Picture Los Angeles, pre-riots circa 1992, then Auschwitz, an equestrian competition, and small-town America after the 2008 financial crisis. Lastly, take a look into someone’s mind during one of their most defining moments. These might seem like disparate experiences and locations, but films “Gook,” “Nana,” “Down the Fence,” “The Street Where We Live” and “In the Moment” can take you to each of these places, respectively. And they are all only a tiny part of a very large whole: the East Lansing Film Festival.
“It’s our 20th anniversary, so it’s a very special film festival,” said Susan Woods. “Why fix something that’s not broken?” Why, indeed. Woods is the director and founder of the ELFF, and in its 20 years, the festival has featured hundreds of films, both local and international. Just like years previous, the festival will spread its screenings out between Studio C! Meridian Mall and Michigan State University’s Wells Hall. This year, however, there will be a few additions to the festival’s lineup in honor of the celebration, and to improve upon a good thing. First, ELFF will kick off with a birthday party to celebrate the event’s plati- num milestone — yes, cake will be included.
“We’ve moved the Lake Michigan Film Competition to Wells Hall and kept it there, consolidated with the hospitality room where we have a party,” Woods said. “We also have a room that has three screens around it, so people can sit there and eat pizza, have something to drink and look at the short films.”
Short films are the festivals’ newest category. Before a film can be split into categories though, it has to be reviewed by one of two selection committees.
“One is for the Lake Michigan Film Competition, which are all submitted by filmmakers in the four states that surround Lake Michigan: Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan,” Woods said. “Non-LMFC films are worldwide. We have a committee for that, too. It’s a wonderful group of people, and then I have the final say, but they are the ones who select the films.”
The selection process itself can be harrowing. Karl Millisor, the facilitator of the LMFC selection committee said that the two and a half months from July 1, the last day of submissions, to Sept. 15, when filmmakers are notified their film has been chosen, can be extremely stressful.
“There were 83 submissions, and we took 30. I have a committee, and they watch everything online,” Millisor said. “Then, we either do a Skype or Google chat call and meet in person and review them about once a month. Sometimes, if three people watch a movie and say, ‘It’s really bad,’ then I will tell the rest of the committee not to watch it.”
Tactics like that are used to save the volunteers’ time when they are sloughing through hundreds of hours of footage. Still, there are many gems to find, and for the most accomplished filmmakers in the LMFC portion, it literally pays off.
“We give away $1,200 total. So, it’s $300 to $400 a film a year. We don’t go first, second or third, but being nominated is an achievement. We usually nominate three or four films out of each category. Best feature, best short film, best documentary and, sometimes, we’ll do best student submission,” Millisor said. “The last couple of years, our student submissions have been down, so I think we didn’t accept any. We gave more money to the other categories.”
Although there is no cash prize for the other part of the festival, the selection can be just as difficult. Millisor said that in both sides of the competition there are pitfalls that filmmakers should avoid.
“This year we’re doing Short Documentaries as a fourth category,” Millisor said. “That’s a tricky category because people don’t know where to submit them sometimes. They don’t know if they should submit them under Short Films or Documentaries, and it is hard to compare a shorter doc to a longer doc, or a short film to a long film.”
Most often, there’s a popular culprit. “Each category has its own hardships to judge it on, but usually, it’s time,” he said.
The best tip Millisor can give to a new filmmaker is to have an outsider view it before it’s submitted.
“Everyone that’s your friends and family are going to tell you that you did a really good job — unless they’re brutally honest with you. If you’re getting an outside opinion, they can critique it and not be a jerk about it. Sometimes, we get films that are like, ‘I don’t know who told you this is a good film.’ Someone can put their heart and soul into something and it just doesn’t come together. I’ve had the same thing. I respect every filmmaker for trying. That’s awesome.”
But another change to the regular festival is a selection committee panel, where filmmakers can get answers to any of their burning questions.
“This is the first year that we’re doing a panel where people can ask us these questions, too,” Millisor said. “Filmmakers can come in and see what my committee looks for.”
In addition to that panel, fans of “Nana,” “The Street Where We Live,” “Down the Fence,” “Gook” and “In the Moment” can get a chance to chat with their production teams at the festival. Along with another change brought on by popular demand.
“This year, we’re showing two films that were part of the Indie Film Series that were so well-liked and so popular, but I don’t think everybody got to see them,” Woods said. “So, I’m trying to give people one more chance. I tried to bring those two back: ‘Maudie’ and ‘Truman.’ ‘Gook’ is also a great film.”
But, out of all the submissions this year, Woods said there’s no way she can pick a favorite.
“All the films are so good. Really, the criteria is that the film is good,” laughed Woods. “And, that it’s enjoyable and would be something that somebody would like to pay X amount of dollars to go to see. We have set the bar higher and higher each year.”
East Lansing Film Festival Thursday, Nov. 9-16 Mon.-Fri., 4 p.m.-10 p.m. Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.-10 p.m. Tickets start at $10 Wells Hall 619 Red Cedar Road, East Lansing (517) 355-1855 Studio C! Meridian Mall 1999 Central Park Drive, Okemos celebrationcinema.com elff.com/festival/