When my four-minute family drama, TIGERS IN THE SOUP had been selected to the Reading FilmFEST, I was happy. As writer/director, I wanted the short to “get out there” to help promote everyone who took part in its making, from executive producer Bill Hartin, to the cast and crew, and to FIFO (“Fade In/Fade Out”), the Lehigh Valley Film Consortium that selected my script to be their first film production. But the movie had been in two other festivals that were lackluster, and the worse part is that most of the films were absolutely awful – which made me question the value of TIGERS.
From the beginning, however, Reading FilmFEST was quite different. As a filmmaker, I’d have a free hotel room for the weekend, and there were several panels, parties, and networking possibilities built in throughout. In fact, the three-day event was packed. The headquarters of the festival would be Goggleworks, which I knew nothing about. Hell, I hadn’t even been to Reading, Pennsylvania before though I lived only an hour away.
In this part of Pennsylvania, the ultra-diverse city of Reading has a similar reputation to the area in New Jersey where I grew up. From my house on Garfield Avenue, one could easily see the Twin Towers, and although the town of Kearny may have been a mix of suburbia and industry, we were surrounded by two places with bad reputations: Newark and Jersey City. All cities have their “bad areas”, or so it seems, and I rode into Reading with little worry. And I must say that Reading is wonderful and I instantly fell in love.
The city has existed since before the American Revolution and with its mix of color and culture, proves to be a true slice of our great melting pot. Goggleworks is a perpetual four-story hive of activity, with numerous galleries, artist studios, and sections devoted to wood and glass working, dance, photography – and anything else to help unleash one’s creative spirit from the young to young at heart. The gift shop alone rivaled anything I had seen in Manhattan. The city beyond offered skyscrapers, row houses, parks, eateries, and more in styles stretching from the 18th century to modern day.
Checking in for Reading FilmFEST was simple and painless, but unlike over festivals I attended, the volunteers, like Dipti and Marge, knew exactly what was going on and where. I truly felt welcomed and donned my filmmaker’s badge before the opening gala. Here, I met the wonderful Sue Lange who helped coordinate the event. Like the equally lovely Tracy Schott, the Festival Director, and Santo D. Marabella, Founder and Film Commissioner for ReadingFilm, a division of the Greater Reading Convention and Visitors Bureau, all three were clearly dedicated to the festival, Reading, and the visitors who had traveled from throughout the United States and other nations to attend the event.
Oddly enough, and without expectation, Reading FilmFEST gave me one of the greatest weekends of my entire life. I became spoiled with parties, and I met filmmakers and producers by the dozen. Even with all the festival goers, there remained an air of intimacy where great conversation loomed at The Abe Bar at the majestic Abraham Lincoln Hotel, at Goggleworks, the Strand, Reading Movies 11 and Imax, and the Louis Long Gallery, as well as The Peanut Bar, West Reading Tavern, Mike’s Tavern, and Stokes Castle.
We indulged in panels about aerial cinematography with Kevin Hackenberg, listened to the beautiful and talented Lisa Eichhorn discuss her Hollywood and television career, enjoyed models displaying the wonderful dress collection of Gene London from Hollywood stars like Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford, Lena Horne, Jane Russell, and much more. The panels were seemingly endless and offered much for filmmakers and festival attendees alike.
Filmmakers were also treated to a trolley tour of Reading and its surroundings with Santo D. Marabella and Carol Toomey. This was not simply a historical tour, but an invitation to film in the city. With nearly every place of interest, from schools and banks to abandoned factories and temples, Santo told us that he could “get us in there” to shoot. We also visited Reading’s famous Pagoda, which overlooks the city, and we traveled to a few of Berks County’s rural sections just minutes from city life. Our journey ended at the fabulous Stokes Castle for a wonderful brunch.
The most important element, which many festivals seem to overlook, are the films. However, Reading FilmFEST got it right – every film, whether short or feature, documentary or narrative, had merit. That means (excluding the judgment of my own short), every film earned at least three stars or more. Even better: many festivals can be self-grandizing. This means the people behind the event will automatically enter their own movies into the visual mix. Tracy and Sue are both filmmakers and they made certain their movies were not included. How’s that for humility and fairness?
Wonderful short films and features like these blazed across the screen:
Quicksand Years from director Evan Gilchrest
A father, his son, and poignant memories that plague the old man’s Alzheimer’s infected mind.
Marquee On Main Street from Director Chester Lampman
This short documentary focuses on old time, independent theatres in and around Pittsburgh.
Lifeline from Director Jeffrey Wang
A man and a fortune teller (the phenomenal Kathleen Gati) square off over an old relic with a horrifyingly comedic outcome.
Playing Lecouna from Director Pavel Giroud
A feature documentary regarding the incredible Latin jazz of Ernesto Lecouna and the musicians who keep the great composer’s work alive.
Hybrids from Director Tony Randel
No, this is not another HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II for Randel, but a family friendly love story about two teens escaping their families of witches and vampires.
The Stories They Tell from Director Danny Kim
In his feature documentary, Kim explores how graduate students and first and second grade students join creative forces to make a children’s book.
The Reading Project – A Multi-media Production from Director Lynn Nottage
Nottage’s goal is to help the impoverished city of Reading find its “new narrative” along with artists and city leaders as they work to revitalize the community.
Of course there are many more films to mention, but I wanted to end on Nottage’s project. After all, Reading, like many other small to midsize cities in the United States, has had to recreate itself in the face of the economic downturn, as well as the flight of businesses and manufacturers that once kept these cities afloat. I have no doubt Reading will find its narrative, and I believe it will come with the help of the Reading FilmFEST. One needs only to look at the once small Montclair Film Festival in Montclair, New Jersey, which has grown so big, so fast, two hotels have been built to accommodate event participants. Reading doesn’t need to build a thing, but open its arms to new visitors as they come in to see quality films and engaging panels in a welcoming venue. After all, Reading is no stranger to the arts. Meg Foster, Lisa Eichhorn, Taylor Swift, Michael Constantine, Jim Steranko, John Updike and many others, once called the city home.
I was certainly surprised to learn that this was Reading FilmFEST’s first festival (the previous film festival in the city became defunct four years ago). Schott, Marabella, and company, did everything right. In all honesty, I have attended film festivals in New York City, and others outside Philadelphia, as well as northern and southern New Jersey, and eastern Pennsylvania. None of these events have been as fantastic and as worthwhile as the Reading FilmFEST.
Check out the link to what you missed, and if you’re a filmmaker, get ready to submit to the festival in 2016. And your work had best be amazing, because this event will continue to expand and attract people from New York and Philadelphia – and beyond.
Yes, I did fall in love with Reading, and I look forward to heading back in the spring to engage in a day (or two or three) of still photography. But I certainly hope to film there in the future because the city and its people offer too much variety, diversity, and openness to shoot almost anywhere else.
Many thanks to everyone who helped bring Reading FilmFEST to light, and thank you for showing TIGERS IN THE SOUP. It was wonderful to see it on the big screen with so many great works, and I’m grateful that many of the people from FIFO had a chance to see how well the film was received.
The next Reading FilmFEST is already marked on my calendar…
Reading FilmFEST: http://readingfilmfest.com/
From the site, check out the trailer featuring Reading native Michael Constantine.
Tracy Schott: @findjennsvoice
Santo D. Marabella: @PracticalProf