The seventh annual Montclair Film Festival kicks off this Thursday with a world-class program, featuring more than 160 films, special events, parties and discussions with Jeff Daniels, Ethan Hawke, Rachel Weisz, Claire Danes and Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons. The festival will also feature a performance from MacArthur Genius Award-winner Taylor Mac – “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Abridged)” – which The New York Times writer Wesley Morris called “one of the great experiences of my life.” We spoke with Evelyn Colbert, President of the Board of the Montclair Film Festival – and wife of Stephen Colbert – about this year’s crop of new films, and how sharing stories can strengthen a community – and maybe a country.
Culture Vultures: There are a lot of film festivals out there, and yet this one certainly stands out. Could you explain why? What sets the Montclair Film Festival apart?
Evelyn Colbert: Well, what’s unique about our festival is that we’re more than a festival – we’re here full time. We moved into a building last year that houses a micro-cinema. We have our offices there, and we also have an educational space there. So, we now operate as a year-round nonprofit, and, in addition to expanding our programming, that also gives us a permanent foothold in the community. We’re here to serve the artistic community, but also the broader community. I don’t think that sets us apart completely, but I think it makes us somewhat unique in the film festival world, in that we don’t just sort of pop up and go away. We’re here to stay.
CV: It’s not trying to be Sundance or Tribeca.
EC: It’s not an industry festival. We don’t have people coming to try to sell distribution rights. It’s really about just presenting films to a discerning audience. We seek to create a place that is a supportive environment of collaboration for both the artists and the audiences, and not a marketplace. That happens at other festivals – not so much here.
CV: Obviously, you can’t see every single film – there are 160 of them this year – but I’m sure you’ve seen as many as you could. As works of art, are you picking up on any themes, reflections, feedback on our cultural moment – or moments?
EC: It’s interesting. I don’t know that this always happens, but sometimes I think it does. And sometimes it happens unintentionally. We don’t set out to find specific films about specific subjects. But, on the other hand, when we watched “Far From the Tree,” we said, “This is a really powerful film about loving people despite our differences,” and it did feel like it carried with it an appropriate message for our time. We didn’t seek it out, but it just seemed to fall into place. Sometimes there does seem to be a zeitgeist working through the films we come across, and this year, if there is a theme, it seems to be society searching for a common ground, and a common dialogue – looking for ways to come together.
CV: I got a kick out of just scrolling through all of the film titles and descriptions. Good titles have a way of just making you go “Whoa – what is going on there?” – like a good, short little poem.
EC: Yeah – it’s true, it’s true.
CV: So, why was “Far From the Tree” chosen to be this year’s Opening Night Film?
EC: It’s a very uplifting and emotional film, and it really speaks to our organization’s goal and mission of bringing people together and sharing stories. The Montclair Film Festival really hopes to engage people and exchange ideas. This is a time in our country when we all feel awfully divided and awfully volatile, but I’m really thrilled with our line-up of films this year because so many of these films are really about empathy – but they approach it in so many different ways, and I think it’s great that this is the theme that has emerged.
CV: The Closing Night Film is a documentary called “Believer,” and it focuses on Dan Reynolds – frontman of the band Imagine Dragons – as he confronts the intolerance of the religious community he grew up in – the Mormon church.
EC: We are so excited to have Dan Reynolds here to talk about the film. I mean, here’s a rock star taking the time to be here to have a discussion about this film and the social issues it deals with. It’s going to be a very moving experience for the audience.
CV: On May 4th, you’ve got Taylor Mac performing “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Abridged).” Could you introduce us to Taylor Mac?
EC: Oh, the show is amazing. He’s an amazing performer who’s now a MacArthur Genius Award recipient. He had a residency in Brooklyn last year that was a totally sold out performance. He does a 24-decade history of music – like, a song per decade. When he was in Brooklyn, it was literally a 24-hour performance – you know, people would takes breaks for dinner – that kind of thing. It was a completely immersive kind of experience. We’re doing an abridged version – it won’t be 24 hours – and it’s a huge privilege for us. Taylor Mac has never performed in New Jersey before.
CV: So, what made you set your sights on him and bring his show to the festival?
EC: We’ve been working for over a year to make this happen. His producer lives in Montclair, is a friend of the festival, and we’re just thrilled that this is happening. It’s really hard to describe – it’s not just a show of songs – it’s really performance art. It’s deeply responsive. People who see it – and this is true – they say it’s really life-changing. It won’t be for everybody. It’s really out there. It’s not a sit-back-and-be-comfortable kind of experience, but we’re excited about that. It’s just a wonderful opportunity to bring something to Montclair that people wouldn’t have a chance to see otherwise. We’re really lucky, as a community. Montclair is very unique community.
CV: The Storyteller Series – this year it features Jeff Daniels, Ethan Hawke, Nick Offerman, Rachel Weisz, Patrick Wilson and the indispensable Stephen Colbert.
EC: Yes – Audible has been a generous sponsor for this series, and we’re really happy to have their support. The conversations that Stephen is doing with Jeff Daniels and Rachel Weisz – those will be more like career conversations – you know, general conversations with those artists. But, in general, the Storyteller Series is about sharing stories – the stories these artists choose to tell about their lives. And then there is our StorySLAM program, which is amazing – we invite people to prepare and present five-minute stories based around a theme. It’s just a really special thing, and it’s at the heart of what this festival is about – sharing stories with your community.
CV: So, what drives you to pour so much of yourself into this festival?
EC: What drives me is a deep love of the performing arts. I went to acting school, and I worked for a short time in my life as an actress, but I also have a deep sense of community. I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina – Stephen and I both did. And our families were active in the community, and we were involved with the Spoleto Festival in Charleston – a major performing arts festival. So, for me, the Montclair Film Festival fills a familiar spot. In other words, the whole concept of a local arts festival is something I grew up on, and it’s enormously satisfying for me to be connected to a group of people who are so talented and generous with their time and their abilities. It’s just a very exciting group to be a part of. Every day is truly different.
CV: What else do you want your audience to know about the Montclair Film Festival?
EC: Just that it’s a great opportunity for discovery. We just feel so fortunate to be presenting so many great films this year. For our audience members, it’s a chance to take risks, experiment, and to see things you won’t see anywhere else.
The 2018 Montclair Film Festival runs from April 26th through May 6th. For more info and tickets, go to: http://montclairfilm.org.