I’m not quite sure how to write this recap without sounding like it’s paid for by both the Traverse City Film Festival and the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce. I often have conversations with filmmakers who have festival horror stories: empty theaters, poor projection and sound, very little staff, water boarding, etc. So I feel incredibly lucky to have played Hot Docs and Traverse City thus far because they make even a first time documentary maker like myself feel like a Saudi Prince. Not only was this the 10th anniversary of Traverse City but it was also Michael Moore’s 60th birthday and the 25th anniversary of his revolutionary first documentary Roger and Me and I think that contributed an extra buzz to the air.
The film festival assigns a driver to each visiting director so my first encounter with the staff was when Tom Gilbert greeted me at the airport with a giant bear hug, which set the tone for the gregarious and friendly people that populate the picturesque Michigan resort town located on the expansive Grand Traverse Bay. (As an interesting side note, Tom is an ex-judge who, about 15 years ago, was caught smoking a joint at a Rolling Stones concert, made the national news, went into rehab, left the bench, and opened an intervention center in Traverse City, which he still runs today.)
After a quick tour of the town and settling in at my hotel I ventured downtown to the filmmakers lounge, which was located a few minutes walk from each of the numerous screening venues. Located upstairs from the box office, the lounge provided food and drink all day including a selection of Michigan beer and wine and was staffed by some of the hundreds of friendly volunteers that made the festival such a great experience. I was also able to reconnect with some of the filmmakers I had met during Hot Docs and others that I’ve admired from afar for some time (including Mark Cousins who is a recent addition to the festival board).
My executive producer (aka my old man) made the trek to show his support and we were able to have dinner with his friend, the wonderful Traverse City based author Doug Stanton (In Harms Way, Horse Soldiers). In addition to writing great books Doug runs an exceptional writers festival in Traverse City and does enormous amount to help young writers with his Front Street Writers program.
On Friday I saw a couple of great documentaries: Happy Valley, about the Sandusky scandal at Penn State, and Virunga, which starts out detailing the efforts to save the mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park in the Congo but diverges into an exploration of multi-national corporations exploiting the park’s natural resources and a civil war that broke out during filming. Both should be available at some point soon so check them out.
The day culminated (for me at least) with the sold out US Premiere of Love and Terror at the Bijou by the Bay - an intimate theater that was once part of a zoo complex located near the waterfront. The building was recently renovated by Michael Moore and turned into a 160 seat theater complete with a flashing marquee that displayed the film’s title and was an absolute joy to see. The audience response was overwhelming and the Q&A after the film proved what everyone had been say saying: that the festival attracts some really sophisticated and avid movie going audiences.
Saturday was more of the same - a screening of the Sundance award winning documentary Rich Hill about three boys growing up in poverty in a small town in Missouri, followed by another sold out screening of Love and Terror at the Old Town Playhouse. The Playhouse holds about 360 people and the audience was just as enthusiastic as Friday night.
In the greenroom after the show I was talking with the projectionist - an old school, off the grid guy from Taos, New Mexico who the festival recruited to work for the week. I learned that Michael and the festival board of directors enlist skilled projectionists from all over the country to run the screenings and it’s obvious - every film I saw went off without a hitch and looked and sounded pristine. Every little detail of the festival showed how attuned they are to what’s important to filmmakers and the lengths they go to make sure we’re happy.
There were also talks and panels, parties, a 60th birthday party for Michael Moore, outdoor screenings on the bay, boat rides, a farmers market, great restaurants and bars, etc. A festival like this is a little slice of paradise. I get to spend a few days doing exactly what I want to be doing when I’m not making films: watching them, talking about them with other filmmakers, meeting great people, seeing new places, eating and drinking too much, and sleeping too little.
Next up are the Kansas International Film Festival and the Hot Springs Documentary Festival in October so keep an eye out for updates on those. I’m still wading through the distribution side of things and am doing my best to get you all the film as soon as possible. Thanks again for your support and please let me know if you have any questions.
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