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The Middleburg Film Festival Recap: Passionate About its Purpose

The Middleburg Film Festival Recap: Passionate About its Purpose

Written by Laticia Headings | Photos by Shannon Finney Photography

Every October, film lovers from across the country come to Middleburg to see the year’s biggest and most influential films, many of which go on to be Oscar contenders. 

In its 11th year, the Middleburg Film Festival (MFF) continues to grow in popularity and exceed expectations. “It gets better and better,” says Beth Erickson, president and CEO of Visit Loudoun and a MFF board member since its start. “It’s been exciting to see the festival grow, expand, and almost catch fire in terms of the love everyone who comes back year after year has for it.” 

A total of 39 films were presented, including documentaries and international features, nine of which are their countries’ official Oscar entries for Best International Feature. 

The four-day festival kicked off Thursday night with “Rustin,” a Netflix biopic and true story about civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, considered by many to be the architect of the 1963 March on Washington. Rustin actor Colman Domingo (“If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Lincoln,” “The Butler”) was in attendance for a Q&A following the film along with director George C. Wolfe (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Lackawanna Blues”), who received the festival’s Impact Award in “recognition of his artistic achievement and determination to shine a long overdue spotlight” on the civil rights leader.  

On Friday afternoon, Grammy Award-winning film composer and director Michael Giachinno was presented with the Distinguished Composer Award during a concert performance featuring some of his greatest compositions from “The Incredibles,” “The Batman,” “Coco,” “Up,” “Lost,” and the Marvel and Star Trek suites. 

To bring the music to life, Maestro Kim Allen Kluge conducted the Loudoun Symphony Orchestra. “I was impressed by the audience’s passion for music. They gave us a standing ovation after each of the ten pieces of music,” says Kluge, who works with his wife, Kathryn. “As composers, Kathryn and I have had the great privilege of working with the best in our profession. We draw inspiration from our colleagues and Michael is one of our favorites, so it was a special joy to work with him on this historic concert.”

Music is a cornerstone of the festival every year and a lifelong passion for MFF founder and Board Chair Sheila Johnson. Her background as a concert violinist and music teacher has heavily influenced the importance of music in cinema and the spotlight on composers at the festival. 

The Sheila Johnson Vanguard Award was presented to Kris Bowers (“Greenbook,” “Bridgerton,” “Queen Charlotte”), the Emmy-winning and Grammy-nominated composer whose stellar career has been on the rise since 2011. 

Bowers is also a filmmaker and has attended MFF several times over the years. He received the award after a screening of his latest documentary, “The Last Repair Shop,” which he co-directed with Ben Proudfoot. 

Alexander Payne (“The Descendants,” “Election,” “Sideways”) received the Director Spotlight Award. “The Holdovers” was Saturday’s centerpiece film and reunited the director with actor Paul Giamatti after nearly two decades. 

“It’s my first year here,” says Payne, whose film “Nebraska” played the opening night of the first annual MFF in 2013. “How groovy that this community … [has] access to most of the top films coming out every year and the ability to meet filmmakers, and for filmmakers to meet one another. That’s one of the things I like most about film festivals. We directors operate in our individual fiefdoms and never really meet one another. It’s so nice meeting other directors here.”

The director of “Saltburn,” Emerald Fennell was presented with the Agnes Varda Trailblazing Film Artist Award. Given to a woman filmmaker or actor in recognition of exceptional film and television achievements, the award champions those who serve as a role model for young women in the industry.

Fennell, also a writer, producer, and actor, was the first British female director to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director for “Promising Young Woman,” the same film for which she won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. On screen, she can be seen in “Barbie” and “The Crown.” 

Through its many panels, the festival endeavors to bring attention to unique and, in some cases, lesser-known filmmaking voices. This year, in collaboration with the U.S. State Department through the United States’ flagship film diplomacy program, MFF presented a powerful panel of five leading Ukrainian filmmakers. The thought-provoking discussion highlighted various cinematic triumphs and struggles in a time when their besieged country finds itself in an agonizing war against Russia. 

Kateryna Smagliy, First Secretary of Culture and Public Diplomacy at the Ukrainian Embassy, gave opening remarks at the panel. “Filmmakers have been telling Ukraine’s story well before we became independent in 1992. And now we see this very talented generation of new Ukrainian filmmakers who tell of Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty, which has very much been influenced by the events of recent years,” she says. “It’s important [that] the filmmaking industry uses its voice in the right way. We cannot be silent when these atrocities are going on.” 

While the film festival continues to gain more visibility each year, it has maintained a feeling of intimacy and access that makes it desirable for both filmgoers and filmmakers to attend. “The Middleburg festival has become an important place to be a part of the documentary conversation,” says Will Cohen, producer of National Geographic’s “The Mission,” which follows the story of John Chau, a young missionary, and his death following an attempt to contact the world’s most isolated Indigenous peoples.

“It’s also just a pure pleasure, to come together and share stories in this place that’s so connected to its past,” says Cohen. “That’s what made it feel particularly appropriate to screen ‘The Mission’ here, a film in part about how the choices we make in life … are shaped by history and by the stories we each carry with us.”

The many unique parts of the festival are what make the whole event distinctive and highly acclaimed. “I truly believe that MFF is unlike any other film festival out there,” says Erickson. “It’s a transformational experience. With each conversation, it builds an instant community where there was not one before.” 

Kluge and his wife are among the many who will be coming back again next year. “We’re enthralled by it,” he says. “Middleburg’s distinctive and outstanding qualities make it a truly one-of-a-kind community. There is no other place like it!” ML

Published in the November 2023 issue of Middleburg Life.

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