PORTSMOUTH, NH – The perks of being an Atlas member of Manchester Ink Link are plentiful. Along with the ‘feel-good’ factor that comes with supporting local independent journalism, you get to donate ad space to the nonprofit of your choice, and there are plentiful other perks, like surprise gift cards, VIP-only events, and discounts at local businesses. This past weekend my membership included a pass to the New Hampshire Film Festival – its 20th anniversary!
There was a lot of buzz at this year’s festival – and not just because it was the event’s long-awaited return after a two-year COVID hiatus. This year’s exciting news was that the NHFF is an Academy Award® qualifying festival in the live-action and animated short film categories for the first time. This means that short films awarded here in New Hampshire do not need the required qualifying theatrical run (no easy feat for a short) and are automatically eligible for consideration by the Academy. Other festivals with this honor have names like Sundance, Cannes, SXSW, Tribeca, etc. It marks a big step in credibility for the NHFF, making it much more appealing to filmmakers and, believe me, it showed at this year’s festival.
The scene in Portsmouth could only be described as vibrant. The city is the perfect setting for a film festival: walkable, beautiful, historic, and chock-full of dining and entertainment options, should one tire of the big screen or need an intermission meal. The festival hosts approximately 10,000 participants each year, and this year was its most ambitious. For the 20th anniversary, the program included over 150 films screened at six different screening venues over four days. Forty of those films have direct ties to New Hampshire, and these films enjoyed a special “New Hampshire Day and Night” to open the festival on Thursday. In addition to film screenings, there are myriad parties, Q & A events and panels, a screenwriting competition, and a young filmmakers workshop. To see and do everything would be quite impossible!
Though I could only attend the festival for one-and-a-half days, I made the most of it and came away having seen some very compelling material. “A Life on the Farm” by Oscar Harding is, for lack of a better term, a “found film.” The filmmaker’s grandfather passed away and left behind a homemade feature film on VHS tape documenting his lonely life on his farm. It goes from quaint and bittersweet to a little odd to downright bizarre over its 75-minute run time. As its festival blurb describes it, the film is “Monty Python” meets “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” in documentary form. I, for one, will not forget this movie any time soon.
The short film, “Daddy’s Girl,” brought the laughs – watch and cringe as an outspoken, iconoclast father helps his daughter move out of her ex-boyfriend’s apartment. In the same block of short films, “Change of Plans” examines the horrific circumstance domestic violence victims found themselves in during the COVID lockdown when there truly was no escape. It is important and harrowing filmmaking. This kind of programming makes a festival – running these two films back-to-back enhanced the message that each film was sending; the juxtaposition of the two films made the viewer’s experience that much more intense. The protagonists in these two shorts could easily have been neighbors living wildly different lives.
Sarah Archambault and Margo Guernsey’s “No Time to Fail” is another example of vital, important documentary filmmaking. It is a cinema verité examination of poll workers and administrators in Rhode Island during the 2020 primary and general elections. You are a fly on the wall watching these people throw themselves into their thankless, tedious jobs to receive nothing but insults, derision, and threats of violence in return. You realize that a 100 percent truly accurate vote count of millions of voters is impossible – statistically, some votes will be missed when sampling millions of ballots. You also see the dedication these workers have to make sure that that happens as little as possible – in one scene a worker stays late, personally calling 30 different absentee voters who have technical ballot errors and offering the chance to fix them.
A lot has been said about how much a documentarian influences their material – a common school of thought is that it’s impossible to be truly neutral when making a film. The filmmakers’ beliefs and ideals will always be on the screen whether they want them to be or not; it’s a built-in aspect of the art form. I can say that this film bends over backward to present the material for only the viewer to judge – there is nary a scent of the filmmaker’s opinions. It is the ultimate challenge of editing a verité project, and the filmmakers pulled it off swimmingly.
In a stroke of pure filmmaking genius, the film ends on the morning of January 6th. You see the workers complete their jobs and send off the electors for certification in Washington, D.C. Of course, none of them knew that a mob awaited, ready to negate all their hard work and vigilance because they were unhappy with the legitimate outcome. The effect of ending the film just before the insurrection began is stunning.
Co-Director Margo Guernsey opined on what it meant to be invited to NHFF.
“It actually means a lot to us to be invited to the film festival because to us it’s the local stories that matter – we care about the regular people who are doing the work. So to bring the film to a New England festival like this feels like bringing it home.”
Dan Freund, a Portsmouth-based filmmaker who screened his short “This Happy Moment,” elaborated on the importance of the festival.
“I’ve been coming to this festival for 12 or 13 years, but this is the first time I’ve entered a film – it feels good! The festival has grown a lot.”
This viewer and attendee will agree with Mr. Freund, this year’s festival was a “feel good” affair, and I have The Manchester Ink Link’s Atlas VIP program to thank for it.
The festival’s New Hampshire Day & Night, which showcased films with ties to the Granite State on Thursday, included presentation of the 2022 Van McLeod Award. Recognizing New Hampshire natives and residents who have made significant contributions in film and television, this year’s recipient was Julian Higgins. Immediately following the award presentation, the audience experienced a screening of Higgins’ debut feature, God’s Country.
- Van McLeod Award: Julian Higgins (director of God’s Country)
Thursday evening concluded with presentation of this year’s New Hampshire Awards:
- Best NH Feature Documentary: Be Our Guest (directed by Diane Tsai)
- Best NH Feature Narrative: God’s Country (directed by Julian Higgins)
- Best NH Short Documentary: Dear Ani (directed by Micah Levin)
- Best NH Short Narrative: RANSACK (directed by Miles Dixon)
- Best NH Performance: Gemma Soldati, The Adventures of Sleepyhead (directed by Gemma Soldati)
- NH Filmmaker of the Year: Ben Silberfarb (director of Whitman Brook, producer of Love in the Night)
- NH Short Film of the Year: Waiting Period (directed by Taylor Lee Nagel)
Other Highlights from the NHFF website
Two of the festival’s most highly anticipated films, The Lost King and Aftersun, bookended Friday and Saturday night’s program respectively. Emmy Award-winning host Tom Bergeron joined the creators and co-stars of his new series Down the Middle for an exclusive viewing and discussion on Friday at The Press Room. The Annual Comedy Panel, hosted at 3S Artspace on Saturday, extended a full house of attendees the opportunity to get up-close and personal with special guests Gary Valentine, Laura Silverman, Josh Meyers, Aaron Lee and Robert Kelly.
The bulk of the awards honoring excellence in filmmaking and screenwriting were presented on Sunday, including the Live Action Shorts Jury Award and Animation Shorts Jury Award. The recipients of these two awards are now qualified to submit their film to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences for Academy Award® consideration in the Short Film category.
The following works were recognized during the awards portion of closing ceremonies:
- Best Screenplay: BRUCE (written by Danny Latrenta & Eric Hanson)
- Best Student Film: The Businessman (directed by Nathan Ginter)
- Best Short Comedy: Half (directed by Jacob Roberts)
- Best Short Drama: Gussy (directed by Chris Osborn)
- Shorts Jury Award, Documentary: The Body is a House of Familiar Rooms (directed by Eloise Sherrid & Lauryn Welch)
- Shorts Jury Award, Animation (Academy-Qualifying): We Are Here (directed by Constanza & Domenica Castro)
- Shorts Jury Award, Live Action (Academy-Qualifying): Catching Spirits (directed by Vanessa Beletic)
- Audience Choice, Documentary: Lily Topples the World (directed by Jeremy Workman)
- Audience Choice, Narrative: How to Rob (directed by Peter Horgan)
- Best Documentary Feature: The House We Lived In (directed by Tim O’Donnell)
- Best Narrative Feature: Good Girl Jane (directed by Sarah Elizabeth Mintz)
- Grand Jury Award, Documentary: Naked Gardens (directed by Patrick Bresnan & Ivete Lucas)
- Grand Jury Award, Narrative: Way Out Ahead of Us (directed by Rob Rice)
Following the ceremony, the festival officially concluded with a screening of the feature narrative R.M.N. at The Music Hall.
To stay up to date on all things New Hampshire Film Festival, visit nhfilmfestival.com.