Having celebrated its 25th anniversary last fall, the Hamptons Intl. Film Festival is well- established as a star-studded, resort-style showcase for the buzziest films of awards season.
For HIFF artistic director David Nugent, the numbers speak for themselves. “In each of the last eight years, one of the films in our festival has gone on to win best picture, and there were 47 Oscar nominations [for films] in the festival last year. I think for a lot of audiences, particularly on the East Coast, it’s the first place they’ll see a lot of the films that go on to do well in the awards race.”
Despite the impressive track record, he insists that Oscar prognostication is not at the heart of the festival’s mission. “We’re a year-round organization, devoted to bringing important and worthwhile films to our audiences,” he says.
And anyway, it’s not always obvious which films are Oscar-bound. “If we’d told someone that a French silent film was going to win best picture, or had described the plot of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ or even ‘Moonlight’ — our audiences aren’t buying those tickets because they think it’s going to win best picture.”
Executive director Anne Chaisson says she sees film festivals as primarily community events, and HIFF caters to a particularly sophisticated crowd. “Audiences out here are voracious. They live two hours away from New York City, and they’re used to a big cultural influx.”
The organization’s year-round events include several programs hosted by HIFF board co-chairman and Hamptons resident Alec Baldwin, who is also an ubiquitous presence at the fest. Events include SummerDocs, a decade-old documentary series at Guild Hall of East Hampton, and the Winter Classic series featuring vintage Hollywood films.
Chaisson says HIFF strives to deliver challenging, high-quality programs and education throughout the calendar year, in part because there’s so much cultural competition. “There are 20 world-class cultural institutions within a 45-mile radius across the South Fork that drive hundreds of thousands of people a year to their organizations,” she says. “It’s a community that loves the arts.”
With this audience in mind, HIFF’s screening slate focuses less on world premieres than on careful curation of the global festival circuit.
“Being a couple of months after Cannes, we’re really excited when we do things like the U.S. premiere of ‘Capernaum,’ Nadine Labaki’s film that won the Grand Jury Prize this year. Or screening ‘Birds of Passage’ by Ciro Guerra,” Nugent says. “Most of our audience doesn’t attend Cannes or Telluride or Toronto, and they’re counting on us to bring what we think are the best films from those festivals there, as well as sprinkling in some new discoveries.
“Anne and I try to find films that are not only the best, but also likely won’t get a chance to screen out here the rest of the year.”
Though HIFF does indeed program plenty of films without wide theatrical distribution, two of this year’s hottest tickets — the opening-night screening of Sara Colangelo’s “The Kindergarten Teacher” and the Spotlight screening of Alfonso Cuaron’s semi-autobiographical “Roma” — are Netflix-owned titles that viewers can stream at their leisure shortly after the festival ends.
This doesn’t seem to worry Nugent. “ ‘Roma,’ in particular, being shot on 65mm and being such a big canvas, is really one to see on the big screen. I hope people do see it big, and then they can watch it again and again on Netflix.”
And the East Coast premiere of “The Kindergarten Teacher” represents something of a homecoming for director Colangelo. In 2014, she participated in HIFF’s Screenwriters Lab, which pairs up-and-coming writer-directors with established mentors, while writing her first film “Little Accidents.”
Nugent says the thorny Staten Island-set drama about the awkward bond between a creatively frustrated schoolteacher and a withdrawn 5-year-old student who might be a poetry prodigy is “a really interesting film to talk about after you see it.”
The film’s star Maggie Gyllenhaal, who will be attending the fest for the first time, agrees. “The movie is intended to make you very uncomfortable at times. To live in that uncomfortable place, I think it really helps to be in a dark room with a lot of other people.”
“We love that we’re opening with a film that’s written and directed and produced and has a lead performance by a woman,” Nugent says.
The majority of the HIFF programming team is made up of women, and Chaisson and Nugent say that they strive for gender parity in their selections. “This year, 47% of the films in the festival are directed by women,” Nugent says. “Our competition section is 50/50 even. It’s something that we’re proud of.”
Though HIFF is not as industry-heavy as Telluride and Toronto, Chaisson and Nugent recognize that the well-heeled vacation spot is a draw for all kinds of influencers. Nugent recalls sneaking Madonna in through the theater’s back door for a screening of “Black Swan,” and mentions past festival events with Joe Biden,
Howard Stern and Jerry Seinfeld.
Chaisson sees HIFF as a community-oriented enterprise, but the Hamptons is a community that tends to temporarily expand, whether for a beach party or a major cultural event. “From television to online to you-name-it, they come out here.”
What: The Hamptons Intl. Film Festival
When: Oct. 4-8
Where: Hamptons, N.Y.
“The Kindergarten Teacher” with Maggie Gyllenhaal
The festival will open with the East Coast premiere of “The Kindergarten Teacher,” Sara Colangelo’s electrifying and discomfiting remake of the 2014 Israeli drama.
“It feels to me like a real honor to open the festival,” says Maggie Gyllenhaal, who produced the film and plays the titular protagonist. “We’re a little movie. We made it for nothing — a really truly New York independent film, shot in 23 days. I was changing my clothes in the bathroom on the Staten Island Ferry. So it feels especially good to get to do the lovely, pleasurable stuff that comes after the making of a difficult film.”
The Israeli version of “The Kindergarten Teacher,” directed by Nadav Lapid, addressed questions of masculinity within a militaristic society, but Gyllenhaal says the American remake consciously tackles the complexity of womanhood.
“What are the consequences — the real consequences — if you starve a vibrant woman’s mind? She needs her student’s words to be poems. She needs them to be because nobody’s listening to her work. Nobody’s listening to her at all. And I think there are a lot of women at this moment who can relate to that feeling — a lifetime of not being heard, and not even knowing it.”
There will also be a conversation with Gyllenhaal on Oct. 5.
Alan Alda to Receive the Dick Cavett Artistic Champion Award
Last year, Alec Baldwin and HIFF inaugurated the Dick Cavett Artistic Champion Award by giving it to … Dick Cavett. In 2018, the festival will celebrate a longtime festival attendee, the beloved Emmy-winning actor Alan Alda.
“Alan Alda has been out here for a very long time, has a home in Sag Harbor, and has been to our festival many times,” says HIFF executive director Anne Chaisson. “He has a whole section of Stony Brook University named after him due to his involvement in science. And with theater, with film, with television, with the Bridgehampton Philharmonic, he has so many causes. His tentacles are long and extremely devoted. He’s done so much.”
Alda says the award is an honor, and he also looks forward to attending HIFF to see new films. “If my being there will help celebrate the Hamptons Film Festival itself, then I’m very happy,” he says. “It’s been an important contributor to this culture, by focusing on independent films and films from other cultures. The clear indication for me that it has done that, is how much serious attention it’s gotten from the Academy Awards.”
HIFF Screenwriters Lab
In April, the festival conducted its 18th Annual Screenwriters Lab, representing HIFF’s attempt to develop homegrown filmmaking talent. “We bring out a selection of up-and-coming writers and directors and pair them with an established writer or writer-director, and spend a long weekend working on their script and having access to a master class, and other things,” says artistic director David Nugent.
This year, all the lab participants — Esra Saydam, Anu Valia and Aemilia Scott — are women, a first for the festival. And past participant Sara Colangelo, who in 2014 brought her script for “Little Accidents” to the lab, is screening her new film, “The Kindergarten Teacher,” on opening night of the 2018 fest, before its Oct. 12 debut on Netflix.
HIFF’s launching pad for young talent is supported by the Melissa Mathison Fund, named for the late “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” screenwriter, and devoted to developing female writers in the film industry. The fund allows one Screenwriters Lab participant to present work in an exclusive staged reading later in the year.