Middleburg Film Festival: Sheila Johnson and Susan Koch on This Year’s Films
In its fifth year, the Middleburg Film Festival has grown from a tiny gem at the splendid Salamander Resort in Virginia hunt country to a major powerhouse with a very strong line-up ranging from major awards contenders to exceptional independent films, plus interviews with promising newcomers and established greats. The festival opens October 19, with The Darkest Hour, starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. In an interview, founder Sheila Johnson and executive director Susan Koch talked about the festival’s highlights, including a tribute to women directors, a presentation to composer Nicholas Britell featuring not just movie clips but a full live orchestra, and a conversation with Legacy Award winner James Ivory.
What inspired this year’s special focus on women directors?
Koch: It’s funny because we had these films and these incredible directors and all of a sudden I realized we have four of the leading women directors coming to the festival with these great films. We have Dee Rees with Mudbound, an epic film. We have Greta Gerwig with Ladybird. We have Maggie Betts making her directorial debut with Novitiate and we have Valerie Faris, co-director of Battle of the Sexes. Given everything that is going on, I think that it’s just great to have a dialogue that focuses on the accomplishments of women.
Johnson: It’s not that we go looking for films by women. It is really done organically. It’s because they have done the job and they’ve made some of the best films. We did not know that would be a theme until we saw what we would be presenting.
As much as I love seeing the films, my favorite thing about your festival is your great tributes to the composers, this year to Nicholas Britell of “Moonlight” and “Battle of the Sexes.” There’s nothing like it at any other festival. How did that come about?
Johnson: We wanted something that was different, that no other film festival was doing. I’m also a violinist, and so when I watch movies I really listen to the music. And so Susan and I thought it would be really great if we could really celebrate that “unsung” hero (pun intended), the composer. It gives us a chance to expand the educational component of the festival by bringing in the incredible student musicians from the Shenandoah student orchestra. And we can show clips on the big screen with the dialogue off just to hear the music. And this year one of our previous awardees, Marco Beltrami, will return to do a master class with Nicholas.
What made you decide on James Ivory for the Legacy Award?
Johnson: Well just look at what he’s done. His are my favorite movies in the whole world.
Koch: He’s 89 and he’s not showing any signs of stopping. We will be showing his new film, Call Me by Your Name, and it seemed like such an opportunity to recognize his tremendous body of work. He’s got an incredible, elegant visual sense and he portrays people with such understanding and humanity.
I’m very exciting about participating in the festival for the first time on the Talk Back to the Critics panel!
Koch: We love having you out there and people want to meet you. The people who come to the festival have a lot to say about movies so we are expecting some lively discussions.
The films this year range from family-friendly to adult material, from ultra–local to international.
Johnson: Yes, we Wonderstruck, based on the book by Brian Selznick, we have have entries for the foreign-language Oscar, and we have a documentary filmed in Middleburg called Music Got Me Here, the story of a young man who suffered a severe traumatic brain injury that left him unable to talk until his former music teacher was able to reach him.
What do you want this festival to do?
Johnson: There is something about seeing a film as part of a community experience. You’re sitting there experiencing it together and afterwards it just really fosters dialogue. I think the other thing that we’ve been thinking about a lot especially at these times is that there is an incredible need for people to talk to one another. We have seven countries’ submissions to the Oscars and we hope people will be expanding their views of the world through these incredible foreign language films. I just really hope that in so many ways, we are not are only presenting incredible films but also giving people a lot of things to talk about.