I love film festivals and indie films, but usually don’t stray far from the Traverse City Film Festival. So I’m excited to have field reporter Melanie Votaw’s coverage of the Manhattan Film Festival direct from the Big Apple. Read on, and be sure to visit Melanie’s site, Rule the Word, and follow her on Twitter.

Manhattan Film Festival

The Tribeca Film Festival may be the most famous New York event for the film industry, but the city is also home to quite a few smaller film festivals. Unfortunately, many New York residents aren’t even aware of these little gems, which are opportunities to hobnob with veteran and newbie filmmakers alike. One of these is the Manhattan Film Festival (MFF), which was held July 22-31, 2011 and featured more than 125 full-length and short movies, including some student offerings.

White Irish Drinkers PosterThe films were screened at various locations in Manhattan with the main events housed at Symphony Space at West 95th Street and Broadway. The opening night film was White Irish Drinkers, written and directed by John Gray, the creator of television’s successful Ghost Whisperer series starring Jennifer Love Hewitt. (Read an interview with Gray and White Irish Drinkers star Nick Thurston.)

The coming-of-age drama is loosely autobiographical and chronicles the life of a dysfunctional family through the eyes of the youngest son, an artist who feels out of place among his parents, brothers, and friends. Two of the film’s veteran stars, Karen Allen and Peter Riegert, joined Gray and actor Geoff Wigdor (who plays the oldest brother in the movie) for an exciting Q&A after the screening. The full house was enthusiastic about the film and asked a host of questions about how it was shot, marveling at the fact that it was completed in just 17 days with a budget of $600,000.

Manhattan Film Festival: White Irish Drinkers
Geoff Wigdor, John Gray, Karen Allen and Peter Riegert of White Irish Drinkers | Melanie Votaw Photo

White Irish Drinkers also stars Stephen Lang of Avatar fame in the role of the abusive father and is now available on video-on-demand and [amazon_link id=”B004W5MHL4″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]DVD and blu-ray[/amazon_link]. Gray has called the film “a labor of love” in which he wanted to show the reality of what it was like for many people growing up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn in the 1970s. Besides being chosen as the festival’s opener, White Irish Drinkers took the MFF’s prize for Best Drama Feature.

The Wedding Party, Amanda Jane
Amanda Jane, Director of The Wedding Party | Melanie Votaw Photo

Best International Feature went to the hilarious Australian comedy, The Wedding Party, directed by Amanda Jane, who traveled from Melbourne for the American debut of her film. “The most exciting thing about this for me is it’s my favorite city, and it’s the debut of my first film,” Jane said after receiving her award. From the concept to the festival circuit, Jane has spent seven years of her life working on the film, which was written by Christine Bartlett based on Jane’s story.

The Wedding Party stars Josh Lawson and Isabel Lucas, along with a host of other big-name Australian actors in an ensemble cast of quirky characters facing a sham wedding that most of them think is real. The movie will also screen in New York on August 20 in the New York City International Film Festival, yet another of the many smaller fests for New York’s cinephiles, and later this fall at the Tulsa International Film Festival and the Kansas International Film Festival. Catch this deliciously funny romp if you have the opportunity.

Jeff Stewart’s Best Actor award at MFF was his first ever accolade despite a long career in British television. The milestone brought tears to his eyes. “This was emotional tonight. This is extraordinary,” he said while holding his etched glass trophy. For 24 years, Stewart played the most popular character on “The Bill” on Britain’s ITV network.

“I got the job when I was 27 or 28, and it took me into my 50s,” he says. “If they had said to me, ‘Do you want a 24-year contract,’ I may very well have said ‘no.’” When he finally left “The Bill,” 810,000 people in the United Kingdom proclaimed on a web site that they would never watch the show again. Since leaving his long-term job in 2008, Stewart has turned to films and is currently working in some capacity on six projects as an actor, writer, producer, and/or director.

Manhattan Film Festival: Juliette Bennett and Jeff Stewart, Best Actors
Juliette Bennett and Jeff Stewart Score Best Actor Awards at the Manhattan Film Festival | Melanie Votaw Photo

His intense, award-winning role was in Under Jakob’s Ladder, a film which also won the festival’s Best Period Piece award. Directed by Mann Munoz and written by R.M.M. Munoz, the drama is set in Russia and focuses on a vendetta that began because of a game of chess. It culminates in Stewart’s character landing in a Soviet detention camp.

Best Comedy Feature went to The Three Way, a movie written and directed by Julian Renner, while the Best Actress award was given to Juliette Bennett for her role in the short film, The Couple, directed by Alison Chernick. New Yorker Keith Patchel took the award for Best Composer for his work on the short film, Crumble, starring Steven Bauer (Scarface), written by Raymond Turturro, and directed by Renata Bialkowska. Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football took Best Feature Documentary, Nazim Uddin won the Emerging Filmmaker award, Best Short went to Hard to Come By, and Made Off was named Best Student Film.

Some of the films were held in disappointing venues, and the festival was a bit disorganized (a symptom, I’m sure, of being run by a smaller staff than they actually need.) Nevertheless, I enjoyed the spirit at the events and screenings, which brought together film students and local cinephiles with filmmakers from around the world who are at various stages in their careers.

Melanie VotawMelanie Votaw is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, New York and the author of 11 non-fiction books. Visit her Web site, and follow her on Twitter.



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