizations, and crowd of film fans and volunteer workers. The ninth annual festival, set for this March 10-12, will once again unite Geneva in the love and art of filmmaking.
“Every year we redefine ourselves,” says Scott Rolf, festival executive director. “It was a small event at the time I joined the team in 2009, but it has been growing ever since. Last year, we were barely able to handle the number of people that came out.”
In 2015, record-high crowds of more than 1,000 people showed up to see about 40 films and meet 18 filmmakers, says Chris Bennett, festival committee member. This year’s submissions fill seven categories across a range of interests and genres, from narrative and animated shorts to documentary features and student pieces.
The festival has also grown from three venues to five, and now includes the Playhouse 38 Theatre, 524 W. State St.; City Hall, 22 S. First St.; and 25N Coworking, 25 N. Third St. The new locations will allow for increased attendance and multiple showings of some films.
“Overall, we’ve had as many as 120 films representing 20 countries and sometimes more, including the U.S., Canada, Spain, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, Brazil and India,” says Rolf. “Not many people have heard of the Geneva Film Festival, but we’re trying to change that. We’re trying to become more international.”
In that pursuit, the festival has become host to the only Midwest screenings of Emerging Cinematography Awards selections, a recognition of up-and-coming cinematographers. It’s part of the festival’s commitment to showcasing new talent in filmmaking and engaging the community in a discussion on film.
Rolf is a filmmaker and freelance cameraman in the Chicago film industry who brings a unique focus and background that enhance the festival’s mission and reach. He helps to keep the event committed to showing new, high-quality films.
“There is generally an air of excitement and an appreciation of creative films that you don’t get to see in theaters,” says Bennett. “Some of the films have deep social messages that do not always cater to primetime. The festival provides a chance to explore these films.”
Rolf and a team of judges, three per category, work together to vet each year’s hundreds of submissions. Each film is viewed and rated with a scoring sheet, using both technical and subjective measurements. The final lineup of films is determined by those scores and comments.
As a product of the Geneva Cultural Arts Commission, the festival is beneficial not only to the independent filmmaking industry but also to its host city. The charming downtown setting feeds the relaxed and intimate atmosphere the festival thrives on.
“Since its inception, the Geneva Film Festival has offered a variety of high-quality films not seen in traditional movie outlets,” says Tim Vetang, chairperson for the Geneva Cultural Arts Commission. “The enthusiasm and creative ideas from our volunteers has created a fan-friendly experience that is hard to beat.”
Beyond the film screenings, the festival hosts special events and workshops with industry professionals. Last year’s event included a student night with ticket discounts, a VIP “Taste of Geneva” party and a filmmakers’ roundtable. Contributing filmmakers also shared how they produced their films and what they learned during the process. The filmmakers’ roundtable returns this year with three breakout groups on documentaries, narrative features and short films.
“Perhaps the biggest benefit to attendees is that the wall between filmmakers and film watchers is removed,” says Vetang. “Attendees get ample opportunity to speak with those involved with acting, directing and producing the films they will see.”
This year’s festival is getting a head start with several pre-festival events. A few official preview parties are meant to give a taste of what’s in store. On Feb. 4, 25N Coworking will screen trailers for this year’s selections, along with a short presentation on the history and mission of the Geneva Film Festival. Guests can enter to win a pair of free festival tickets before they go on sale later in the month.
“On Jan. 9, we also held a Winter Sampler Screening event at Playhouse 38,” says Rolf. “Mike Cramer, director of ‘Teenage Ghost Punk’ and winner of the 2015 Geneva Film Festival Best Emerging Director Award, was one of our guest filmmakers at the Winter Sampler Screening.”
Small Community Beginnings
Shortly after the Geneva Cultural Arts Commission formed in the fall of 2006, it started brainstorming ways to engage the city through artistic experiences. A film festival was one of the group’s top ideas.
“We held a town meeting to discuss ideas, events and fundraising, and we discovered a film festival had the potential to be popular and to help fund activities for the commission and for a new arts center,” says Vetang.
The very first festival was a one-day event with 500 guests and 24 films. Each year since, it has grown with the help of its volunteers and local sponsors.
“People have started coming out of the woodwork,” says Rolf. “People are calling me to see how they can get involved, especially from a volunteer standpoint. I used to have meetings with six people, and now we have 20-some people who want to volunteer, so we had to assign areas. Now I have two co-chairs and 12 lieutenants.”
The festival is a nonprofit organization run entirely on volunteers, says Rolf, and has no paid staff members. Since Rolf joined, the festival has been given a new brand, an updated website and a fresh logo. And, it continues to provide a positive exposure of the city to newcomers.
“Because Geneva does not have a movie theater, the festival events are held in different downtown locations, allowing out-of-town visitors to experience all of Geneva,” says Vetang. “It creates an opportunity to visit different shops and restaurants between showings.”
Festivalgoers can celebrate the films while exploring Geneva’s charming downtown business district.
“There is truly something for everyone,” says Kelsey Rankin, another festival committee member. “There’s always this great energy and buzz that culminates at the festival. Last year, we had standing room only in most of our screening rooms. These are films that make you think and that generate conversation. Attendees can mingle with the filmmakers, ask them questions, learn about the process of making a film and come to the wrap party at the end of it all. It’s not just about watching films.”
This year’s final film lineup has yet to be released, but organizers promise another festival full of surprises.
For details on this year’s showings, festival schedule and ticket information, visit genevafilmfestival.org.