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By Mary Summerbell

Beloit International Film Festival – or “BIFF” as folks affectionately refer to it – is truly a remarkable experience. Too late, now, to partake in this year’s main events. But I encourage you to go when it comes again next February. Or, if you’re curious, go see one of the year-round Wednesday night movies for a little, quicker taste of it. I can’t promise that you’ll like it. No movie, no matter how popular or how well done, is going to please everyone. I’ve certainly seen BIFF flicks that I thought were duds. But chances are, due to the caliber of talent, care and skill involved in the making of these films, you will get something of value from most any movie or movies you choose to see. I’ve attended this event for seven of the eleven years since it began and it’s been impressive every time. I always come away from it feeling it was worthwhile, not only as entertainment but as a means of education and personal growth.

I didn’t go at first because I was apprehensive about finding my way around Beloit and the Beloit College campus, to the box office and event venues. And I don’t like, (actually, hate), being out in the cold and wet and wind of Wisconsin winters. But my lifelong love of cinematic wonders eventually proved to be stronger than my fear of getting lost and my dislike of icy roads and streets. Ultimately I was lured by the magic of the movies. So I went. And I did have some difficulties. And got cold. And lost. But I found out immediately how friendly people are at BIFF, how willing to help with whatever you need or want to find out about. Or to just talk about films – any aspect of them.

BIFF is more than an event. It’s an ever-expanding community. A cultural phenomenon. An attitude – of appreciation for the creative impulses in all of us and the process of expressing them, especially through the arts. BIFF is a great place to talk to strangers, despite all childhood admonitions against it. I always go alone, and I always meet people there to engage in fascinating conversations, not just about films, but about every aspect of life and the challenges of being human. Just ask someone, “What movies have you seen?” or “What’s your favorite film so far?” and there’s an instant connection. You’ve met a new BIFF buddy. Some people I see every year, now, but I meet new people each time, too.

One of my most meaningful moments this year was a chat I had with a film director, whose movie I didn’t even see, after a film that really touched me. We talked about the challenges of life getting in the way of creative expression, and how to keep going and stay confident in the face of doubts. From his experience in film he gave me some great advice for my personal creative journey. A total stranger touched my life in a lasting, compassionate way.

And that’s the way it is at BIFF. Not every conversation is a gold mine of wisdom. Not every person there is warm or open to discussion. But there are constant opportunities for exchange of thoughts, feelings, opinions, information…..I especially like and enjoy the question and answer sessions with film makers after the films. The questions people ask are certainly interesting, often provocative, as are the responses. It’s so much fun to talk to the actors and directors, to hear the back stories of their experiences, of the challenges and serendipitous events of making the movie. I am always fascinated by their revelations about the sources of their inspiration and motivation, and the reasons for the choices they make in production – the behind-the-scenes details of their creative efforts. It really fosters a keen appreciation for the process of film making, even if you don’t care for some of the results.

There are ego issues, and quirkiness, and eccentricities, as is typical of creative and talented people. But mostly I find people at BIFF, even the Hollywood stars, when they come, to be humble and approachable, no one putting him/herself above others, but instead connecting over a shared love of films.

Because BIFF is full of overlapping events, it’s not possible to see or do it all. Every year I ponder over my choices, drawn in different directions, and every year I miss things because I choose something else at that time. With all the years I’ve been there I’ve never participated in some activities because I focus mostly on just seeing the movies, and don’t go to the parties, award ceremonies, musical or social events. I’ve seen the Silent Film Showcase, which I enjoyed, but I mostly miss it to see other movies. I wanted to see some full screen features, but, again, deferred to other films. Another aspect I haven’t explored yet is being a volunteer. I know there are lots of benefits, and I would probably enjoy it. But….Maybe next year….

This year a class on film making was offered, taught by Timothy Busfield and Melissa Gilbert at Beloit College campus. It was free and open to the public, so I went. Not a film maker, but a writer, I learned more than I thought I would about applying the elements of art to any discipline. And it helped me update my ideas of production through contemporary means, especially networking and technology, by showing a practical, realistic view of the business aspects of the arts. Tim spoke of how motion picture making has moved from a rigid studio system, ruled by producer-dictators and restricted by complicated camera work, to being able to make a movie with natural lighting and two cell phones. He had two students actually film a scene like that in class. It was one of this year’s highlights for me, even as it decimated the final remnants of my childhood illusions about movie stars.

And that’s the best thing about BIFF – the unexpected, the little surprises you find at certain turns, whether it’s a cute, (or diabolical), plot twist, an actor, director, or character you are inexplicably attracted to, or meeting and chatting with a real, live celebrity.

As in life, I try to go to BIFF without expectations. But, so far, I still have some. And I have found very little predictability in my reactions at film fest. Every year some film I most looked forward to is disappointing and a movie that I see only by chance, because it shows with something else I really want to see, turns out to be impactful, maybe even an all-time favorite.

For example, this year I sat totally dry-eyed through a short movie about a war veteran coming home with three limbs lost to a landmine explosion. And then, the next day, I cried my way through a full length film about a girls hockey team from a distinctly disadvantaged high school in Chicago competing with privileged players for a chance to win in life. Why? I’m so very unathletic, extremely disinterested in sports – playing or watching them. Yet there I sat, sobbing over these young women struggling to stay In The Game. I was so surprised at myself.

And that’s the mystery element. You never know what will make the magic happen. There’s no formula for it. But it’s that magic that makes BIFF a place I want to be each year. It’s that magic that makes BIFF too good to miss.  It’s an annual highlight of my life, now. One director at BIFF this year said that he’s been to 124 film festivals, and BIFF ranked as one of those he liked the best. Why? Because of the people here responding to the movies with enthusiasm and open mindedness and curiosity.

BIFF evolves each year, changing and growing in the details, new and different every time. But the spirit remains the same. It revolves around caring about the art of film making, the festival, and the people who participate, considering each one a work in progress. That’s why it feels so vital and alive. It’s more about the process than a finished product. The ultimate product is life as art, in community, as we live it every day. It’s about the changes in ourselves that we take back home to our daily lives, applying new perspectives to our ongoing challenges.

So – go. Let yourself be surprised by the movies. Surprise yourself with your unexpected responses to whatever you do and see. Be part of the magic that is BIFF. See you there!







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