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High Falls Film Festival 2017 wrap-up

Rochester festival celebrates women in film

The first time I attended the High Falls Film Festival was back in 2009. At the time, the festival appeared to be going through an identity crisis. There were signs pointing to a focus on women, such as the Susan B. Anthony “Failure Is Impossible” award, which was presented that year to actress Lynn Redgrave, but there were also “crowd-pleaser” events aimed at a general audience focused on selling tickets and filling seats. The highlight for me was meeting Redgrave, who would pass away a year to the week of receiving the award. What I found out later from Linda Maroney, executive director of the 2010 festival (and who had a short at this year’s festival) was that there was a lot of conflict going on behind the scenes. The festival spent the next two years as Film 360 | 365, a regional independent film showcase festival in the vein of the Maryland and Sidewalk (Birmingham, AL) film festivals.


This is the first High Falls that I have attended since it was known as 360 | 365, and in 2017 the festival is smaller but far more focused. The festival kicked off with a coffee chat featuring Nora Brown (executive director of the Rochester/Finger Lakes Film Commission and HFFF) discussing recent films shot in the region including The Tomorrow Man starring John Lithgow and Blythe Danner. This was followed by the presentation of this year’s “Failure is Impossible” award to Nancy Schrieber, a cinematographer with extensive credits in narrative and documentary features as well as episodic television. The day concluded with a party at the Arbor Loft with music and appetizers. Friday afternoon Brown and Jerry Stoeffhaas, who serves as deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Motion Picture & Television Development in New York City, hosted another late-afternoon coffee chat discussing New York’s current film tax incentives. Saturday’s coffee chat, featuring Rochester law firm Boylan Code, covered film production incorporation and contract law. Workshops demonstrating film equipment were also held Saturday. Sunday’s chat was more informal, with attendees asking filmmakers at the festival about their films.


Over the course of the festival, I saw five films and a shorts program. Seeing is Believing: Women Direct focuses on four female filmmakers at various points in their careers and chronicles systemic challenges women face in the film industry. In light of the current sexual harassment and assault allegations against several movie executives and directors, the documentary was timely. Perhaps this screening was most notable for the fact that director Cady McClain booked a flight to Rochester, only to find out upon landing that she was in Rochester…Minnesota. Friday night I saw Bean, a heartwarming documentary about a couple who are forever bonded by a kidney transplant.


Saturday I saw two documentaries and the shorts. Recovery Room is a fascinating documentary about Canadian surgeons traveling to war-torn Ukraine and performing facial reconstruction surgery on disfigured victims. It’s Criminal chronicles a Dartmouth class that travels to a local prison where they write a play with the female inmates, which turns out to be a life-transforming experience for both prisoners and students. I also saw the local shorts program, which featured Falling South, a narrative short about a young woman trying to escape an emotionally abusive marriage; Maroney’s documentary Election Day 2016, which observed voters posting their “I Voted” stickers on Susan B. Anthony’s grave; and Salt of the Earth, a documentary that chronicles the changing reality of Watkins Glen through the lens of lifelong resident Rosanne Doane. The last movie that I saw at the festival was the narrative feature 20 Weeks, where a couple’s relationship gets put to the test after they discover that their unborn child has fetal abnormalities.


Noticeably present was Marilyn O’Connor, retired Monroe County family court judge and mother of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. At a time when some of the uglier realities about being a woman working in the film industry are being exposed, High Falls feels more relevant and vital than ever. I look forward to attending next year’s festival.        

From 2008 to 2013, Erin Scherer contributed to The Film Panel Notetaker, where she covered past High Falls Film Festivals as well as events at the George Eastman Museum. You can now see these posts at The Indigenity Archives

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