Technology, Mother Nature are stars of New Kingston Film Festival

By Pauline Liu
A new and improved New Kingston Film Festival debuted Saturday night, despite the rain. For the first time, festivalgoers were able to park their cars in the field behind the New Kingston Presbyterian Church and watch the films from the comfort of their cars, “drive-in style.”

The films were shown on a large, rented inflatable screen. An audience of about 75 turned out and 40 cars filled the field. The audience had the option of listening to the film by tuning in to a preset frequency on their car radios or sitting outside where speakers were set up on the field.

Off-screen drama
Some drama actually took place on the field rather than on film, as two separate festival participants drove their cars into ditches and needed to be towed. Light rain kept some movie fans in their cars, while others braved the weather and sat outside. There were also some technical challenges. “The huge inflatable screen was powered by a generator and one side kept buckling and it would fall down,” explained Seema Shah-Nelson of New Kingston, who organized the festival with her husband, Clark.

 In an effort to allow the film showings to continue uninterrupted, volunteers and members of the projection company stood behind the screen and held the buckling portion up.  “At one point, about half of the audience wound up behind the screen,” explained Hasmukh Shah, the organizer’s father, who sounded slightly amused. A total of 11 films had been selected for this juried festival, but the problems with the screen caused the program to fall behind schedule. A number of films were not shown due to lack of time. The evening’s festivities ran until nearly 1 a.m. the next morning.

Despite the set backs, Seema Shah-Nelson believes this year’s festival was the best so far, thanks largely to $5,000 worth of grants from The New York State Council on the Arts’ Decentralization Program and The O’Connor Foundation. “With $5,000 in grants, we were able to get professional projectionists, get more advertising, draw more people, and get higher quality films,” she said. It was the first time the event was ever supported by grants. The funding enabled the Shah-Nelsons to give stipends to the filmmakers who were selected to participate. As a result, they received a record number of film submissions, which totaled 40 in all. 

The Shah-Nelsons launched their first festival four years ago, inspired after attending a film festival held at a barn in Minnesota. They’ve held three festivals in the past four years.

Skipped a year
“Last year, there was no festival, because it was on maternity leave,” explained Clark. Last summer, Seema gave birth to the couple’s second son. In previous years, the entire festival was held in a big red barn on New Kingston Road located about a mile from where the films were shown. The barn is owned by Francine and Victor Lipko, who allowed the festival to use their property. “

The two other years, we did it inside, in this barn without any grants,” said Seema. “We had less than $500 to spend on each festival and we made do with what we had.” This year, the barn was the setting for musical entertainment, food and a “Meet the Filmmakers Breakfast” on Sunday morning. 
The previous festivals drew crowds of about 100. The Shah-Nelsons blame Mother Nature for this year’s lower turnout. “We wanted to the whole thing in the field,” explained Clark,” but there wasn’t any shelter there during the rain, It ended up that a lot of people sat outside to watch the films anyway. It turned out to be a beautiful night.”

About two dozen people met with the filmmakers on Sunday morning to discuss their work.   New Kingston resident Fred Marguiles discussed his three and a half minute video, “Robin,” which follows the process as a robin builds a nest on his porch, lays four eggs and waits for them to hatch. Ryder Cooley of Illinois discussed her hour-long film,”Animalia,” which she describes as an “inter-species fairy tale” about a girl who joins the circus in search of happiness and finds it after falling under a spell that transforms her into a flying creature with antlers.

However, the discussion was dominated  by “Windfall,” a documentary by Laura Israel of Jersey City, New Jersey. The filmmaker owns a cabin in Meredith and made a feature length film about Meredith’s battle to prevent a wind developer from erecting 40 industrial wind turbines within the town. Israel showed up to the festival on crutches and a cast over her right foot, which she broke after falling on wet stairs at a film festival in Sarajevo two weeks ago.

Toronto showing
Her film also opened at the Toronto Film Festival, which is one of the largest film festivals in the world. She is growing accustomed to the stir that her work has created. “It happens a lot that the discussion becomes as important as the  film,” she said.

“Sometimes the Q and A is almost as long as the film. People identify with the film. What I heard in Hawaii, Ireland, North Carolina, Florida and Canada (where the film was shown) was, ‘If you change the names and faces, it could be our town.’ It’s really important that a film can transcend that boundary.“

Whether there will be a festival next year remains uncertain. The Shah-Nelsons admit this year’s event was more ambitious and they found themselves overwhelmed. Clark is the manager of online education at SUNY Delhi, while Seema is an interior designer who has been “on hiatus” since the births of their two children, ages one and four. “

We would need more people,” said Clark. “We had one intern, Sally Davis (a film student from Andes), but we could have used five interns.” If they can get more volunteers next year, the Shah-Nelsons expect the show will go on.