Story by Joey Phoenix
Images provided by Salem Film Fest
Salem Film Fest is an annual Salem tradition bringing together documentary filmmakers, writers, and storytellers from all over the world to showcase their work to film enthusiasts from the North Shore and Greater Boston. For many, the fest is a regional cultural touchstone, providing an exciting, educational, and inspiring experience at the tail end of the bleak Massachusetts winter.
This year, Salem Film Fest will take place virtually on March 19-28th. And while festival director and co-founder Joe Cultrera (he/him/his) and program director Jeff Schmidt (he/him/his) are looking forward to a time when the festival will be in person again, they are excited to provide the opportunity to filmmakers to show their work in a year that hasn’t easily lent itself to those opportunities.
“There’s still an incredible body of work that has been created by so many talented filmmakers who have things to say,” said Schmidt. “So we’re glad that we have a platform that we can offer them.”
“There’s a different world out there than the one that we all live in on the North Shore, and having artists from various viewpoints come in and talk about their work in Q&A’s, describing the struggles of creating films in any atmosphere, but particularly right now, is important to bring to the festival and share with audiences,” Cultrera added.
This year’s festival will be a combination of more than 40 feature and short documentaries in addition to filmmaker Q&A’s and panels.
Prior to the festival, there will be two special film screenings as part of their Winter Streaming Series. The first film, Sipe: Sex, Lies, And The Priesthood directed by Cultrera (Hand of God – Frontline, 2006) will be availble for streaming beginning on Saturday, February 20th. They will also be offering Calendar Girl as a co-presentation with the Peabody Essex Museum from March 1-14.
“How do you put on a film festival when you can’t physically gather together in a cinema?”
In 2020, like with so many other cultural events and happenings in the past year, the in-person Salem Film Fest had to be rescheduled over safety concerns due to COVID-19. The festival organizers were among the first locally to make the difficult decision to postpone their event, recognizing that packing the attendees into sold out theatres wasn’t the best idea.
“We had already spent a lot on venues, travel, and advertising, and we knew there was nothing we could do about that,” Cultrera said. “But we also had a lot of people who had bought tickets and passes, and we knew that filmmakers – who had spent all of this time and energy making their films – were counting on this to be their festival release.”
But because of the responsibility the organizers felt towards attendees and filmmakers alike, it was important that if they were going to transition to a virtual film fest, it would need to be done intentionally.
“We had to quickly solve the problem of how do you put on a film festival when you can’t physically gather together in a cinema?” Schmidt said.
“We took a few months to figure out the best systems and platform for [the virtual fest] and to decide which films we could salvage from the lineup, as some films had other festival commitments and we don’t show anything that’s already been broadcasted,” Cultrera explained. “But we were able to retain about two thirds of the films, and even added a handful of new ones.”
Yet, despite the challenges, they were able to pull it off; and Salem’s first ever Virtual Film Fest took place in July of 2020 and included a lineup of more than 70 feature and short documentary films.
“Filmmakers put their heart and soul and many years into creating the films that we present at the festival. With COVID-19 impacting the planned release for so many films, many filmmakers were unsure of what they could do when they had been counting on being able to share what they had poured their passion into with an audience in a meaningful way,” Schmidt explained.
For the 2020 festival, something made possible by the virtual space, the organizers also released Retrospective: Black in America, a collection of films from previous years that examine the African-American experience the United States’ continued struggle with the legacy of slavery. Profits from ticket sales for retrospective films included were then donated to national both anti-racist organizations and those working to bolster African-American arts and culture.
“At the end of the day I really think we were able to put on a festival that was meaningful for many people,” Schmidt said.
Come to Salem, Stream the World in 2021
While it’s not ideal that the festival has been relegated to the virtual space again in 2021, the organizers are grateful to have had more time to prepare and produce their annual event, providing opportunities for filmmakers when fewer opportunities currently exist.
Unlike many other film festivals, Salem Film Fest has always made it a point to partner with filmmakers and treat the creators as collaborators in the process, rather than as merely juried participants who have to pay to play – and this year this commitment has become more important than ever with COVID difficulties restricting access to cultural funding and opportunities. In accordance with this, half of all ticket profits from this year’s festival will be given directly to filmmakers.
“Many filmmakers have pushed pause during COVID-19, because releasing a film in these conditions is difficult,” Schmidt said. “For some filmmakers, they were too far along in their project and just needed to see things through, while other filmmakers were at a point in the process where they could wait and see how things developed.”
The fest has also always prided itself on choosing films that challenge audiences and bring new perspectives from a variety of sources. That commitment, coupled with filmmaker Q&A’s, allow for attendees to engage with ideas and ways of thinking that they may never have experienced before.
“We’re trying to bring things to the community that they may not be able to get otherwise, and while we’re offering a lighter product here and there, we still try to choose films with messages and bring up issues that are often demonized by the news,” Cultrera said.
Fundamentally, Salem Film Fest has always been community and audience driven. And like with their Retrospective initiative in 2020, Salem Film Fest is also continuing their legacy of giving back to the community in 2021.
“One of the things we really wanted to do with the festival is give back to the community, in addition to the films that we present,” said Cultrera, “and that’s why we decided to take half of our profit from the the ticket sales and [frequent streamer] pass sales and give it back to causes in the community.”
How to get involved with and attend Salem Film Fest
There are a number of ways to support Salem Film Fest this year. One of the most obvious ways is to buy tickets and purchase passes, but there are also opportunities to sponsor the event, and for non-profit organizations, the opportunity for a community partnership.
“There’s no replacement for an in-person Film Festival,” Schmidt said. “In a darkened theater with hundreds of other people, you really feel that you’re sharing an experience together. Knowing this, it’s important for us to also maintain a connection with our audience in a virtual space.”
Salem Film Fest will be happening virtually on March 19-28th, with the special screening of Sipe: Sex, Lies, And The Priesthood, part of the Winter Streaming Series, starting February 20th at 4:00pm. The full line up of festival films will be announced in the upcoming weeks.
Joey Phoenix (they/them) is the Director of Brand Strategy and Innovation at Creative Collective. As the resident storyteller and town crier, they encourage you to send story ideas, inspiration, or pictures of adorable critters to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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