News Column

Film festival features not-so-slim pickings

August 22, 2013


Aug. 22--Whittling down the 274 submissions entered for selection at the South Dakota Film Festival involved "brutally tough decisions, sometimes splitting hairs," according to one of the judges.

"I would say 50 percent of what's submitted, I wouldn't play for my dog," said Tom Black, one of the judges whose job it was to select 65 films for the seventh annual festival, which runs Sept. 26-29 at Capitol Theatre.

"A lot of it is just subquality for our festival. Back in the day of our very first film festival, we probably would have played some of that because we didn't have access to some of the material. But now we get so many great films from all over the world, the really, really rough, bad stuff goes away really quickly. And the really, really great stuff rises to the top. It's very obvious."

The eight judges started reviewing this year's submissions in January and completed most of the work by July 31. Most of that work is done solo, using an online submission service and film submission tool called Without a Box. Judges can view the films in the comfort of their own homes.

It sounds like a pretty attractive task -- watching lots of movies. But it is a time commitment.

"Whenever you have 20 minutes available, you watch a film," said Barb Magera, one of the judges.

In the early years of the festival, the judges swapped DVDs among themselves. But now, being a South Dakota Film Festival judge doesn't require living here. One of the judges, Diane Sundstrom, lives in Boston. She and her husband, Ray, attend the festival every year. Another judge, filmmaker Andrew Kightlinger, lives in Pierre.

But the other six live in Aberdeen, including Troy McQuillen, Brent Brandt, Adam St. Paul and Mark Comstock.

The group assembles every month for a board meeting. Films are sometimes discussed at those meetings. The group quickly realizes when a film stands out and deserves inclusion in the festival, said Black, one of the festival producers.

"A lot of festivals don't, but we do watch all the films," Black said. "We know what we're looking for. A lot of times in the independent film world, you're really looking for story over visuals."

Some of the festival-goers will see every film, which totals 27 hours over a period of four days, including breaks, comments from filmmakers, introductions and question-and-answer sessions.

If a film doesn't catch people with a good hook in the first few seconds or minutes, "it's very tough to hold a jury much beyond that," Black said.

One session at this year's festival will be dedicated to families and children. So a person who has made a family-friendly film probably feels he has a good chance to have his film screened at the festival, Black said.

To get down to the number of films the festival can handle, there may be "bitter comments back and forth between each other about how crappy some show is that another person really loves," Black said, pointing out that opinions are always subjective.

Black likes documentaries. Brandt likes horror films. On the other hand, "Barb doesn't need to see another horror film ever in her life," Black said.

The jurors read each other's comments. As more people watch each film, "we can get a feel whether the group is starting to like it or not," said Brandt, another one of the festival producers,

"On certain occasions, we have gathered together as a jury to watch a film together," Black said.

This year, the group assembled at the Capitol to watch "Dust of War," an independent feature film shot in South Dakota, written and directed by Kightlinger.

"We weren't really sure of our commitment level to the film, because we hadn't seen it yet," Black said.

Viewing the film on the big screen "really helped us make a solid decision to throw our weight behind it. And that'll be our Saturday night premiere feature."

Late in the judging process, Black and Brandt go through everyone's comments, tally the votes and whittle down the number of films.

All the jurors have their say.

"But when it really comes down to it, ultimately, Brent and I decide the final slate," Black said. "We rely very heavily on everybody's comments and inputs and their voting. But sometimes we just have to say, 'Gee, this film got three thumbs up, two thumbs down and it's still not going to be in the festival because we've got more films with four thumbs up.' "

Time is a major consideration, Brandt said. Right now, the films selected total 16 hours and 32 minutes. That total will rise slightly.

So far, 41 of the films selected will be represented by the filmmakers.

Being in attendance is not a requirement for receiving an award, Black said.

"We love it when our filmmakers attend, and we have an extremely high percentage of filmmakers who do attend," he said.

The festival gives a slight preference to films with a connection to South Dakota or the Great Plains.

"We do give a little bit of a push to that," Black said. "Now, that's really hard for us sometimes because South Dakota filmmakers still make really bad films. And they've been friends of ours that have come to festivals in the past with better films. We've got to call them up and say, 'Sorry, your film's not good enough this year.' That's tough to do."

"We do recognize our responsibility as a festival to provide screen opportunities for young filmmakers from the upper Great Plains," Black said. "So there will be, from time to time, a student film out of Moorhead that is judged maybe on a little different plane than an unknown film coming out of L.A., in the sense that we know that it's part of our duty to promote young filmmakers and give them opportunities to be screened."

South Dakota Film Festival

When: Sept. 26-29.

Where: Capitol Theatre, 415 S. Main St.

For information: Visit or call 605-225-2228.

Tickets: Full festival pass $36 in advance, $40 at the door and includes all movies over four days and the "Dust of War" event; admission to one session, $12

All access: VIP passes are $120 for adults and $60 for students. They include all four days of films, two afterparties, access to the filmmaker's lounge and a VIP reception.


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