While the moniker of Hollywood-on-Hudson has yet to catch on, the first annual Red Hook Film Festival “Winter Shorts” opened on Feb. 23, drawing large crowds and packing the Red Hook Firehouse to capacity with eager viewers. Despite the cold and damp weather, around 300 people attended the festival, which featured works by professional independent filmmakers as well as student films from local college and high school artists.
The firehouse ballroom has played host to every event a small town can throw, from political fundraisers to Halloween parties. But the space has not often undergone such a thorough transformation. Signet Staging from Poughkeepsie draped black theatrical curtains along the walls and provided modern glass podiums and directors’ chairs for the artists.
As guests entered, the sound system played a medley of the feature film’s various scores and other music, a soundscape engineered by Red Hook High School student Isabel Vazquez.
There was food and, of course, popcorn provided by the Red Hook Community Arts Network (RHCAN) and Tivoli’s Ham House.
The festival’s main event consisted of four short works by independent film makers: “Caught” by Lori Martini and Elizabeth Page, “And I on the Opposite Shore” by Mozell Miley-Bailey, “Death in the Family” by Luchina Fisher and “Wolf Dog Tales” by Bernadine Santistevan. An early submission of an unfinished work by professional filmmaker Vincent Ducarne opened the evening and was followed by a selection of student films. Mike Ewald, Jesse Rolfe and Mike Hahn-Rauch of Red Hook High School represented the youngest set. College-level submissions came from Dustin Grella of the School of Visual Arts in New York City as well as Vitor Carvalho, Camila Sobral and Dylan Cassidy from Bard College. Timothy Fitzmaurice, a Red Hook High School technology teacher and advisor to the T.V. Studio Broadcasting Club, moderated a question-and-answer session at the end of the screenings.
The story of the festival itself begins with Red Hook resident Robert George, who runs the Robert George design group, a landscaping and architectural firm, in an inconspicuous second-floor studio above 27 West Market Street.
According to George, the idea for the festival came about organically. After seeing filmmaker Luchina Fisher’s “Death in the Family,” a short narrative on a family coming to terms with the death of a loved one, George decided that he would work to bring the small independent film to a wider audience.
“The quality and the content of the story moved me so much that I knew it was important for other people to be able to share in the experience,” he told The Observer. Creating a whole festival, however, was not his original plan, he added, “but then I thought, ‘If I am going to do something like that, why not take it to the next level and make it something that the entire community can be a part of?’”
From there, he reached out to the RHCAN and the idea took on a life of its own, growing and becoming more ambitious by the day.
Though his current work in design focuses on fashioning wood and stone into unique residential spaces, George began his career in film and photography. After graduating from Bard College in 1987, he worked as a photographer for several small New York City newspapers and commercial firms. He was also the co-founder and co-owner of Spotty Dog Productions, until he walked away from the scene in 1994 to return to the Hudson Valley and focus on design.
“I view independent filmmakers as our modern story tellers,” he said. “It is a unique experience to share in the viewing of a film with your community. It is so much more meaningful than sitting at home in your pajamas and watching something, no matter how tricked out your television might be.”
In the spirit of community, he also pledged to donate all proceeds from ticket sales to RHCAN, which plans to use the funds for future arts programming.
The RHCAN provided volunteers to help run the festival and hosted an after-party at their gallery on Broadway, featuring local food from Gigi Market and drinks from Sipperley’s Grog Shop.
RHCAN chairperson Kari Feuer told The Observer that local artists viewed the festival as a success on many levels. “Though we don’t have the cash on hand to initiate a project like this, we at RHCAN now see that our model of networking and helping the creative forces in the community is functioning according to our vision,” she said.
Feuer noted that everything at the festival was done to a very high standard, but the $10 ticket price meant that it was still affordable for anyone. “The creative talent is here, but sometimes it takes a village to bring it to fruition,” she said.
The community effort was also not lost on the professional filmmakers who attended.
In an email to The Observer, writer and director Bernadine Santistevan said, “My experience at the first-ever Red Hook Film Festival was truly inspiring. It was one of the very few festivals that I’ve attended in which I felt the essence of the community was present, making it a magical experience.”
Santistevan added, “Having student and local participation in the screenings certainly added to the wonderful community experience, and I applaud Robert George for leaving no stone unturned in creating a magnificent experience for all. I am honored that ‘Wolf Dog Tales’ was a part of the festival.”
Mozell Miley-Bailey, director of “And I on the Opposite Shore,” expressed a similar sentiment. “We felt so welcome and embraced by the whole community,” she said, “It was an amazing night.”
With the huge turnout and glowing reception, plans are already being made for 2014. Robert George is hoping to attract more submissions from Bard film students next year, and he plans to offer scholarship awards for the top student films and financial incentives for the professional entries. He is also hoping to attract films that focus on the Hudson Valley area.