10th Annual Massachusetts Independent Film Festival 24th – 26th September (Event Review)

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2020 has certainly been a challenging year for all of us, to say the least. On the upside, a bulk of the film festivals around the world have found alternatives to hosting their live events – opting for virtual programs instead. I’ve been fortunate enough with my latest short film “The Body”, to have had some great exposure through such fests, particularly across the entire US. I’d heard some great things about the Massachusetts Independent Film Festival, so you can imagine my delight with receiving the news that my short film was going to be a part of their tenth festival. I was given a complimentary ticket to the online festival by programmer Chris Di Nunzio, and in the end, managed to catch a lot of the films playing across the three days (despite having a fairly hectic schedule myself). The least I can do is share my experience with you guys, and in turn help promote the festival for its future events.

A vast majority of the shorts were either separated into blocks (which you could purchase in isolation) that consisted of similarly themed films, or they were placed before a full length feature. The blocks were fairly priced for viewers and with that much good content on display you’d have best purchased a ticket for the full three days. Due to other commitments, I only got the opportunity to see the one feature film in “Woe”, Directed by Matthew Robert Goodhue. It was ultimately a confined drama with some thriller aspects that centered around a brother and sister dealing with the fallout of their father’s death and the secrets he kept buried over the years. It was technically well conceived and quite nicely acted but I couldn’t fully get invested, whether that be due to the overall pacing, or the lack of urgency given what was transpiring within the story. In regard to the Documentaries (which aren’t really my personal taste), I’ve no doubt they would’ve offered plenty of learnings for those that way inclined as well.

With hindsight and personal bias aside (and with my critic hat on instead), I think MIFF carefully selected a wonderful variety of original and entertaining shorts for their tenth year. Not to mention those decisions were perhaps even more important given this years festival was presented virtually. I had the privilege of checking out around twenty of the 40 narrative shorts – which is sadly all I had time for. Starting with Block 2 late on Friday night, I watched an experimental and really beautifully shot film called “The Temporary Place”, Directed by Garrett McNamee. It mixed both elements of science fiction and drama nicely with interesting voice over work. The only gripe I had is that it felt just a few minutes too long. Block 3 presented “Rhinestone Blue”, a unique 7-minute drama from Aisha Schliessler about an aging and lonely cowboy attempting to claim first prize in a small town talent show. This might be one of my favorites from the weekend. Boasting wonderful production values, flawless cinematography by experienced DP Tobias Schliessler, nice music, and a great performance by James C. Burns, it’s got everything a short should have. Block 8 had the earlier feature film I mentioned in it, as well as the 19-minute short “The Reaper” from Teddy Pryor. Perhaps being somewhat guilty of the typical premise we’ve all seen before where a hitman re-evaluates his moral compass, The Reaper doesn’t really offer much in the way of new or original. That said, it’s well edited and shot, the music choices are good, and Kris Salvi’s lead performance is a solid one.

I woke up on Saturday and worked my way through Blocks 9-12, finding a couple of gems in the bunch. “Retract” from Alexandra Spieth highlighted the sadly all too real occurrences of harassment that women seem to have to deal with on a daily basis. It ended with a bit of a fitting gut punch – I liked that. “Hail Mary” had a “Now Is Good” type premise, just in a short form. The living like it’s your last day mantra was strong in this one. “Junkie” and “Daniel” couldn’t have been more different from one another but I enjoyed the pair of them just the same. The former dealing with another all too familiar plight, addiction – and how it tears apart families. The acting was really consistent and it left me with a sense of hope for the protagonist. In retrospect, the pacing was problematic in “Daniel” but the filmmaking qualities made up for it and the reveal was something fresh. “The Music”, Directed by Mark Battle turned out to be the type of film I definitely go in for. A stylish Crime/Drama presented in Black and White with a number of long takes. I dug the cinematography, the suspense was strong, and the ending surprised me (although I’d potentially have enjoyed seeing it go another way).

As night approached, I delved into Block 13, which might just be the best of the bunch. And no, I’m not just saying that because my film “The Body” was placed in said block – that’s pure coincidence! Erica Stockwell-Alpert undoubtedly supplied some good laughs with her Horror/Comedy, “Firstborn”. A film about what happens when a human sacrifice doesn’t quite go to plan. This one had the type of humor I love, reminiscent of other shorts like “Bad Guy #2”, “Invaders”, or “We Summoned A Demon”. Cool colorful lighting and nice makeup fx turned out to be a welcomed bonus. Another very unexpectedly funny film was Steve Blackwood’s “Stuck”, a short about a couple who buy a sex machine to spice things up in the bedroom, but inadvertently find themselves in a “Weekend Like Bernie’s” situation with the overly enthusiastic delivery guy. In addition to writing the script, Blacwood plays the lead role and does a fantastic job. The dialogue is wordy and clever and delivered at rather break neck speeds, the edit comes together cleanly, and Sandy Bainum as “Hellen” delivers every bit as good of a performance as Steve. “Face Your Fears”, “Meek Lover Creek”, and “The Keeper” were all really solid shorts worthy of a mention as well (so be sure to look those up). Karisa Bruin’s “The Tooth Racket” had one of the most entertaining premises of any film across the weekend. Where in which a tooth fairy from South Boston gets more than he bargains for with a little girl trying her darnedest to add dollars to the piggy bank on her nightstand. So much about this one was great, but unfortunately, the young actress (in her first appearance) just didn’t have the required performance in her and it ultimately took me out of the film.

So we’ve come to that time now, a time for which I’ve been saving the best for last. Without question, the best film I saw at The Massachusetts Independent Film Festival was a unique and brilliant Comedy/Drama called “Strange Times In Wapakoneta”, Written and Directed by the extremely talented Ben Fraternale. Wow, where to start with this film. I loved absolutely everything about it. From the quirky title, to the concept of warring newspaper editors who just so happen to be brothers, to the witty lines and the comedic beats, it’s all done with the highest entertainment value in mind. The production values are magnificent and I wouldn’t be surprised if this particular gazette cleans up when it comes to the awards. The cinematography and lighting are both excellent, and the editing style and coverage is by far the best I’ve seen in 2020. The music is whimsical and all of the actors are incredibly consistent, led by standouts in Alex Herrald and Lucas Harvie. What’s more is the ending is extremely satisfying and brings all the respective arcs to a perfect close. I seriously can’t praise this film enough!

The 2020 MIFF Festival turned out to be a great experience and one of the festivals I’m extremely humbled to have been a part of this year. I hope those that purchased tickets enjoyed all the films, and if I’m honest, I’m kind of still pinching myself at the sheer fact that I had just my third short film playing alongside the likes of films liike “Rhinestone Blue”, “Stuck”, “The Music”, “Strange Times In Wapakoneta” and the many more films from these very talented individuals. A big thanks to the entire MIFF team for their efforts in such a challenging time. Well it’s been a bloody busy few days so I must away now… until next time!