hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues May 2018


Filling a need for film

Founder celebrates successes as Berkshire festival marks 13th year


Kelley Vickery organized the first Berkshire International Film Festival in 2006 on a hunch that the region had enough film buffs to sustain it. This year’s festival, the 13th annual, will offer 80 films from 28 countries, with screenings and events scheduled May 31- June 3 in Great Barrington and Pittsfield. Scott Langley photo


Contributing writer


When Kelley Vickery returned to Great Barrington 14 years ago after a decade of living overseas with her family, she was looking for a new vocation that would allow her to care for her three school-aged children.

“I needed to work, but I also needed a job that would be flexible,” Vickery recalled.
She had worked in public relations and special events planning. She also loved film, and she had friends in her hometown of Denver who had organized the annual film festival in that city. She had the notion that southern Berkshire County needed its own celebration of independent film.
“So I spoke to friends both in the film business and film festival business, took out a few credit cards, and began planning the first Berkshire International Film Festival,” Vickery said.

The result was an annual event that has steadily grown to become one of the brighter stars in the constellation of cultural attractions in the Berkshires.

This year’s festival, the 13th annual, runs from May 31 through June 3 and will feature 28 documentaries, 30 narrative features and 22 short films. Some 27 countries, from Iceland to Indonesia, will be represented at the festival, and many of the filmmakers will be on hand to discuss their work.

“We don’t do themes -- just the best of what grabs us, from dramas to comedies to thrillers,” Vickery explained.


Home base at the Triplex
Back in 2004, before she set the festival in motion, Vickery said she sought the advice of Richard Stanley, the owner of Great Barrington’s Triplex Cinema, which regularly offers independent films along with some major releases. She hoped Stanley’s theater could become the main venue for the festival’s films.

Stanley admitted being a bit skeptical at first, but he became a willing partner.
“I thought if the festival was successful, it would be good for the town and general region, so I said, ‘Let’s give it a shot,’” Stanley recalled.

When the first Berkshire International Film Festival kicked off in May 2006, it offered 40 films – half the number featured in this year’s festival – shown at the Triplex Cinema throughout the weekend.

“The response was so amazing, I decided to do it again the following year,” Vickery said.
Stanley said he wasn’t surprised at the good turnout, but was encouraged nonetheless.
“There was a lot of positive feedback in the community at how good the festival was,” he recalled. “Two years after I opened the Triplex in 1995, it became clear that residents preferred indie films to blockbusters, so I knew there would be initial support for the festival.”

But even with the glowing reviews, Vickery knew she’d have to throw herself into planning to sustain the festival over the long term.

“The majority of film festivals don’t make it to the second year, and the ones that make it beyond that often die off after five years,” she said.

The second year, Vickery was astonished when attendance doubled.
“I was able to pay off the credit card debt,” she recalled with a laugh.


More venues, more films
The Berkshire film festival has a loyal base of fans from Great Barrington and other nearby towns, but Vickery says more than half of those who attend are from outside the region. Many indie-movie buffs make the trek from New York City, Connecticut or points farther away to spend the weekend immersed among films and the people who create them.

Over the years, the festival’s growing attendance has naturally helped to foster an expanded roster of events.

“We have a lot more going on now, including presentations with honorees and talks with screenwriters and film directors,” Vickery said. “People love hearing details of what it takes behind the scenes to make a film or write a script.”

After the fifth year, attendance was so robust that Stanley offered his sister venue, the Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield, for Friday night screenings.

“And we also added the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center as a venue,” Vickery said. “We use it all day long, through 10 p.m., for events.”

Among this year’s highlights will be the screening of “American Animals” on opening night in Great Barrington. The film, a docudrama about an attempted art heist at a college campus, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for a grand jury prize.
“It’s a wonderful and fun film done in a compelling and creative way,” Vickery said.

The next night, on June 1, “Bad Reputation,” a documentary on rock star Joan Jett, will be shown at Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield. The festival concludes June 3 with “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” an examination of the life and legacy of Fred Rogers directed by the Oscar-winning Morgan Neville. The film’s producer, Nicholas Ma, will be on hand for a post-screening Q&A.

“In between the opening and closing films, there will be 80 other films, and tea talks every day,” Vickery said. “And I’m thrilled to say we are honoring actress Rachel Weisz this year.”
Weisz, who won an Academy Award in 2006 for her role in “The Constant Gardener,” will be the honoree at the festival’s June 1 Tribute Night. As part of the program, Weisz will be on stage at the Mahaiwe in conversation with New York magazine’s chief movie critic, David Edelstein. The two will discuss her 25-year career in feature films as well as Weisz’s latest film, “Disobedience,” which will be screened after the conversation.

Tickets for this year’s festival went on sale April 29, and Vickery said sales tend to be brisk, often selling out.

“We get more than half our funding from art passes and tickets,” she said, adding that the festival also is supported by “sponsorship dollars, and we have a Real Fan Film Society, which generates donations.”


New staff, more attractions
One sign of the film festival’s growth is its hiring in October of an executive director, Laura Palmer. Vickery, who had previously covered that role herself, retains the title of founder and artistic director.

“I’ve always had a fantastic assistant, Lauren Ferin, doing all the volunteer coordinating, and now Laura will help all of us raise our level and make the new season better than ever,” Vickery said. “The festival has grown exponentially. My job 13 years ago was half the job that it is today.”
Stanley recalled that when he added a fourth cinema at the Triplex, he began offering two screens for the festival’s use.

“This year, we’ll be giving the festival three screens, plus two at the Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield,” he said. “Each year the festival seems to increase. I was a little skeptical in the beginning. But every year when it concludes, there’s already excitement for next year.”
Vickery said she’s grateful for Stanley’s support.

“Without Richard’s blessing, the festival never would have been born,” she said. “We have 4,000 people attend each year and now have monthly film events year-round.”
A special, Labor Day fund-raising gala, “Bollywood in the Berkshires,” will be added to the calendar this year.

“We’ll be introducing to the region what Bollywood is, and it dwarfs Hollywood by comparison,” she said.

Leading up to the gala, which takes place at a private estate, free screenings of Bollywood films will be offered in June at Simon’s Rock College.

Even with the advent of movie-viewing avenues such as Netflix and other streaming options for home viewing, Vickery said there’s nothing like being in a theater.

“There’s a community experience about seeing films together,” she explained. “And film festivals like ours will continue to thrive, because there are so many films we show that you will never be able to download or stream. … This is your shot to see it.”

And if rare films aren’t enough, there are other attractions.
“Film festivals are compelling not only because of the rare content, but usually 50 percent of the filmmakers are in attendance, and it becomes a full experience,” Vickery said. “That plus fresh popcorn, which never goes out of style.”

Now that the Berkshire International Film Festival is firmly established, Vickery said it has become a natural fit with the rest of the local arts community.

“Being in the Berkshires is a dream,” she said. “We have the best in symphony at Tanglewood, the best in dance at Jacob’s Pillow, and the largest contemporary art museum at Mass MoCA. We have such a rich arts scene it seems crazy not to have a film festival here.”


The 13th annual Berkshire International Film Festival takes place from May 31 through June 3, with events in Great Barrington and Pittsfield. Visit www.biffma.org for pricing packages and a full schedule of events.