A STORIED BROOKLYN FILM FESTIVAL AND THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL CINEMATIC SCREENING EVENT OF ITS SIZE IN NEW YORK MAKES RENEWED EFFORTS TO FUEL AND SHOWCASE SMALL SCALE PRODUCTIONS
BY ERIK SCHONING
We might not think of spending summer’s golden hours in front of the silver screen, but there are actually dozens of new and good reasons to. Once known as the Brooklyn International Film Festival, a now shorter titled Brooklyn Film Festival (BFF) has celebrated independent cinematic production and artistry from all over the world for 22 years, and is set to run from May 31 to June 9. According to its founder and executive director, Marco Ursino a filmmaker himself who emigrated from Italy only ten years before starting the festival its Williamsburg location was at first a tough sell. “I invited thirty people [to our office],” Ursino recalled. “We said: ‘We want to start a festival. What do you guys think?’ Twenty eight replied: ‘Why would you want to do something like that?’” Without knowing what the future would bring, Ursino and his team embarked on the landmark project. Today, BFF holds the distinction of being the first competitive international film festival in New York City, beating out Tribeca’s by four years. In a contemporary indie landscape dominated by festivals of all shapes and sizes, BFF has proven to be ahead of the curve. Today, it’s still in that same Williamsburg office. In the early years, BFF screened heavily in North Brooklyn at a variety of venues some of which, like the Commodore Theater and the Brooklyn Heights Theater, have since been shuttered. After years of theater hopping, the festival began a five year residency at the Brooklyn Museum. “After that, we strived to decentralize,” Ursino said. “Instead of us being the center of the community and asking everybody to visit us, we asked, ‘Why don’t we go into neighborhoods?’”
So, this year’s screenings and other events will take place in multiple areas: venues include the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg, Windmill Studios in Green point, the downtown Alamo Draft house, and Syndicated Theater in Bushwick the explosion of dine in theaters providing new options all over town.
Newcomers might wonder first about specifics, including familiar movie categorizations, but with BFF, Ursino thinks unpredictably a good thing; it’s committed to what he calls the “spirit of independent film,” namely a willingness to experiment and break rules. Equally important is the festival’s international character. This year alone, it received 2,659 submissions (a record) from over 100 countries. A cursory scroll through previous year’s screenings is something like flipping through an atlas. This diversity of perspective, said Ursino, is perfectly in line with the organization’s home borough.
“When we accept a film from Hungary, we contact the consulate, we try to reach out to the community,” he explained. “We let them know that there’s a film they should see so they can see the best their country is doing now. These are people who maybe have lost contact.”
2019 brings a fresh batch of changes to the proceedings. Themed “The Gathering,” this year’s incarnation is intentionally political, with an eye to open discourse. This includes spotlighting films directed by women, as well as an intentionally emphasized range from Latin American filmmakers. “We want to take a position,” Ursino said, “…want the festival to be an honest forum for people to say what they think.”
In order to accommodate busy summer schedules, films will screen twice at different times and venues. There are multiple ticket packages, discounts for students and senior citizens, and on site food and drink options. And for those with a professional interest in film, there are plenty of director Q&As, as well as the BFF Exchange. Hosted by Kick starter, the latter is a single day event chock full of seminars, panels, and idea pitching.
The Brooklyn Film Festival’s highest prize is the Grand Chameleon, a holdover from the early days when Ursino and his team were in the process of laying out values and priorities. The chameleon, an ever changing animal, was the perfect symbol for a project within which full length films, shorts, experimental work, and documentaries would all be shown. 2018’s Grand Chameleon winner, Breach (directed by Lorenzo Monti), was a six minute short. A rulebook is simply nowhere to be found.
“We want the real independent spirit,” said Ursino. “We want films where, when you start watching, you can’t guess the ending in three minutes…things that take you somewhere you haven’t been before.”
This year’s edition promises to once again take audiences in unexpected directions. And for the price of a single ticket, it’s a remarkable bargain.
Brooklyn Film Festival