I ran into Elvis Mitchell in Toronto, where the former NYT critic with the hairstyle that always fills me with envy is beginning to figure out what films will play the inaugural Greenwich International Film Festival next June 4-7 in the picturesque Connecticut town. Mitchell, already the curator of Film Independent at LACMA and host of NPR’s The Treatment, just recently took the job as the festival’s Marquee Director. I ask Elvis, since you can throw a dart at a calendar and hit a film festival going on somewhere, what’s the point of yet another?
“It’s a fair question,” he said. “The most interesting film festivals are the ones that create a personal stamp. Like, Toronto is the most democratic of festivals, where you buy your ticket and don’t feel like you’re amidst the invading forces as in Sundance and Cannes. All of the good festivals feel distinctive. There will be a charitable bent to Greenwich that makes it unique going in. We will be looking for films that deal with social change, and good works, something missing from the festival world. There are a lot more festivals around as you said, and plenty of competition for films, but there are more movies and a lot to choose from. June is a good time to be in Connecticut, amidst several big art festivals, and there is an opportunity with the timing right after Cannes and Tribeca. It was very nice of them to ask me to try and make an impact.”
I noted the good works mandate of the festival probably excludes many of the films selected for Sundance and other fests, where there seems to be a premium on murder and suicide. “You said that, not me,” he said. I ask if, for instance, someone like Eli Roth need not ready a submission. Mitchell said he wants to consider everything: “You could look at Last House On The Left as a film about how women are treated in society.” I counter: Oh, so you’ll take most any film, but the challenge will be to spin the description in the catalog to explain why they qualify for a fest devoted to good works.
Mitchell laughed, and then got to the core of why he feels there just can’t be enough fests and why he’s honored to be breaking in this one. “You joke, but I’ve learned that it’s wrong to make a presumption about any film before you see it,” he said, and we then began recounting those magic moments each of us have experienced in dark rooms, watching the birth of great filmmakers from Christopher Nolan to Steven Soderbergh, and so many others who broke in at festivals. They quickly got agents who recognized their raw power, and were on their way.
“I still remember going to Slamdance and seeing Following, this little movie that Chris Nolan was shy about discussing, this little gem he’d shot for a year on weekends with no money,” Mitchell said. “The actor haircuts changed from shot to shot but no matter. We spoke afterward and I’ve known him ever since. The possibility of walking into a movie theater, knowing nothing, and then just being gobsmacked, it never gets old. I felt that way when I saw George Washington, and when I watched Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Amores Perros at Cannes. It’s that last Friday, you don’t want to force yourself to see one more movie at 8:30 in the morning, but you get up and go, and magic happens. I’ve felt it seeing disruptive genre films like Paranormal Activity at Slamdance and The Blair Witch Project at Sundance. You never forget those moments of discovery, and you never stop searching for more of them.”
If Mitchell hasn’t convinced you of the value of this fest, the Greenwich International Film Festival launches with a charity partnership with UNICEF.