FilmScene’s long-awaited ReFocus Film Festival is ‘tailormade for a City of Literature’

ReFocus Film Festival

FilmScene -- Thursday, Oct. 6 through Sunday, Oct. 9, $12–230

FilmScene – The Chauncey audiences watch Jordan Peele’s ‘Nope’ (2022). — courtesy of FilmScene

Iowa City’s literary history casts a long shadow. It’s the first UNESCO City of Literature in the country, home to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But next month, Iowa City will enter the film festival world with FilmScene’s long-awaited ReFocus Film Festival, an event dedicated to the relationship between literature and film.

Andrew Sherburne, executive director and co-founder of FilmScene, always imagined holding an annual film festival. Conversations began nearly six years ago, but now with the theater’s Chauncey and Ped Mall locations, FilmScene’s blueprints are ready.

“We’ve got five screens, two blocks apart. We’ve got this vibrant downtown area that surrounds us. It’s just begging for a film festival,” Sherburne said.

The festival, however, is two years late. FilmScene originally announced ReFocus for September 2020. As the COVID-19 pandemic stretched throughout the summer, the festival was delayed until 2021, and then again until 2022.

But ReFocus is less of an inaugural film festival, and more of a revival. From 1965 to 1979, the University of Iowa held Refocus, which spotlighted student photography and filmmaking. That festival, sponsored by the Student Union Board, presented UI student films and those from other universities, as well as still photography exhibits.

“We are happy to light the torch again, and reimagine Refocus as a festival that examines the relationship of film with other art forms, especially literature,” Sherburne said.

FilmScene wanted a unique festival that contributed to the national and international festival landscape. They started with Iowa City’s literary history and its growing film culture. But while ReFocus continues the UI festival’s tradition of medium mixing, it broadens the scope. The festival will feature adaptations from any medium: podcasts, poetry, plays, comedy shows, archival material and so on.

ReFocus Film Festival is a celebration of the relationship between art forms, and it’s a festival tailormade for a City of Literature, examining the origin of films and how they come from the page, or other art forms,” Sherburne said. “But you know, we want to also bend the rules as much as possible.”

FilmScene will have artists and entertainers to fill the festival ambience as festival-goers walk between theaters. Before the lights dim, patrons can listen to musicians like Dan Padley and watch slideshows from local artists.

Dan Padley performs with Alyx Rush at the Englert Theatre on Friday, April 8; 2022. — Jason Smith/Little Village

ReFocus will purposefully coincide with the Iowa City Book Festival, encouraging each atmosphere to seep into one another. FilmScene will pair special guests from the book festival and ReFocus to have conversations about different art forms and how they interact.

Sherburne is always excited to see how films adapt stories from other media.

“Sometimes a good adaptation might be incredibly faithful to the original source material or might do something incredibly new with it,” he said.

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He’s recently been reading Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, a graphic memoir about her life in Iran and Austria during the Islamic Revolution. Sherburne watched the 2007 film adaptation first, which is faithful in story and art style. But the live motion elevates the original text, he said.

Ben Delgado, FilmScene’s programming director, thinks an adaptation has to know what to keep and what to change. A standout movie for him is White Knights, the 1957 Fyodor Dostoevsky adaptation, transported to Italy from the original Russian setting.

Delgado thinks the festival will elevate small films that people might not see otherwise. Many of the films in ReFocus are only available on the festival circuit. He hopes people will take chances on movies they don’t know.

“Most of these films are going to be that way, films that people haven’t heard of, from directors who they haven’t heard, and actors they don’t know,” Delgado said. “But all of that is just part of the fun.”

Author Lizzy Goodman will appear with the documentary ‘Meet Me In The Bathroom’ (2022), based on her oral history which details the rebirth of the New York rock scene in the 2000s. — film still

ReFocus will also help educate people about film festivals and how they work. Delgado and Sherburne recommend newcomers show up early, stay hydrated and eat snacks, bring a friend but also talk to strangers, watch a movie you know nothing about and stay for the Q&A.

Festival passes are available online or at the FilmScene box office. There are three different levels available: an all-access pass, a nine-film pass and a five-film pass. Passholders have first choice of movies, and higher passholders have more access to the parties, happy hours and artist conversations.

ReFocus will also have free events, including a VR Showcase, where people can watch a short film in virtual reality. Some conversations and other events will also be free. The full slate of films, conversations and events will be available in mid-September.

“It’s a film festival, right? So we’re putting two things together: a lot of films, some really great films, and then we’re making it festive,” Sherburne said.

Little Village interviews David Kajganich, Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum, ‘Bones and All’ (2022) screenwriter/producer, and ReFocus Film Festival guest artist

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 310.