Arlington It's a very simple premise: there's something powerful, almost magic, about stories.
Whether it's the friendship formed between a pilot of antique planes and an Indiana farm family, or the struggle for respect for African American soldiers following World War II; an unlikely meeting of a man with nothing left to live for and one struggling to continue; or a family's fight to stay in their home, stories are the common way in which humans relate to and learn from each other.
Starting next Wednesday, the Washington West Film Festival strives to not only share tales from around the world, but to create new ones.
Brad Russell, president of the festival, said the inspiration for the festival was the surprising lack of one in this area.
"I saw a need or opportunity for a great, prestigious film festival," he said.
Over several days, films are screened in Reston at the Town Center, at George Mason University in Fairfax and at the Artisphere in Rosslyn. Films range from under half an hour to full-length features, including a few from local directors and producers. But the festival isn't just about the movies: The profits from each festival go toward a different charitable effort in a community somewhere in the world, Russell said. The first year, the money went to repair and rebuild a relief center in Haiti that served as a recreation center for children at night, following the earthquake a few years ago. Last year, the proceeds went to two families in Long Island whose homes were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. This year, the festival will work a little closer to home, benefitting Shelter House in its efforts to end homelessness in Fairfax County within a decade.
The Washington West Film Festival kicks off Wednesday, Oct. 23, with a red carpet event at the Reston Town Center's Bow Tie Cinemas and a showing of "Living on One Dollar," a film about four friends who try to live on a dollar a day for eight weeks in Guatemala. When possible, actors, directors or others involved with the film will be on-hand after showings to host Q&A sessions with the audience. More information, including a complete list of films and online ticket purchasing, is available at wwfilmfest.com.
To tie things together, Russell decided the best thing to do is tell the story of how others benefit from the festival. So each year, when the proceeds are distributed, a short, two-minute film is made, which is then screened before each film during the festival.
DONORS AND SPONSORS help the festival run, since all the profits are used elsewhere, Russell said. Fortunately for him and the festival, there doesn't seem to be a shortage of companies willing to help.
Loudoun and Fairfax counties are always near the top of lists ranking the nation's wealthiest communities, or best educated, but Russell hopes to add to the accolades through the film festival's charitable drive.
"Wouldn't it be great if this area became known as the nation's most generous," he asked. "If we get to our eventual goal of 100,000 attendees, that's the equivalent of $1 million in box office profits we're giving away."
It also helps that there are some well-known names affiliated with the festival, including two of this year's speakers, actor Ed Asner and movie and TV composer W.G. Snuffy Walden, along with Brad Hall, husband of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and member of the festival's board of directors.
This might only be the festival's third year, but word is already getting out in the film world. The first year's attendance was 730, higher than the 500 Russell had hoped for. In year two, he hoped for 1,000, and over 1,500 people attended.
"This year, our goal is 2,000 people, and we're hoping to exceed even that," he said.
"We really see this as a prestigious east coast film festival in the making," and it's possible the festival will need to expand beyond the three locations in Northern Virginia within a few years.
FOR RUSSELL, it all comes back to the power of stories.
"One good story should always lead to another," he said. "That's part of our vision," and why he enjoys so much having the attendees not only watch the stories unfold on screen, but contribute in their own way to a larger story, told the following year in the two-minute film.
A total of 41 films will be screened this year, including a 10th anniversary presentation of "Bruce Almighty," "Just a Sigh," starring Gabriel Byrne and Emmanuelle Devos, and "Red Obsession," a film narrated by Russell Crowe about Bordeaux wine.
Four films are locally made and have been featured in other festivals, but their creators are excited to share their works here at home.
"Barnstorming" is a 45-minute film about something almost magical: the friendship between a Vienna pilot, Andrew King, and a farm family in Winchester, Ind., that began when King and a friend were flying their antique planes around during the Oshkosh air show. Looking for a good photo opportunity, they landed in an alfalfa field to snap some pictures next to a bright red hay rake, and were soon joined by a farmer and some of his children in a pickup truck. The Dirksen family thought their planes had crashed.
For the past four years, King and some of his friends return to the Dirksen farm to "barnstorm," or fly their biplanes and crop dusters low over hay and alfalfa to the delight of the family and many of their neighbors — 180 in all in the year featured in the movie — and the pilots take young and old alike up in the air for short flights around the countryside. After, everyone gathers at the farmhouse for a barbecue prepared by the town.
Paul Glenshaw and Bryan Reichhardt, the film's producers, traveled twice out to Winchester to film the family and the flights, and another trip to interview those involved for their film, which has been broadcast on PBS stations across the country, but not the local affiliate, they said. They used a three-person crew, including themselves and Reichhardt's nephew, Mark Betancourt, to film the movie, and used some inventive camera angles to get the shots they wanted.
In one scene, a plane lands on a particularly wet patch of grass, and the camera is there to catch the splash of the plane hitting the ground.
"He just stuck his arm out when the plane landed and put the camera by the wheel," Reichhardt said.
Glenshaw and Reichhardt grew up in Reston and both attended South Lakes High School, and while each pursues their own film work, this is their first collaboration.
At its heart, "Barnstorming" is just a feel-good movie, Glenshaw said. "People get riled up a little watching it, saying this is what the country needs, this is how things used to be. But stuff like this is happening. We didn't go out with the intent of making this movie."
They've heard from many people who've watched the film, some repeatedly, and the only criticism is that "they wish it was a little longer," Glenshaw said, chuckling. "It just makes them happy."
ANOTHER FILM is inspiring for quite a different reason.
In her film, "My Neighbourhood," Reston native Rebekah Wingert-Jabi shows the struggle of a young man, Mohammed El Kurd, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, a settlement established by Palestinian families following the war in 1948 which led to the creation of Israel. Israeli settlers have been slowly taking over the settlement, either forcing Palestinians out of their homes or moving in with them.
The settlement is on a well-traveled road near the American Colony Hotel, a favorite among ex-pats and journalists. When a giant white tent emerged along the roadside while Wingert-Jabi was studying there, she became curious.
"Out of this confrontation and friction emerged a very unique non-violent contingent of Israeli and Palestinian people working together to prevent the takeover" of Palestinian homes, she said. At the time, Mohammed was just 11 years old, but he realized it would only be through peaceful means that his family and others like them had a chance of keeping their homes.
Impressed by his maturity in facing a tense situation was more than impressive, she said. But it presented a tricky situation for her and her co-director, Julia Bacha, because when their filming wrapped up, the displacement and struggle over resettlement was ongoing, and remains so.
The movie premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and earned a Peabody award, but Wingert-Jabi said she's just as excited to show the movie at the Washington West Film Festival, where it will serve as the event's closing film.
Reston was designed to be a "mixed" community, economically, ethnically and in other ways, and presenting a film that shows an unlikely understanding between two peoples better known for warring with each other is a reminder that there's much work to be done, she said. "To me, one of the pinnacles of my filmmaking experience is to be able to bring this movie back to the community which inspired me."
History and conflict also play supporting roles in College Heights, Md., resident Noel "Sonny" Izon's film "Choc'late Soldiers from the USA," which documents the uneven treatment of African American soldiers during WWII. The 140,000 men who went to England before D-Day were welcomed as heroes and trusted with the lives of their brothers in arms, but most photographs of that era show only white faces in historic moments.
"It's as if they weren't there at Iwo Jima or Normandy," he said. "There was a deliberate exclusion of African-Americans soldiers from the history books."
The film includes interviews with men who served during the war, relaying their work liberating concentration camps and facing the brutality of that war, then coming home and "being treated as second-class citizens."
It's an important story to tell, as more of these men are becoming lost to history, but it also shows how far the nation has come in the past 70 years, he said.
This film will be featured during the GI Film Festival in November in Los Angeles, and again in Washington next spring.
And rounding out the local talent is Daniel Stine, a Northern Virginia native now living in LA, whose film "Grape" tells an unusual tale in less than 30 minutes.
Filmed at Linden Vineyards, in Linden, the story features a man who is grieving the loss of his daughter a year after her passing and thinking of ending his life. At the same time a young man is driving up from Florida to New York City, stopping at every winery along the East Coast while en route to surgery to address a malignant brain tumor. When the "disheveled" young man crashes into the older vintner's fence, they develop a "strange friendship" over the course of a few days, Stine said.
The young man encounters the ghost of the older man's daughter during the evening, giving the movie a "kind of mystical feel, like 'Big Fish,'" a movie from a few years ago, Stine said.
"It's a big short film," he said. "I wanted to make it look like a feature," and being able to film in the winery helped that feeling, showing the change of seasons and playing up the emerging world of Virginia wines, of which Stine said he's a big fan.
It's possible that, with the right luck and funding, Stine could make "Grape" into a full-length feature, and there are nods and hints to what that larger movie might be in the 27-minute version, he said. There are also elements of his own life echoed in the movie: his sister fought a malignant brain tumor and faced many surgeries, and someone he knew in Ashville, N.C., inspired other elements.
"I'm really excited to share this film in Virginia," he said.