By Michelle Trauring
For David Nugent, his iPad is the new big screen. His basement, or any quiet room unoccupied by his wife or their two young children in Amagansett, is his new movie theater.
And from there, over the last seven months, he has watched the most highly anticipated films of the year — movies that he would normally see at festivals around the world, including SXSW, Tribeca, Cannes and Toronto, all canceled or moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Without watching each story unfold in a real theater, in front of a live, reactive audience, Nugent relied even more on his team, his intuition and, now, his iPad to carefully select 51 films to anchor the 28th annual Hamptons International Film Festival, to be held mostly virtually — excluding 11 drive-in and outdoor screenings — from October 8 to 14 across the East End.
“I haven’t seen a movie on the big screen, not counting a drive-in, since March. It’s just all changed,” Nugent, the festival’s artistic director, explained during a recent conference call with festival executive director Anne Chaisson. “It’s fun to go to festivals not only because festivals are fun, but you can also see how a film plays to an audience. It’s changed how we looked at films.
“But the good news is, there were a lot of great films made before COVID-19 happened, so we still had a lot of great films to choose from — but it does change a little bit what types of films you choose,” he continued. “Some films will play better on your TV at home, or your iPad, if that’s how you choose to watch, versus the big screen.”
Bearing that in mind, as well as sheer scheduling limitations, the festival slashed is typical 125-film lineup to 51, which includes 30 feature films and 21 shorts that will each be available during a limited number of online streams, complete with pre-recorded introductions and post-screening Q&As — an entirely new approach for the organization.
“We’ve got whiplash, I guess is the way to say it,” Chaisson said. “It’s a whole reconfiguring of business as you know it. I feel like we’ve gained a master’s degree and written a thesis on how to change your business model.”
In this online format, ticketholders will receive a confirmation email with a virtual access view link, which starts a 48-hour watch window from the moment the viewer hits “play,” though some films have a shorter, three-hour viewing period — all available via television, computer, or tablet.
“We switched to doing things virtually almost immediately. We started to watch film festival after film festival cancel left and right,” Chaisson said. “I remember calling David and saying, ‘Well, I guess we’re having a virtual film festival this year’ — right, David? It was early on.”
“Yeah, I think we clung to some hope, as many people did, that things would change and maybe we could do reduced capacities at some theaters and we monitored what the governor was saying, in terms of what phase we were on,” Nugent said. “But it was pretty firm that it was going to be largely, if not completely, virtual. And at least we’re at a point where it is mostly virtual, but we do have some drive-ins and some of the outdoor screenings that we’re doing, which is nice.”
The 10 drive-in screenings, located at Atlantic Beach in Amagansett and a private location in East Hampton, kick off with the festival’s opening night film, “With Drawn Arms,” on Thursday, October 8, which follows the story of athlete and civil rights activist Tommie Smith, who, alongside John Carlos, raised his fist from the podium during the 1968 Olympics medal ceremony as the American anthem played.
The defiant gesture radically impacted Smith, destroying both his personal and professional life, but has lived on throughout the decades. Over 50 years later, filmmaker Glenn Kaino partnered with the gold medalist to finally tell his story and cement his legacy, earning the film the Brizzolara Family Foundation Award from the festival.
“It was a film that resonated with me immediately when I saw it, and it really stuck with me,” Nugent said. “It’s the world premiere, so no one has seen the film yet, and we just thought it would be a really great way to kick the festival off. It’s also part of our continued interest in exhibiting films both by artists of color and about subjects like this. It’s the fourth year in a row where we’re going to a open the festival with a film either by an artist of color, or a female filmmaker.”
The festival will close in a similar fashion, with Regina King’s directorial debut “One Night in Miami,” which features a performance by Leslie Odom Jr. as musician Sam Cooke. The film, based on the award-winning play of the same name, is a fictional account inspired by one historical night that Cooke and his three friends — Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Cassius Clay, soon to be called Muhammad Ali — spent together.
“These four icons of the Civil Rights Movement are together, primarily, in a hotel room talking about current issues in 1964,” Nugent said, “which if you didn’t see the old cars and everything else, you might think they were things that are being talked about right now.”
Odom will participate in the festival’s now-virtual “A Conversation With…” series, which features one-on-one interviews with legendary personalities. Joining him are Kate Winslet, who stars in Francis Lee’s drama, “Ammonite,” screening only as part of the drive-in programming, and Steven Yeun, perhaps most famously known for his role as Glenn Rhee on AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”
His performance in Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari,” which Yeun also executive produced, helped win the film the Grand Jury and Audience Awards at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, which Nugent and Chaisson attended in February.
“It’s the unofficial kickoff of the film festival year,” Nugent said. “It’s after that that everything changed. Anne had the good fortune of going to the Berlin Film Festival, which is in February, which was just before things were getting that bad, and saw some films we like. But then after that, it all changed.”
The last film that Chaisson saw on the big screen was “Gunda,” a black-and-white feat in vérité filmmaking from Russian director Victor Kossakovsky that screened at the Berlin International Film Festival. Shot over three months, the documentary immersed its audience in the life of a Norwegian farm through intimate encounters with its residents — two clever cows, a scene-stealing, one-legged chicken, and the majestic Gunda, the eponymous mother sow who recently birthed a rambunctious bunch of piglets.
“It was the most exciting and ecstatic screening I’ve been to in a very long time,” Chaisson said. “People were on their feet, people were crying, it was really unbelievable. People should really take the time to watch it. It’s a beautiful film and it’s told with no dialogue. All the animal lovers and farm people out there, I think, will really resonate with this movie.”
Other standout films in this year’s lineup include Heidi Ewing’s love story and candid take on the American Dream, “I Carry You With Me/Te Llevo Conmigo”; the U.S. premiere of Nathan Grossman’s “I Am Greta,” which chronicles then-15-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg’s one-person protest in front of the Swedish Parliament building; and “Time,” a contender in this year’s documentary competition.
“It’s about a mother who, along with her husband, committed a crime about 17 years ago, and she went away to jail for a little while and then got out,” Nugent said. “But her husband, who’s the father of her children, is still in jail and it’s about her continuing to try to get her husband out of jail, where he is serving a pretty ridiculously long jail sentence for the crime. It won the directing prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year.”
As is true for many programmers, Sundance was Nugent’s only exposure to an in-person festival before deciding on HIFF’s 28th annual lineup. Some festivals did pivot to a virtual setup in time — Toronto cut back its expected 320 films to 50 — but others did not.
“I feel terribly for some of the festivals that were caught off-guard more by this, because it happened closer to when the pandemic hit and they didn’t have a chance to change things up and make the festival happen,” Nugent said. “Anne and I have a weekly call with a number of other festivals, which is not something we would typically do, to talk about what’s working and how to make it work.”
Canceling the long-running festival altogether was never an option in Chaisson’s and Nugent’s minds, they agreed. Determination and creativity pulled them through, as well as a mission greater than themselves.
“This has been a hard time for many people, but particularly for the arts and artists, and we want to continue to highlight their work,” Nugent said. “It’s the voice of the artist that can often help people understand and move past things, and also help, sometimes, to distract them from just feeling that this is the only thing going on. We’re hoping to be able to offer that to our audience.”
A virtual and drive-in iteration of the 28th annual Hamptons International Film Festival will be held from Thursday, October 8, through Wednesday, October 14. For tickets and more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.