Salem Film Fest founders celebrate film and filmmakers
What do local filmmaker, Joe Cultrera, businessman, Paul Van Ness, and Salem Chamber of Commerce Executive Director, Rinus Oosthoek have in common?
The answer goes back to 2007, when the three founded Salem Film Fest (SFF), the week-long festival that sustains cinephiles each March through the long, bleak slog of New England winter. The largest all-documentary film festival in New England, SFF 2016 will run March 3-10.
It all started in 2006, when Van Ness opened CinemaSalem. He has run Van Ness Creative, a film/video production company in Beverly for 30 years, and has always been interested in filmmaking. “That is what made running the movie theater interesting to me,” he said. (His 2012 documentary feature, “A Good Death”, won Best Documentary at the California Oceanside Film Festival.)
Oosthoek, who met Van Ness in 2003 when he worked with Beverly Main Streets, was one of the first to approach him with the suggestion of putting together a film festival. Van Ness was receptive. “The idea of a festival was part of what can make a cinema successful,” he said. Plus, he wanted the opportunity to bring some movies to Salem that could literally not be seen anyplace else in the world, which “helps the cinema and the local culture.”
Cultrera, a documentary filmmaker who shifts between his own productions and freelance editing work, met Van Ness when CinemaSalem hosted the New England Premiere of his film, “Hand of God”, prior to its acquisition by FRONTLINE, the PBS documentary series. He heard Van Ness and some other folks from Salem were interested in starting a film festival and he agreed to meet with them.
“I’d just come off the festival circuit [with “Hand of God”] and had some strong opinions,” he said. One of them was that SFF should be an all-documentary film fest, which Van Ness described as a “brilliant move” both because it meant SFF would be competing with fewer festivals to attract films and because documentaries are intrinsically more interesting. “You can experience the human family all over the world in a 90-minute film and you know it’s completely true,” he added.
Also, Cultrera pointed out, there were no other significant documentary film festivals in Massachusetts in 2006, so the group had the opportunity to build something unique.
With the three basics in place — venue (through Van Ness), business community involvement (through Oosthoek) and industry and programming connections (through Cultrera) —Salem Film Fest was born in 2007. “That’s about as fast as a festival can be put together once you have a venue,” Van Ness said.
The first year was more successful than anticipated, owing in part, according to Van Ness, to the fact that Cultrera, as Program Director, insisted on screening only very high quality films that were not simply advocacy pieces for the director’s point of view. “We’ve always looked for good storytelling, strong technical aspects, compelling characters and inventive techniques. We want films that present both sides of a story, particularly if it’s a political story,” Cultrera said.
As an “invitation only” festival, the Screening Committee invites filmmakers to submit their films for consideration. Jeff Schmidt, who took over as Program Director in 2013, started searching for films last June. For 2016, the committee invited about 200 filmmakers to submit their work for consideration and collectively considered over 150 films. After a democratic process where members discussed and then voted on each film, the committee selected this year’s line-up of 35 feature documentaries representing 25 countries.
From the get-go, SFF distinguished itself as unique in its focus on the filmmaker. “To us, the filmmakers are the heroes in the industry. They come up with the story,” Van Ness said.
“We get over half the filmmakers to come to Salem, which is another thing that makes this festival so special,” said Oosthoek, noting that this tradition developed accidentally the first year, when most of the filmmakers who attended were local. This year, over two-thirds of the filmmakers will attend, thanks to SFF volunteers who help with traveling logistics and business sponsors’ donations.
Post-screening Q&A sessions make the festival experience richer for filmgoers and filmmakers alike. Van Ness notes that a filmmaker whose film is both good and topical may be invited to 20 festivals. “What people say is that the Q&A afterwards tends to be the same except in Salem, where the sophistication of the audience leads the questions in much more interesting directions than you typically hear,” he said.
Since 2007, SFF has grown from the “little festival that can” in Salem to a major regional documentary festival. Oosthoek points to three reasons why, first and most important being the quality of the films. “There is a ‘Salem identity’. The filmmakers love coming here,” he said. The festival’s reputation has grown beyond the North Shore, attracting fans from Newburyport, Gloucester, Ipswich and as far away as South Carolina and Minnesota.
Second is the educational component, including partnerships with local high schools, colleges and universities, and the opportunity for student and local filmmakers to showcase their documentary short and experimental films in festival programming such as the Five-Minute Student Documentary Contest and the Mass Reality Check. Also, a selected group of local documentarians receive project assistance when they present their in-progress works to industry representatives at the Doc-a-chusetts Pitch session, with the winner receiving a $5,000 production grant for finishing services provided by The OutPost at WGBH.
Last but hardly least, Oosthoek credits the local business community for its commitment and involvement. “They understand it’s good for their regional market,” he said. Where most festivals charge filmmakers a non-refundable fee to submit their work (with no guarantee of acceptance), SFF actually offers every filmmaker a screening fee, free lodging and, in some cases, a travel stipend thanks to local and regional community sponsors and supporters.
Over the years, SFF has also strengthened and expanded its relationship with the Peabody Essex Museum, adding more screenings and connected programming there. “This has really brought an extra dimension to the event and allowed us to show more work,” Cultrera said. Another SFF venue, the Salem National Park Service Visitor Center, will host four screenings this year.
In addition to its liaison with broadcasters like FRONTLINE, SFF has tried to “add new wrinkles each year to keep things fresh,” Cultrera noted, adding that having live music on stage between films is a good way to add a little life to the moments before a screening and expose the audience to local musicians. Another “wrinkle” is “Salem Sketches”, a handful of locally shot two-minute documentaries Cultrera creates with fellow filmmaker Perry Hallinan. “We’re one of the few festivals that can claim to have our own original programming,” Cultrera said.
“Come to Salem, see the world” has been the SFF catch phrase since its inception, both as an homage to the old Salem merchant ships that established trade with the rest of the world and in tribute to the films from dozens of countries the festival has screened over the past nine years. “The festival’s strength has always been its programming and community feel, but the scope of our programming reaches far beyond the local,” Cultrera said.
For more information, visit salemfilmfest.com