When filmmaker Meira Blaustein co-founded the Woodstock Film Festival in 2000, there was minimal film presence in the Hudson Valley.
“Nobody was making films here,” said Blaustein. “Films were not an existing entity here, not as a business or cultural opportunity, so it felt like we were introducing something brand new. Film is such a contemporary art form, the festival really brought a new dimension to the arts and culture of the region, rejuvenated it, and very quickly swept it into 21st century. Today, the Hudson Valley is burgeoning with film production and film opportunities.”
The inaugural event, which Blaustein describes as “modest,” aired 75 films, most of which were shorts, but today the Woodstock Film Festival is named among the top 50 most respected and influential film festivals, drawing films from around the world. One reason for the festival’s successful trajectory was the initial industry support. Speakers at the first festival’s workshops included actor Aidan Quinn, documentary filmmakers Albert Maysles, Barbara Kopple and D. A. Pennebaker, filmmaker Les Blank and Ron Nyswaner, who wrote the screenplay for Philadelphia.
“There were some really accomplished filmmakers on the advisory board and participating in panels from the get go,” said Blaustein. “That made it not just a little fledgling thing, but something that had real gravitas to it.”
In the last two decades the festival has seen major changes.
“At first the festival was a mom and pop organization, working out of the kitchen,” said Blaustein. “Now it’s a very professional organization, working out of a building the festival owns with a year-round staff, hundreds of volunteers and many interns. We began only in Woodstock but we are now more of a Hudson Valley festival, as we are also in Rhinebeck, Saugerties, Kingston, and Rosendale. We shine a spotlight on cinema from different countries. It is still very local in terms of where we are based and that the core staff lives here year-round, but in terms of participants, it’s global.”
The event’s advisory board now features many talented and celebrated creatives, including Ellen Chenoweth, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ethan Hawke, Melissa Leo, and Liev Schreiber. Although Blaustein, says the festival’s potential quickly became apparent, some magical moments stand out in her memory.
“There was a lot of magic when the late Academy Award-winning choreographer Haskell Wexler danced on floor of theater when we showed Stop Making Sense. We took out all chairs and he was dancing up a storm. I thought then, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ Then when I watched the first panel, which had all these accomplished filmmakers I thought, ‘I can’t believe all these people are here.’ When Natalie Portman walked on stage, wearing stilettos, and welcomed award-winning filmmaker Darren Aronofsky to the stage, I felt like we’d really made it.”
For Blaustein, who serves as executive director and programmer, perhaps the best part of the festival is the way it inspires young creatives. During the year the organization offers educational events such as a screenwriting class and film labs for teens, in which students can make short films that are shown at the festival.
“When a young filmmaker comes here and gets inspired and then goes on and makes a feature film and they become a successful filmmaker, you feel you have done something really great.”
Submission for the 2019 festival is now open.
“We make our decisions based on merit, whether we think a film has high quality in terms of vision or production value, subject matter and a unique approach. It’s all very nuanced. We have a large number of screeners view submissions and grade them, then we take all that into consideration. Every submission is seen by at least three people. It’s a long process and we try to make sure the final program is diverse, eclectic, high quality, and that the films will have a positive effect, that they inspire audiences, one way or another, and, if nothing else, they entertain.”
A roster of special events is planned to celebrate the festival’s 20th anniversary,
On April 28, the festival will air a documentary titled Amazing Grace, about Aretha Franklin’s live recording of the song “Amazing Grace.” Simi Stone will sing some of Aretha Franklin’s songs at the screening, which takes place at Upstate Films in Woodstock.
On May 11, the festival will present a staged screenplay reading of Feeding Mrs. Moskowitz, with actors and writers at Kleinert/James Gallery in Woodstock. The screenplay was written by local writer Barbara Pokras, with Fran Pokras Yariv, and is based on a novella by Pokras.
On May 22, the festival and its sister organization, the Hudson Valley Film Commission, will hold the annual community fundraiser, Taste of Woodstock. Participants can sign up and get a bracelet, then stroll around Woodstock and sample a variety of food.
On May 30, the festival airs an action comedy film from Uganda at Upstate Films. The producer will attend the event. The independent movie was made for about $200, said Blaustein, and already has millions of international fans.
On June 1, the festival plans a panel discussion in collaboration with Radio Kingston. The panel will feature diverse voices in film and media, including Roger Ross Williams, the first African American director to win an Academy Award, and Yoruba Richen, who produced and directed The New Black, which won the audience award at AFI Docs, Frameline Film Festival and Philly QFest.
More events will be organized. For details and updates, follow the festival on social media or visit the festival’s site.