The fall film festival season is upon us, and thanks to the dedicated organizers at FilmScene, Iowa finally has a venue to participate. This year’s Refocus Film Festival provided Hawkeye State cinephiles the chance to see exciting films, hear from a panoply of artists and bolster a thriving community of people whose passion has been challenged over the last few years.
Locals likely spotted these festival folk over the weekend, adorned in lanyards, racing back and forth through Iowa City’s Ped Mall promenade which connects both FilmScene locations and the Englert Theatre. Fifty-six screenings and live events took place in that four-block area. Nearly 3,000 tickets sold by the opening night screening on Thursday.
From restorations of iconic works to sneak peaks of upcoming awards contenders, there was something for every movie fan to enjoy. Patrons were eager to squeeze in to screenings of the new Anne Hathaway film Eileen, based on the novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, and The Taste of Things, France’s pick for this year’s Best International Feature race. Both have received critical acclaim out of their initial festival premiers, with the latter winning Best Director (Tran Anh Hung) at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Bringing generations of film fans together, by far the most age variety I saw at the fest was at a screening for the new anime film Blue Giant. It follows a passionate young saxophonist on his journey to become the best jazz musician in the world. The breadth of beautiful animation in this piece was astounding. I doubt anyone came out of that theater disappointed.
Films were preluded by a performance or presentation from an Iowa-based artist. Twenty-three acts — including trombone quartets, guitarists, poets, DJs and visual artists — were selected to entertain the audience before showtime. Among them was photographer and Iowa City native David Van Allen, who directed the original Refocus Film Festival in 1974.
Most vital to the festival experience were the nightly afterparties and public speaker events. A chance to discuss festival faves with fellow film fanatics, and hear experts and professionals opine on current film culture. The headline guests were titans of page and screen, John Irving and Werner Herzog. Irving, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, accompanied a screening of his Oscar-winning film The Cider House Rules with a Q&A to discuss the film and his other novels. To cap off the Festival, Herzog read from his new autobiography, Every Man for Himself and God Against All, at an event Sunday night honoring his phenomenal career.
Premiering last year, just as the movie industry crawled out from under of the pandemic, Refocus’s success proved that Iowa audiences were hungry to support the industry. This year, with the ongoing Hollywood strikes creating even more obstacles, the organizers accomplished even more. More screenings and events, more tickets sold, more community partnerships. The trajectory is very promising, and I, for one, cannot wait for next year.