For as long as they’ve been around, film festivals have been places to watch movies you might not otherwise get to see-smaller films, foreign imports, or the stuff that is just too weird to ever make it to the multiplex. But in the age of Netflix and its ever-multiplying streaming service offspring, finding things to watch has never been easier. So where does that leave film festivals?
While showing films you can’t see elsewhere is still an aspect of festivals-especially with short films-Mendocino Film Festival Executive Director Angela Matano points out the real value of festivals is in curating those films.
“On the internet you can find just about anything,” Matano says, “but how do you know what to find? The amount of choice is kind of overwhelming.” People come to a festival like Mendocino’s confident that they’re going to see a selection of handpicked, quality films that are “going to resonate in some deeper way, even if it’s just that it’s funny or charming.”
Contrary to the image of film festivals as being stodgy or pretentious affairs reserved only for serious cineastes, Matano emphasizes MFF’s efforts to reach as many people as possible-especially following the difficulties of the pandemic. 2022’s festival aims to showcase “dynamic, fun and absorbing stories” in the hope of reminding people “how important it is to have reasons to gather.”
For Matano, those “reasons to gather” extend beyond the individual films being shown to the broader experience of attending a festival. In a time when it can be difficult to lure even the most dedicated movie lover away from the comforts and convenience of home, the act of going out, participating, and allowing for the possibilities of happenstance is more important than ever.
“Experiences are really the best way to spend your money,” she explains, “because they’re the thing you remember.”
It’d be hard not to remember a weekend in Mendocino. Perched on the headlands overlooking rocky Pacific shores and enveloped by redwoods, the charming village feels straight out of a chapter of some quaint American past-a backdrop that has made it a fitting location for several films, including East of Eden, starring James Dean. It also makes for an idyllic festival spot, which bustles during festival time, according to Matano. “It’s like the circus is coming to town. People wander the streets and all celebrate together.”
Part of that ebullient atmosphere comes from the chance to immerse oneself in the films, whether it’s at a Q&A with the filmmakers, an exhibit of a profiled artist’s work, or a performance by musicians involved with one of the films.
Then there’s Mendocino itself.
“We pride ourselves on our local beauty, our food and wine, and our charming town,” Matano says. “And that combination is pretty unbeatable.”
In years past, the festival has worked closely with the county’s many vineyards and is looking for ways to collaborate with cannabis farms as well. Agriculture and the landscape are part of the character of the festival, says Matano. “If we can ever tie a film into our natural surroundings and have someone to discuss the relevancy, it adds that extra layer that brings the movie to life.”
The upcoming festival will feature a new spotlight event, Cinema in the Redwoods, which began in 2021 as a way to offer outdoor entertainment during the pandemic and as part of the festival’s efforts to expand its year-round programming.
The event drew tourists and locals alike for the chance to take a ride on neighboring Fort Bragg’s historic Skunk Train to watch ‘80s favorite Stand By Me amongst the redwoods. Following the positive response to the inaugural event, the series will resume in the spring and carry into the festival, showcasing movies “where the experience will be heightened by being outdoors surrounded by trees, under the stars.”
For Matano, the best place to see a film is still the movie theater. With blockbusters increasingly overtaking multiplexes, she says it’s more important than ever that festivals lend smaller, human stories the gravitas of the big screen so that the magic of movies doesn’t get lost in the streaming age.
“I think the amount of content makes us all kind of numb,” she says of the streaming experience. “Being in a theater with a group of people, it’s like it opens up your pores and lets you absorb what’s being shown in a more impactful way.”
Matano finds the power of movies lies in creating empathy, being able to live in someone else’s story and feel what they’re feeling. If that sounds almost spiritual, Matano would agree, admitting she talks about going to the movies the way others talk about going to church. “There’s something uplifting about it.”
That catharsis, she says, just isn’t the same when you’re on the couch and constantly being tempted to reach for your cell phone or hit the pause button to go to the bathroom. The magic is a delicate thing, conjured only in a dark theater with its larger-than-life characters and pulse-pounding surround sound.
Of course, there’s one final ingredient. “The communal experience,” says Matano. “It always makes me feel a connection to the people around me and the shared experience that we had together,” she says, adding, “That’s something you can’t do at home by yourself.”
The Mendocino Film Festival will return June 2-5, 2022 and is open for submissions through FilmFreeway until Dec 31.