A serious blizzard hit the North Shore in the spring of 2013, threatening Rick Beyer with one of the worst nights of his life. It was opening night of Salem Film Fest and the filmmaker’s documentary The Ghost Army was premiering. Local veterans were showing up to take part in the Q&A, and Beyer was concerned his film wouldn’t have an audience. “I was sure we were going to get hardly anybody, but in fact we had a sellout crowd,” Beyer remembers. So Salem Film Fest scheduled a second showing, and that one sold out too.
“For a filmmaker, having the seats filled with discerning people who are really interested in the films they are watching is a rare and wonderful treat,” Beyer says. A commitment to careful film selection over the years has ensured the weeklong Salem Film Fest a loyal, knowledgeable cadre of documentary fans addicted to their annual film marathon and the chance to grasp a broader view of the world. Case in point, The Ghost Army is a film about a mission by American GIs who tricked the enemy in WWII with creativity and illusion, and then went on to have illustrious careers in art, design, and fashion.
On this anniversary, fans and filmmakers are looking back at the making of Salem Film Fest, which has become one of New England’s largest documentary film festivals. Salem’s annual event has become a yearly go-to for sophisticated audiences seeking authentic and moving stories and filmmakers who want a quality experience on the busy film festival circuit.
In 2007, award-winning filmmaker and Salem native Joe Cultrera had just moved back from New York after a lap around the film fest circuit. His documentary Hand of God is about Cultrera’s family fighting the Catholic Church from their multigenerational home in Salem’s Italian neighborhood. Cultrera’s brother was one of nearly 100 children molested by a well-known Salem priest.
A few people approached Cultrera with the idea of starting a film festival. A strong believer in making Salem’s cultural scene more vibrant, he reluctantly got involved in his hometown, creating Salem Film Fest with CinemaSalem owner Paul Van Ness and Rinus Oosthoek, executive director of the Salem Chamber of Commerce.
As the first program director, Cultrera crafted a philosophy that centered on creative and unique storytelling without compromise. “The first couple years it felt like we were teaching the local community about how vast, varied, entertaining, and provoking documentaries could be—how they didn’t have to be the boring and preachy stuff you might think they were,” says Cultrera. “I built the programming aesthetic with that in mind—looking for great stories, interesting characters, and strong filmmaking technique.”
Cultrera also came up with a model that pays filmmakers to participate and gets local businesses involved as sponsors, underwriting the film of their choice. The small business and film pair-up has created great connections, says Cultrera, while adding “to the sense that while we are showing international works, we are grounding the screenings in a local consciousness.” After filmmakers spend a lot of money making a film, they spend more submitting to festivals. The folks at Salem Film Fest are glad they went in the opposite direction to pay featured filmmakers an honorarium.
“A lot of festivals either want to make you jump through hoops, or seem to be focused on what celebrities they can attract,” says Beyer. “I eventually agreed to premiere my film here, and that is one of the smartest decisions I ever made.”
There is also no open submission process. Instead, filmmakers are invited to submit their films. This cuts down on the tedious wading through a sea of submissions and allows Salem Film Fest to discover films that aren’t on everybody’s radar.
Current Salem Film Fest program director Jeff Schmidt starts researching films in late spring before a diverse selection committee joins him at the end of summer, continuing all the way up through the start of the new year. Some on the committee are filmmakers, and some are not, but all have a passion for finding a good story.
“We look for films that provoke discussion, that transport audiences into an unknown world, or that provide a unique point of view for a world they thought they knew,” says Schmidt. “We’re in search of characters that illuminate, leaving a memorable impression and that speak in truths, rather than falling into expected stereotypes with nothing new to add to the dialogue.”
Nick Brandestini, a filmmaker who lives in Zurich and has screened two films at Salem Film Fest, says submission by invitation is an excellent idea. “It makes the festival more prestigious and higher quality. I don’t think there is any other festival like this. They should keep this up.”
What started as a community-driven event run entirely by volunteers has grown to sell out screenings, enjoys partnerships with the likes of producers of PBS’s Frontline, and has become an incubator for the filmmakers of tomorrow. For example, the annual Doc-a-chusetts Pitch gives Massachusetts-based filmmakers the stage to talk about their work in progress in front of an enthusiastic audience and panel of industry professionals, all while competing for a prize that will help fund post-production. Meanwhile, high school and college students compete in short documentary contests. The organizers continue to reach new audiences through partnerships. Last year, the festival connected with Lynn’s Cambodian community through a screening of The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, in which the director was able to present a version of his film dubbed in the Khmer language.
The power of documentary film, says Schmidt, is that it’s our window on the world that allows us to mentally connect with shared human experience in a soulful, intimate way. “I’m always a sucker for those emotional moments during the festival when you take a look around the theatre and see others touched by what just transpired on screen, or when a filmmaker shares a particularly poignant story,” he says.
Beyer could relate to this emotion when he went on to win the Audience Award in 2015 for The Ghost Army. “When you have spent years laboring over a film, and you show it to people, that kind of warm embrace is really uplifting.”
Salem Film Fest 2017 runs March 2-9. For a film schedule, ticket information, and further reading on the Salem Film Fest blog or visit salemfilmfest.com.