Middleburg Film Festival, the latest addition to D.C. area cinema culture

September 6, 2013

Does the Washington area really need another film festival?

When it’s the Middleburg Film Festival, the answer would seem to be: Yes!

Founded by arts-leader-media-mogul-film-maven and newly minted hotelier Sheila Johnson, the Middleburg Film Festival is the latest addition to a lively regional festival ecology that includes AFI Docs, Baltimore’s Maryland Film Festival, the Virginia Film Festival and — if it survives its current funding crisis — Filmfest DC.

Middleburg will kick off Oct. 24 with a screening of Alexander Payne’s affecting father-son road movie “Nebraska,” with likely Oscar contender Bruce Dern in attendance. Although the festival’s full program won’t be announced for another week or so, organizers were also able to confirm a centerpiece screening of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” starring Idris Elba as the South African leader.

Admittedly, Middleburg is yet more evidence of the What Hath Sundance Wrought phenomenon, wherein communities throughout the country have launched film festivals as tourist bait, economic engines and as artistically daring celebrations of film. (In addition to her myriad endeavors, founder Johnson is on the Sundance board.)

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To carve out its niche in a crowded festival circuit, Middleburg will spotlight film music: Composer Mark Isham (“Crash,” “42”) will be honored this year, with the Shenandoah Conservatory performing his scores live to projected film clips. Director Lee Daniels (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”) will be on hand, composer George Clinton (“Austin Powers”) will conduct master classes and local multi-hyphenate Ted Leonsis will deliver a keynote address.

Executive Director Susan Koch says Middleburg is starting out small on purpose, limiting the slate to three days and 15 films. “Roughly one-third will have local connections, either to embassies or featuring work by local filmmakers,” Koch says. “Another third will represent the best of independent films that might not make it into mainstream theaters, and one third will be Academy Awards contenders.”

Screenings and events will take place throughout Middleburg at the Community Center, National Sporting Library, the Hill School theater and Johnson’s newly opened Salamander Resort and Spa (which is also the official filmmaker venue.) A downtown garage will serve as the festival’s headquarters and box office; panels and discussions will be held at the nearby Boxwood Winery. The aim, Koch says, is to create an “intimate, accessible and affordable” setting for connoisseurship and camaraderie.

“As an inaugural festival, what we really want is for people to have the opportunity to see a wonderful mix of carefully selected fantastic films that will appeal to audiences of all ages and interests,” Koch says. “Our hope is that in the future, when people talk about Middleburg, they won’t only talk about the beautiful setting, the fine wine and the rich history, but they will also say, ‘You know, they have a fantastic film festival there in the fall.’ ”

Middleburg Film Festival

Oct. 24 -27. For more information, visit middleburgfilm.org.

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Ann Hornaday is The Post's movie critic.
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