Iowa City under the documentary sun


The Iowa City International Documentary Film Festival began in 2001. Now in its seventh year, the event will once again bring international documentary filmmakers to Iowa City.

The festival, run entirely by students and volunteers, will start today and continue through Saturday with screenings and lectures at the Bijou and in W151 Pappajohn Business Building.

The festival will showcase short independent nonfiction and documentary films from around the world. The event’s goal is to feature films that push the bounds of the documentary genre.

“We received a bunch of international submissions,” said festival director Evan Meaney, who is also a UI graduate-student teaching assistant in cinema and comparative literature. “Some are doing things that have literally never been done before.”

The 16 students in Meaney’s Film and Video Production: Alternative Forms class organized the event.

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This year, the class received more than 100 films, and the festival accepted 26. The class watched the films and voted for which ones would be screened.

“We are going to show films that you may never see anywhere else,” said UI sophomore Gillian Adler, a student in Meaney’s alternative-forms class.

The course provides a distinct opportunity for students to learn about film-festival organization while exploring different documentary-film styles.

“Even just a small, low-budget film that you make in your backyard could mean something to someone across the country,” said Morgan McCormick, a UI senior and cinema major who is in Meaney’s alternative-forms class. “It takes a film festival to showcase [those films], especially in an industry such as this, where it’s all about blockbusters.”

The documentaries address subjects ranging from drug-use and paranoia to life in Third World countries and even flying kites.

“Each film is memorable in a different way because it’s not just your average BBC documentary,” McCormick said.

Meaney emphasized that the works screened at the festival aren’t what many movie-goers consider traditional documentary fare.

“The work being shown is fun and diverse,” he said. “There is a certain stigma about avant-garde cinema that it is slow and somber, but it is certainly not that.”

Viewers don’t have to be mini-Spielbergs to appreciate the festival’s films. Adler said the event is a positive diversion from the realities of life during a recession.

“Sometimes we need an escape from ourselves,” she said.

But while the festival provides a distraction for viewers, the students saw signs of the weakened economy. Work on this year’s festival began in 2008, when Meaney obtained some of the funding, but his students were given the responsibility of finding the rest.

This was a very tough year for fundraising,” said UI senior Emma Barnum, who is also taking Meaney’s alternative-forms class. “With the flood and the economic crisis, it was difficult for a lot of organizations [to donate money], but we’ve had some very supportive donors.”

The festival’s judges, Jeanne Liotta and Patricia Zimmermann, represent two sides of the documentary spectrum, something Meaney stressed as key.

“You don’t want to get judges who are the same,” he said.

Zimmermann, an artist and professor of cinema, photography. and media arts at Ithaca College in New York, is a “slash and burn critic,” Meaney said. Liotta is a New York City filmmaker, visual artist, and educator who has had work exhibited in various festivals and institutions.

The criteria for awards will be left up to the judges, but five awards will be given out, including one for “best in festival.”

During the semester, Meaney’s students learned the amount of hard work that goes into putting together a festival of such proportions.

“It’s exciting when it finally comes together,” said Tiffany Cohen, a UI graduate student and alternative-forms student. “You get really passionate about it.”

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