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BIFF: A Very Sweet Sixteen (Part I)

A conversation with BIFF's 2022 filmmakers and festival founder/organizer Kelley Vickery as cinema emerges from a global pandemic to (finally) face a live audience again.

Just as the byzantine, mercurial realities of producing a movie demand olympian levels of entrepreneurial gusto, those who start a film festival from scratch had better be equipped with nerves of steel and no small amount of pluck. Competition is merciless: with over 3,000 currently active festivals worldwide and many hundreds in the US alone, Kelley Vickery faced a steep, Hannibalian climb when she launched the Berkshire International Film Festival in 2006. After years living abroad lending her talents to a diverse range of professions, photography in Hong Kong, docenting in Singapore, art- and antiques-selling in Germany, Kelley spirited her three children to the Berkshires looking for a home base.We knew the region well and loved it, having spent five summers in West Stockbridge.”

Filmmakers at BIFF, 2019. Photo courtesy of Berkshire International Film Festival.

 Kelley’s assessment that the cultural cornucopia on offer in the Berkshires was missing a public home for filmmaking turned out to be a visionary one. This is a community overflowing with talent, creative resources and artisan craftspeople, many of whom are making films. Indeed, a panoply of films has been made or partly produced in the Berkshires over the years, including The Cider House Rules, scenes from which were filmed at Ventfort Hall, and as recently as last week, when Bradley Cooper was spotted at The Mount doing his best Leonard Bernstein for an upcoming biopic he’s directing about the controversial, legendary maestro who once so frequently haunted the grounds at Tanglewood and perhaps still does. Hundreds of independent, local and short film productions have also made use of the Berkshires’ architectural and natural legacy in past decades, to the degree that a permanent home for film in these here parts almost seems an inevitability in retrospect.  But inevitable it was not, at least not at first.

2022 BIFF honoree Alfre Woodard.  Photo courtesy of Alfre Woodard.

Kelley was fortunate to have access to a few festival oracles in pursuing her vision: “One of my oldest friends, Ron Henderson ,started the Denver Film Festival, and a friend of my sister runs the Aspen Film Festival, so I had excellent advice.” Great Barrington business entrepreneur and owner of the Triplex Cinemas Richard Stanley “gave us a home,” Kelley warmly recalls, as she reminisces about the early challenges: “We found seed money, maxed out credit cards. In the second year we expanded to the Mahaiwe, and finally paid off the cards.” The first film to screen in 2006 was Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion.  We screened 40 films in 3 days,” Kelley recalls, chuckling relievedly at the memory of that initial scramble. 

The pandemic wiped out last year’s in-person events, but “thanks to an incredible board of directors, we were able to pivot.” The festival managed to build on its following and expand its reach in innovative ways, despite or perhaps because of the challenges; “We had a drive-in at Shakespeare & Co in Lenox which ran for eight weeks, with four films each week. We ran Q&As in the parking lot!  Everyone was extraordinarily supportive.” Now with in-person events back on the menu, albeit with certain COVID protocols in place such as masking and vaccine checks, Kelley is thrilled to offer a more diverse range of screening experiences than ever before: there are programs at the Mahaiwe and Triplex, of course, and now there will be a presence at Tanglewood, a kind of pop-up screening tent where you can roll up with baguette and riesling and take in a motion picture under the spring sunshine. “We have a Sinead O’Connor documentary playing there, as well as the acclaimed film Martin Eden. I’d like to make it a permanent feature of the festival.” 

Kelley and her team continue to field well over 1,000 submissions every year and take their curation seriously. “Alfre Woodard will be our 2022 Honoree and in attendance at the festival, we have a curious, engaged audience, looking for docs, films about the arts, foreign movies, we have films from Germany, Jordan, Oman, Australia, shorts that are hard to find. We cast a wide net for programming. Serious tough subjects and a lot that is funny, our closing night film ‘Pretty Problems’, winner of the audience ward at SXSW in Austin, Texas, is absolutely hilarious and brilliant.”

‘Pretty Problems’ producer, co-writer and actor Britt Rentschler.  Photo courtesy of Britt Rentschler.

Speaking with that film’s producer (and actor and co-writer) Britt Rentschler, it’s easy to see why filmmakers are so keen to get back to festivals and press the flesh after years in isolation and pandemic-extended post-production with their films. Britt, originally from Alabama, worked for years with her fellow actors and producers in Los Angeles to make Pretty Problems a reality. “We all met in acting class and fell in love with each other and film. One year we went to South by Southwest (one of America’s leading film and music festivals in Austin, Tex.) and saw Mark Duplass speak. He said, ‘the cavalry isn’t coming,’ meaning, nobody’s going to come whisk you away to make films.” 

Later, Britt went to Sundance and saw famed writer/director Alan Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under) looking shaken and nervous at a screening of his own film. “Then it hit me,” Britt remembers, “there is no ‘and now it’s all easy’ moment.” It was then that Britt and her coterie decided to make a feature-length movie with each other, Britt’s fellow producers having worked on other films before but never as actors or writers. “We just said, ‘we have to make this work.’” They finished the script in February of 2020, lined up a key location in California’s wine country, found their director Kestrin Pantera at SXSW in March, and were shut down 3 days later when the pandemic gripped the nation. Instead of giving up, they pivoted, tweaking the script to accommodate the realities of working around COVID-19. “In the end we made a better movie because we had space to breathe and process being in isolation, which is what our story is about. We designed the production so the entire cast and crew would fit onto the property, we could not afford to lose time so nobody left the compound, nobody got exposed to or tested positive for the virus and we had food and supplies delivered. Being back at work with actual humans after a year or two of isolation was a dream.”

A scene from ‘Pretty Problems’.  Photo courtesy of the production.

For director Kestrin Pantera, who describes the plot of Pretty Problems as “a bunch of as*holes getting drunk on a billionaire compound” and who taught herself to edit and direct while studying to be an actor, the process of making her third feature film during a pandemic was daunting. However, she’d been daunted before. “When I made my first feature, it was like, oh God, this is so scary and complex. But then, in breaking it down, a feature is just 20 or 30 shorts put together.” The collaborative writing process that led to the script for Pretty Problems resembles the way the film was made, and indeed the manner in which it has reached BIFF. “We were at the Sonoma film festival with Pretty Problems,” only its second festival after being picked up for distribution by IFC out of South by Southwest in a huge win for the team. “Kelley Vickery and Karen Allen were there and saw our film and loved it. We became festie-besties and they invited us to bring the film to BIFF. We actually had to stipulate in our contract with IFC that the film would be allowed to travel to the Berkshires before its official release later this year in theaters and on AMC+ and video on demand services like iTunes. I am so pumped to be attending this festival.” 

The film deals with income inequality among friends and people of the same age group, an issue of increasing relevance as the middle class takes a historic hit while watching billionaires’ wealth explode. “Our goal with this film is to look at that disparity, that guilt and resentment between friends who have little and friends who have a lot, and to try and release that tension.” Cinematic catharsis is a dish best served publicly; it’s an essentially communal art form that has been deprived of its community. For this and so many other reasons, Kestrin and team are “beyond excited and incredibly grateful to be bringing our film to BIFF.”

Editor’s Note: Part 2 will feature interviews with filmmakers from the Berkshires and previous BIFF participants.

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