The annual Lower East Side Film Festival kicked off its ninth season yesterday, ushering in another year of talent.
Featuring a diverse lineup of short films, features, and experimental works, the LESFF has become a landmark attraction within the Lower East Side. Each festival brings an array of filmmakers and panelists to the curated event, with past judges including Ethan Hawke, Susan Sarandon, Ilana Glazer, and Parker Posey. The Knockturnal sat down with co-founder Roxy Hunt to reflect on this year’s selected films, how the festival came to be, and where the future of independent cinema is going.
The Knockturnal: First of all, congratulations on your ninth year of the festival. What originally drew you to focusing it on the Lower East Side specifically?
Roxy Hunt: It was honestly kind of by accident. Myself and my three other festival directors basically had access to this pop-up storefront space that was on the Lower East Side, and the owners at the time would do something where every month they would program a new thing in this space. It was a really small space– it ended up only really fitting only about 30 chairs and a pull-down screen and projector–and the owners asked if we wanted to do something for a whole month. We got submissions from all over the world with a focus on a really independent spirit of low budget filmmaking. It was sort of a month-long residency at this storefront in the Lower East Side on Norfolk Street and every night we would show different films. People would come into the space and be very confused: “what is this weird tiny storefront that I’m in?” and it kind of was like our goal of the night to turn that attitude around and remind people that we all just love watching films and we’re here together. We served popcorn out of a popcorn machine we had in the back; we served people whiskey in plastic cups. We got some really interesting filmmakers that first year, one of which was the filmmaker behind the film Catfish [Nev Schulman].
The Knockturnal: Wow that’s really cool. That movie kind of started a whole movement and trend.
Roxy Hunt: He was actually just a friend of one of the other filmmakers whose film was showing and he said to us, “hey I have a film” and at the time we didn’t know what it was, and he said “it played at Sundance” and we said “oh ok” and he said “can I show it?” and we went “alright, whatever.” It was a pretty loose operation back then and we said sure and he showed it and it was “Catfish.” It was really cool because honestly that film and all the other films that showed during the first year were very low budget, very indie, kind of bootstraps, grassroots-type of films. and I think that’s the energy of the neighborhood. It felt great to do it in that tiny storefront, and obviously year nine, we’ve gone all over the neighborhood. We’ve done a lot of different venues, more traditional theaters, but we try to hold onto that atmosphere of intimacy and having people be face-to-face with the filmmakers; you’re not hiding behind a velvet rope. It’s very involved, it’s very relaxed and fun and just reminds people that there’s great work out there and we enjoy watching it. In terms of why the Lower East Side, we really felt like it was a perfect spot for us after feeling the vibe of everybody that came to the festival this first year. They really accepted us. we were nervous– it’s tough a tough area. That neighborhood has a lot of history, and that first year we were kind of dipping our toe in there and seeing how the neighborhood would respond and it was a great response which was awesome.
The Knockturnal: How has your perception of how the Lower East Side changed since starting the festival? There have been a lot of changes– the Metrograph has opened, Sunshine Cinema has closed, the different transitions within the neighborhood both from the film aspect and then just the living aspect–because there been a lot of changes there in the last 5 years, let alone in the last decade.
Roxy Hunt: Yeah. For sure, like I said when we were first starting we were worried we wouldn’t be accepted right away. We were doing some tiny thing in a storefront so it’s kind of funny that now you see these big development companies moving in and building all these buildings and whatnot, and I think in a way that has happened to so many neighborhoods in New York that it’s really difficult to know how to feel about that kind of development and gentrification because it feels like what can you do to help? It just sort of feels like “I guess it’s happening” but we don’t really know how to deal with it. When Sunshine [Cinema] closed we were really bummed but what we were going to do? We can’t buy out the building. We were just super bummed, but I think through all the changes too we’ve just tried to keep that low key really fun events, really high quality films in these unique intimate atmospheres so whether we’ve been in Sunshine [Cinema] or Village East Cinema or AMC Loews 7 or the Anthology Film Archives–we’ve even been in a parking lot doing a drive-in movie theater–so no matter where we go throughout the Lower East Side or the East Village, we just try to hold on to creating that fun unique experience for both the filmmaker and the audience, and make it really approachable. As the buildings grow taller and taller on the Lower East Side, I hope that there’s still a place for an organization like us, and honestly, the fact that we’ve been able to carry on for so many years feels like there is. It feels like people crave some authenticity and counter-culture. We’re really excited to play a role in something like that. We’re not the new kids on the block anymore; we’ve been around almost 10 years, and we’ve seen those changes. I think the fact that people keep coming back to us and we keep trying to engage our audience and our community, it really feels like people want that community because the neighborhood has changed so much and we’ve been something that’s tried to stay consistent while still growing every year.
The Knockturnal: What do you essentially look for when accepting films into the festival?
Roxy Hunt: We get shorts and features from all over the world in all different kinds of genres. Our programming team is really awesome. We really try to just focus on just really powerful great storytelling. It doesn’t have to have the highest production value in the world– obviously, that’s a benefit– but something that we know our audience is going to enjoy or feel something from. Not every film has to be a comedy or a fun journey; it can be sad, it can be messed up, but it’s something that people hopefully walk away from feeling something, talking about afterwards, and then hopefully be able to engage with the filmmaker themselves and further the conversation about the film.
The Knockturnal: Are there themes for programming each year?
Roxy Hunt: We don’t necessarily have themes but we have theme nights for a lot of our events, especially with shorts. Our shorts programs have been what the festival was sort of built on and they are always really high-quality in terms of the viewing experience. We have different themes so that as a consumer, you can come to the festival and not necessarily have to read all the breakdowns of what every single film is to understand what you’re going to see. Like “Mindfuck Night” is one of our most popular nights because you don’t know what you’re going to get or what to expect but it’s a fun ride. Some of the films are really crazy, some of them are just sort of funny, some of them are icky, but it kind of gives you something to walk away with that’s really fun to talk about and was enjoyable. We always try to make it easy from our audience members to know what to expect. They don’t have to think too much about it and they’re guaranteed a fun time.
The Knockturnal: I know the festival is also doing a partnership with Refinery29 and the Writers Guild of America East for the “Crafting the Female Protagonist” night in the East Village, and that 50% of your films this year are made by women. That’s so important but also very topical for this year in the industry and in the world. What do you think the importance is of having a female voice, or just multiple diverse voices, behind the scenes creating these projects that you show?
Roxy Hunt: I think the thing about that that was really exciting for us is that it was not something that we necessarily were seeking out. We just happened to accept all the films and then when we were looked back at them we were realized “oh wow there’s a significant amount of films this year that were directed by women.” That to me is really cool because it just shows how much the industry is changing. I think the industry still has a long way to go but the fact that it’s happening on the more independent side of things is amazing, and it just so happened that 50% of the films this year are backed by women. It’s not something that is obvious from the storytelling which is kind of cool because it’s just like “we’re all filmmakers.” It doesn’t have to about gender, we’re all filmmakers.
The Knockturnal: I completely agree.
Roxy Hunt: It was just kind of cool that equality made its way to the top without us focusing on it necessarily but then when we realized it, we wanted to celebrate that and show people “look this is something that’s a milestone for us” and I think that it’s also a milestone for the industry. It’s just important to have all different kinds of voices making the thing that you see on the screen so that you can potentially see a piece of yourself somewhere because when you see something that is relevant to you and feels like your story, you feel like you’re not alone. If there’s more women that can tell stories that help other women feel less alone, that’s awesome, but again I don’t think it has to necessarily be gendered. There are all different kinds of people out there making films and it’s more common than that’s been before which is awesome.
The Knockturnal: There is a ton of talent on the judge panel. You’ve had some fantastic people from different aspects of the industry– this year’s panel includes actress Rosario Dawson (Rent, Daredevil), executive producer Tamra Simmons (Surviving R. Kelly), cinematographer Sam Levy (Lady Bird), music supervisor Matt FX (Broad City) and Marvel’s CCO Joe Quesada. What do you look for in terms of selecting these more high-profile judges?
Roxy Hunt: We just always try to get people from different sides of the industry. Obviously, there are some more well-known names on there but we also try to include people behind the camera or totally different parts of the industry like music licensing, editing, writing, all kinds of things just so that it feels like there’s a variety. If somebody is interested in our festival or if they have a connection to the Lower East Side, that’s always fun but we try to curate the judge list every year with people that have different perspectives and touch different parts of the industry.
The Knockturnal: What are some of your personal favorite films from over the years, or ones you can’t miss this year?
Roxy Hunt: There was a great film called How to Follow Strangers that was directed by Chioke Nassor. It starred Ilana Glazer right before Broad City really got big. It was just a very cool New York kind of romantic comedy film that was a big hit with our audience. This year our opening night feature is by this filmmaker Shaina Feinberg. she’s just a really great talent in New York. She does very unique films, I don’t even know what the genre of films she makes is per se. Her film this year is called Senior Escort Service and it’s like a narrative documentary hybrid where there’s a lot of archival footage from her life but there’s also acted out scenes and scripted moments with unscripted moments. the way it was put together was very interesting. It’s about the death of her father. It’s a heavy subject but it’s a comedy so I would encourage you to see that one. She’s just a really cool person and a great example of a filmmaker that we strive to show their work. She’s very independent and pours every element of herself into her films and you can really see it on screen.
The Knockturnal: Where do you hope to see the festival in another 5 years, another 9 years? What’s next on the horizon?
Roxy Hunt: Next year is year 10 so that’s really exciting, a huge milestone for us. We just want to continue with our mission of creating these really exciting intimate fun events but just be able to help develop a lot of these filmmakers into their next steps. I think we’ve done that a little bit with certain films and certain filmmakers, but really helping them adapt their shorts into features or helping those features get distribution and really strengthening the community that we’ve really built over the last nine years. Making it bigger, making it stronger, and not really ever wavering from that original idea of enjoying films and supporting filmmakers and creating a community. It’s hard to know exactly where we’ll be with all the theaters popping up and changing but it’s exciting to see where we fit into the ecosystem of the Lower East Side.
The Lower East Side Film Festival runs from June 6 to 10. For a full festival schedule, please visit https://www.lesfilmfestival.com/schedule.