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Woodstock Film Festival Co-Founder Looks Back on 20 Years of Fierce Independence

The Woodstock Film Festival, New York’s self-declared “fiercely independent” weeklong cinema celebration, wrapped its 20th edition on October 6. Held within the welcoming milieu of the Hudson Valley, the forward-thinking gathering hosts films, panels, parties and award ceremonies not just in Woodstock, but also in neighboring towns Rosendale, Rhinebeck, Saugerties and Kingston.

At the heart of WFF are co-founders Laurent Rejto and Meira Blaustein, who, along with a number of devoted industry stalwarts (many have resided in the region), ensure that smart, inclusive programming of contemporary narratives, documentaries, shorts and animations are screened. It’s why the festival  has developed an identity all its own.

In honor of the Woodstock Film Festival’s 20th anniversary, Variety sat down with Rejto to look back at the road taken to reach the milestone.

What was your vision for the Woodstock Film Festival two decades ago?
The vision was to create a filmmaker-friendly festival, something that supported filmmakers. Back then, a lot of film fests were being run by people who didn’t understand how the artist’s vision needed to be appreciated. Having gone to film school and suffering through the [process of] striving to be creative, one realizes how important that is to people. I’ve been a film editor for many years and I’ve produced films, that gets [you] an appreciation for all the work that goes into it and the passion that people bring to their projects.

How important was the locale of Woodstock?
It was ideal because it’s always been the home of such efforts. Woodstock was created as a utopian outpost back in 1895 so it was based on that historic backdrop — like the Byrdcliffe Colony and then the Maverick Colony by Hervey White. White was the son of a Missouri farmer who was Harvard educated and came here and created these spectacular summer events, which eventually led to the Woodstock Music Festival. There was always this mix of benefiting the community and cherishing artists. … The WFF is a representation of this town, and it’s an atypical representation I suspect. It’s a special bubble that I respect wholeheartedly because it’s all about community and giving instead of taking. … What we do is share people’s passions, and we’re passionate in return.

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Like any ongoing business, the WFF has to be concerned with survival. How has enduring in the 21st Century tested your ideals?
That is very difficult. I think that we’re like the original Maverick Colony because it was kind of a build-it-as-you-go philosophy. It still runs mostly on passion but people appreciate it and many of our sponsors are people who appreciate that as well. They support us and have become friends who believe in that same mission—which is to exhibit and push the arts and the passion of artists. A further step is we’ve developed a huge outreach helping people with production, so we’ve worked on over 500 films over the years. We help them crew up and get cast and find vendors and pick locations. We just finished working with four HBO projects this year, and three Netflix projects as well. That’s a little bit bizarre because it’s not the independent filmmaking it used to be, but the world has changed.

A lot of young filmmakers got started here, which must be gratifying.
We try to stay in touch, and in 20 years, there’s been such a trajectory of people who’ve become well known and prominent. We had Rebecca Miller’s 2003 film “Personal Velocity,” which won a bunch of prizes at Sundance and was the first digital film that ever won a cinematography award. Carlo Mirabella-Davis came here in 2009 with a short called “Knifepoint,” which was filmed in the Hudson Valley. Carlo came back and we helped him set up for a film called “Swallow,” which just won best feature film here. In 2004, we had a film called “Victoria Para Cino,” which won best student short, it was a filmmaker named Cary Fukunaga, who came back and we worked with him on a few films through the Hudson Valley Film Commission. About five months ago Cary was named director of “James Bond 25.”

How do you approach programming for the festival? We’re just looking for soul. I use Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” as my bible when it comes to programming. It’s intuitive and it’s about being touched. You know it immediately and to be perfectly honest, you need those experiences to sustain you through the bad films. Terrible movies remind you how incredibly difficult it is to make a good film. All those elements — the directing, the acting, the cinematography, the music, the writing, the art direction, the production design, the sound design, the editing — have to come together almost perfectly and that’s what makes film so complicated.

What are some of your personal highlights from 20 years of the WFF?
Just being able to establish relationships with filmmakers and having interns and volunteers come back. Our Maverick Awards Ceremony was particularly touching this year, when around 20 people who cut their teeth with us came back to say hello. They all came to watch movies and are part of the industry now, and for me that’s huge.

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