Filmmaker Paul VanNess '73, founded Salem Film Fest four years ago when he collaborated with a handful of other film lovers. The all-documentary festival brings filmmakers and audiences together over a week-long event and is quickly becoming one of the most popular all-documentary festivals in the country. "The festival is a real community-building event in two dimensions," said VanNess. "It brings together film lovers and enthusiasts in the North Shore area, and has created wonderful friendships and business partnerships among the organizers, volunteers and sponsors. But maybe more profoundly, it also has allowed us to build connections with the subjects and creators of films from around the world."
This will be the third year Provost Mark Sargent has served as a judge, bringing his love of films and insights on screenwriting to the expert panel. Sargent, who founded the Provost Film Series at Gordon College, has a deep appreciation for storytelling through films. "Normally I am drawn to feature films, so it really challenges and stretches me to examine innovative work by documentary filmmakers," said Sargent. "My top choice last year--a marine's personal film about the invasion of Baghdad--was actually more powerful to me than The Hurt Locker, the Iraq war story that took home the Oscar for best film."
The other unusual element to Salem Film Fest is the business model for the event: It's comprised of volunteers. From the design and development of the website by Gordon alum Chris Peters '09, to festival ambassadors and coordinators--even event coverage by the Gordon College NewsService--the festival runs 100 percent on support of those willing to give back. VanNess commented, "Throughout my work life, I've found that some of the most gratifying experiences come when a group of people coalesce around an important endeavor, like launching and nurturing this film festival. I know my openness to that kind of service was formed during my college years at Gordon, where I was influenced by the examples of students and faculty whose definition of Christianity included a component of giving back."
Van Ness, who has produced films for Osram-Sylvania, L.L. Bean, and Hologic, doesn't participate in the selection process but is very excited about this year's lineup, saying that the week-long event will showcase a number of documentaries that challenge the audience to think beyond personal traditions and cultures, and create connections for discussion. He says, "Sometimes this connection involves immersing ourselves in a filmmaker's world for 90 minutes as we watch a mesmerizing film; and sometimes it's that plus an extended face-to-face conversation over a few days with a filmmaker who's traveled to Salem. These are the sorts of experiences which have the potential to change your view of the world and reorder your priorities."
The opportunity to challenge preconceptions is one of the large motivators for VanNess, who studied English at Gordon. "I appreciate the influence the Gordon community had on me, encouraging me to think of my faith less as a vulnerable thing to be protected and more as a lens through which to see the world. I think our faith is strengthened and enriched by exposure to other points of view, and there's always the pretty good chance that something someone says will end up teaching me something about God."
La Vida is also looking to the festival as an opportunity to engage the local community about the impact screen time has on teens, and educate audiences about La Vida's offerings and programs of help in this area. As a sponsor, Rich Obenchain, director of La Vida, will moderate a discussion with the filmmaker of the documentary Play Again. "It's no surprise I love the outdoors, so I will be most interested in hearing how the audience feels about the way young people are losing their connection to nature by staying indoors more than ever before in history," said Obenchain. The film Play Again describes how youth are spending more and more time on different forms of media--estimated to be over seven hours a day for the average American child. "I hope Gordon will be seen as a community partner encouraging parents to involve their kids in outdoor activities such as the new Family Adventure Day on April 30. This festival gives Gordon the chance to support the arts and be seen as a resource to parents struggling with this issue."
The festival includes over 30 films, from stories about the ghettos of America's capital to life behind the iron-curtain, to tales from a traveling Mexican circus. For a full listing of documentaries, dates and times, visit the festival website. The festival runs March 4-10th.