Saturday, April 28, 2012

How Urban Cool Changed Lives — The Julien Dubuque International Film Festival

Why film? Why a festival? Why here?

These are the questions anyone might naturally have when hearing about a film festival. We wonder, Does this have anything to do with me or my life? Does this really affect the way I live, in the place where I live?

Trolling up and down Main Street at the Julien Dubuque International Film Festival (JDIFF), I see the answer right in front of me: a filmmaker from Israel passes a family from Uganda, who pass a local media executive, running into a local pub with a screen under his arm, passing college students come out of that same pub, excitedly discussing the merits of a Australian short film about a telegram man.

Across the street a tour is leaving for a baseball field that is part of a major discussion about the economic development tied to films. Another tour goes over the bridge to learn about the ecosystem of the Mississippi through a film.

Later that evening, everyone will re-converge at a theater to see a silent film accompanied by a live orchestra. Shouts, hoots, hollers, high-fiving, and open laughter from the audience—do we normally experience this kind of esprit-de-corps at a movie? Business leaders, artists, L.A. hangout-types, hometown folks who made good as a major television and movie actors, nonprofit cause marketers, together with regular folk, your friends and neighbors, each enjoying the moment, having fun together like you remember only doing at summer camp.

Urban Cool

This kind of cross-pollination is something normally found only in urban centers. The large city's biggest strength is the expansion of one's horizons by rubbing elbows with all kinds of people, from all kinds of backgrounds, with all kinds of beliefs. Rather than being a threat, this sheer diversity is energizing, edifying, and a whole lot of fun. It opens doors for growth in so many ways: ideas spread, innovation happens, creativity flourishes, and not least, economics improve, as talent pools grow and opportunities for development happen.

But as those of us who have lived in major urban centers such as New York, Boston, or Chicago can attest, there is a downside to the urban experience—financial cost. Even with high incomes, many people simply cannot make ends meet due to the higher cost of living. Therefore many of us have come back "home" as it were, from the coast to the middle. Less of a commute and cheaper groceries help take the life-stress index down out of the red zone.

But we miss the urban experience nevertheless. We miss being able to access arts and culture, eat at a large selection of (healthy) fine restaurants, and we want to walk or bike, not drive, to any and all of the above. Most of all, we miss the meaningfulness of interaction with many different kinds of people.

A film festival reproduces that urban experience, at an affordable cost for the average person. Through easy walking access, it provides the cultural stimulation of the arts, and opens the way for everyone to participate, regardless of means. A truly democratic idea!

Important Ideas

Like democracy, important ideas have always been the treasure of the arts.  Both the ideas expounded in the films, and the interaction between people around those ideas, are expanding to the mind and soul. When a film presents an idea opposite to one's own beliefs or in some way challenging to one's view of the world, what results is a re-examination of ourselves.

Dubuque is a pocket of progressive ideas. It has had an international influx of diverse people in recent years through strategic business development. But just how often do people experience a truly urban atmosphere?

We should be asking: is this festival a key to the long-term economic and social development of Dubuque? How can events like JDIFF be leveraged to encourage both Dubuque natives and new transplants a way to interact and feel at home? This is a large vision and an important idea that needs the arts in order to take root and grow.

Personal Touch

The megaplex movie theater, a staple of the modern suburban sprawl, has nothing personal about it. By contrast, a film festival offers something very much more human. Smaller venues such as downstairs in a tavern foster interaction and discussion with other people before and after the films. You will never see a live musician accompany a film at the AMC. But at the film festival, a person stands up and conducts a group of persons in a concert, and everyone becomes more personally involved. This changes the way one views film, making it a more reflective, memorable, and rewarding thing.

JDIFF's way of telling local stories is real and down-to-earth. Million Spokes, a documentary about Iowa's bike race across the state, RAGBRAI, tells the story of something that makes this region unique. Ghost Players gathers people around the story of the Field of Dreams location and its ongoing local and national impact.

As these local and regional stories are told, they become enfleshed and real for everyone. As we are given an environment for personal engagement with them, we "own" them in a way we had not previously. Not only does this add meaning to our lives, it makes us better human beings, less apt to sit isolated in our houses, more interested in what is happening down the street and even on the other side of the world.

One of the most important personal touches provided by the festival is face-to-face contact with actors, filmmakers, and directors. I saw the documentary Dolphin Boy (reviewed on this blog) with my son. It made a big impression on him that the director was there all the way from Israel. Together with the educational value of the film itself, this raised the quality of the experience up to a higher rung. Another film called Part Time Fabulous (also reviewed here) engendered a discussion with the director about clinical depression. Where else can something like that happen?

Community Cause

Images have the power to move us to action. They also have the ability to gather a community around a cause larger than itself. This was accomplished magnificently by the film, Moving On. Together, a very large group from Dubuque were transported to Uganda and shown what people are like in that part of the world. We each felt the unforgettable emotion of joy at seeing women improve their lives through a bead-making enterprise started by an ordinary couple.

View Moving On
Poverty can seem like a faraway thing, until it takes on a human face. A film like Moving On can mobilize a community to help people by involving everyone in the immediacy and emotion of their story. Even better is seeing it screened in the context of a festival, where people are already gathered around open sharing of ideas and having fun together. If we can see working on poverty as rewarding each of us with a deeper connection to each other, maybe we will take the steps needed to move toward a more healthy and prosperous world.

Each of us has a deep need to become involved with something larger than ourselves, to get caught up in a higher purpose. In order to meet that deep spiritual need, we need a way of rallying around causes. Moving On can help accomplish just that, by linking the power of film to concrete action, harnessing the incredible power of people with a shared vision working together to see it realized.

Light as a Feather:
Local artist Gene Tully's original design for the JDIFF awards
Let me not forget—the awards! The opening night's ceremony was not something anyone will forget. I heard many refer to it as a seminal event, like nothing else they had seen in Dubuque. The filmmakers and international attendees also praised it as being among the best in film festivals. Not bad for the first year. 

The selection of films, the recruitment and coordination of sponsors, the public relations and marketing, the sequencing of events for good flow and "user experience" all were in the high ranks. This is a promising thing for film, for Dubuque, and for all rising artists looking to the future.
JDIFF Directors Christopher Kulovitz and Michael Coty.
The organizational challenges of a festival of this scale are legion.
So why film? In short, it changes lives. Film creates community, by giving us important ideas, gathering people into a diverse and interactive group, giving them a cause, and helping them be happier. Why a festival? As one writer has put it, "God blesses what is truly festive and celebrative." 

Why here? Because this is Dubuque. We are urban explorers with a personal touch, and we can touch the world by caring about film. 

Photos by Ronald and Jennifer Tigges

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