The sixth annual Traverse City Film Festival, which runs today through Aug. 1, not only brings hundreds of movies to northern Michigan but has been a tremendous boost for the local economy. It’s a fact not lost on festival founder and Academy Award-winning director Michael Moore.
“That first year, there were those who tried to shut it down,” Moore said, noting that detractors spread horse manure around his local property and tacked offensive signs to the trees in his yard. “Had they been successful, or had I just decided I don’t need this grief, there wouldn’t have been six years of a festival that brings five to ten million dollars every summer into the community and has created a level of film enthusiasm in this rural area that is unusual.”
Held on the shores of Lake Michigan, this year’s fest features more than 135 screenings, including 80 feature films and 40 short films representing more than 25 countries.
But while the film festival is a local hit, Moore said he’s had to look beyond America to find movies made outside “the Hollywood machine.”
“They only really want to spend money on sure bets,” he said. “People don’t want to take risks, so we’re missing out on an American art form that could really speak to the country right now in profound ways. I’ve been on a search this past year for a group of movies to show at the festival that meet that criteria. Sadly, I’ve had to look outside the country to find the best examples of that. Of the 80-plus films we’re showing this year, there aren’t more than a half-dozen or so American independent feature films, because I just couldn’t find them. They don’t exist. That is sad. But they exist in Korea and France and Denmark and Germany and Italy and Russia.”
One of the American-made films that made the grade is “Lebanon, Pa.,” helmed by Ben Hickernell, who wrote, directed, produced and edited the film, which played well at SXSW in March.
“I think we have a film that people think is good, and now it’s just really trying to get enough buzz through the festival circuit so that a distributor feels safe releasing it,” Hickernell said. “In this market there are fewer and fewer films getting sold overall, especially these little films that are really just kind of dramas and touch people. It’s not a horror film. It’s not an action film. It’s not an easily marketable film in one way, but I disagree with that, because it’s a film that speaks to people, and that’s what movies are all about in the end.”
The late John Hughes will be honored with the festival’s annual Michigan Filmmakers Award, and Tom Bernard and Michael Barker, co-presidents of Sony Pictures Classics, will each be presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
While some of the films screening are already in release, such as “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “The Secret in Their Eyes” and “Please Give,” they’re often new to northern Michigan auds. Also screening are “Budrus,” “Heartbreaker,” “The Infidel,” “Cane Toads: The Conquest” and “Cherry.”
The festival has also been instrumental in renovating a shuttered historical downtown movie house, the State Theater, which it continues to own and operate as a year-round, community-based, and volunteer-staffed art house movie theater.
Festival highlights include 70-plus industry guests from around the globe, a tribute to The Beatles, a salute to Cuban film, two U.S. premieres from past favorites Sabina Guzzanti (“Draquila — Italy Trembles”) and Vít Klusak and Filip Remunda (“Czech Dream”), film industry panels, Q&As with filmmakers, the TCFF Film School, and family-friendly outdoor movies each night.