21st Woodstock Film Festival shifts gears to mix virtual, drive-in screenings

Meira Blaustein (photo by Dion Ogust)

Miss going to the movies? Filmmakers miss that option even more than we do. With the festival circuit effectively shut down for most of 2020, it’s been a tough challenge to generate buzz for those new films that managed to get completed before production screeched to a halt due to the impossibility of social distancing on a movie set.

It’s something of a miracle that the annual Woodstock Film Festival is happening at all, and nothing short of astonishing that it’s happening on a scale rivaling past years. More than 100 films will be presented between September 30 and October 4, including 19 world premieres, three North American premieres, five US premieres, 14 East Coast premieres and 30 New York premieres.

True, audiences won’t be able to jam elbow-to-elbow into the usual indoor venues in Woodstock, Rhinebeck, Rosendale and Saugerties. Although there’s still a juried competition with awards in various categories, there won’t be the usual glittery gala ceremony at a Kingston nightspot, nor any “honorary” awards this year. But the screenings will continue – 30 of them accommodating in-person attendance and live filmmaker question-and-answer sessions, thanks in large part to the fact that the mid-Hudson Valley has become a hotbed even before Covid 19 for a modern renaissance of drive-in movies.

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Live outdoor screenings will be happening at three sites: the Greenville Drive-In in Greenville and the Overlook Drive-In in Poughkeepsie, plus a pop-up drive-in newly created in Woodstock. “It was important to me to have one in Ulster County, and Ulster County does not have a drive-in. So, with the help of [Woodstock] town supervisor Bill McKenna – who has been incredibly helpful – we settled on Andy Lee Field,” says Meira Blaustein, WFF’s co-founder and executive director. “Because I didn’t grow up in this country, I’d actually never been to a drive-in! It’s a happening. It’s a real event.”

Unlike in previous years, live screenings will only happen once – in double-feature format, true to drive-in movie tradition. The bulk of the films being shown will be streamed online for the course of the festival week. Your purchased ticket will enable you to watch at a time that’s most convenient for you. 

The same is true of the talks and panel discussions, which will use Zoom technology to feature such illustrious guests as director Julie Taymor, composer Danny Elfman, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel showrunners Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino and Woodstock-based producer Bill Horberg, whose new miniseries The Queen’s Gambit is due to premiere on Netflix on October 23. Ticketholders can ask the panelists questions if they watch live in the afternoons, or catch up later – “until the end of the festival, at 11:59 Sunday night,” according to Blaustein.

Another tradition being honored this year is kicking off the 21st annual WFF with a music-related documentary paired with a live performance. Cuban violinist Ilmar López-Gavilán, who co-stars with his pianist brother Aldo in Los Hermanos/The Brothers by Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider, will play at the movie’s world premiere at the Greenville Drive-In on Wednesday evening, September 30. Paired with it is Save Yourselves! by Alex H. Fischer and Eleanor Wilson, a comedic and timely science-fiction horror feature in which a Brooklyn hipster couple heads upstate for a week of cellphone-free relaxation, only to find that aliens are invading the planet. Locals who’ve been stressing of late about incursions of unwanted visitors from Covid hotspots should be able to relate to this one.

Another movie with a local connection, Keith Maitland’s Dear Mr. Brody, screens at Andy Lee Field on Thursday, October 1. Inspired by the recent discovery of a cache of letters from the early 1970s, it retells the story of Michael Brody, Jr., an eccentric hippie millionaire based in Woodstock who announced to the world that he was giving away his family fortune to random needy people. Also on the program is the world premiere of Eric Werthman’s The Drummer, starring Danny Glover as one of three traumatized war veterans.

That same evening, the Overlook Drive-In will host a compelling double feature: A Call to Spy tells the true story of women recruited for British intelligence during World War II, including Noor Inayat Khan, Virginia Hall and Vera Atkins. It’s the feature-length solo directing debut of Lydia Dean Pilcher, longtime producing partner of Mira Nair. Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman play a man beset with senile dementia and his daughter in Florian Zeller’s The Father, topping a star-studded lineup of British thespians that also includes Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell and Olivia Williams. “I think it’ll get some Academy Award nominations,” says Blaustein of The Father.

More star power will be brought to bear in Poughkeepsie on Saturday, October 3 in Ammonite, Francis Lee’s biopic of 19th-century paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and her lover Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan). Fiona Shaw, Gemma Jones and James McArdle are also in the cast of this steamy costume drama, whose promotional photos strongly evoke last year’s hit Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Sharing the bill is the world premiere of a suspenseful lesbian romance with a more recent setting, Rebecca P. Eskreis’ What Breaks the Ice.

Blaustein urges audiences not to overlook WFF’s more obscure offerings, including the programs of short films and the documentaries. She’s especially excited about two docs in the virtual lineup of the festival: Truth to Power: Barbara Lee Speaks for Me by Abby Ginzberg, about the powerhouse progressive congresswoman from Oakland; and Joy Buolamwini’s Coded Bias, a “brilliant, fascinating” examination of “AI and algorithms that speaks a lot about racism in the intelligence community.” A favorite of Blaustein’s on the fiction feature side is Noah Gilbert’s Horse Latitudes, a “tiny film” about reunited ex-lovers, shot in a winery in the outh of France, that she calls “joyous to watch” as well as “beautiful to look at.” Ten VIP ticket packages are available for this one, each including “a quality French wine, hand-picked by a sommelier and delivered to your home to enjoy with the viewing of the film.”

Tickets for individual screenings and talks, as well as full-festival passes, are now available to purchase at www.woodstockfilmfestival.org, where you’ll also find descriptions for the full 2020 WFF lineup. For a cultural event that almost didn’t happen, it’s an impressive schedule. “There was pressure to cancel the festival” back in March and April, Blaustein divulges. “The team and I, from the get-go, began researching how to do things differently …. It has been a very difficult year for the film industry as a whole, and especially for independent filmmakers. I’m so happy that we’re able to give them this platform.”

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