My First Film Festival, in Dubuque

The 2017 Julien Dubuque International Film Festival was my first film festival and it definitely won’t be my last. My name is Kevin Elbert, and Produce Iowa hired me on as a digital marketing coordinator last spring, just as Iowa’s film-festival season was shifting into full gear. So this year I decided to check a few out.

The first thing I noticed after hopping out of the car in Dubuque was its history and character. After all, it’s the oldest city in Iowa, named after one of its earliest settlers, Julien Dubuque, who arrived there in 1785 (and probably didn’t predict they’d name a film festival after him).

Downtown Dubuque where most of the JDIFF action takes place.

The festival started on Thursday night, but I arrived early Friday and headed to the Hotel Julien Dubuque to check in and get all the necessary info for the weekend. The lobby was filled with festival-goers and filmmakers who all seemed excited to be there. At the hotel’s Filmmakers Lounge, you could meet some of the featured filmmakers, hear chatter about the weekend’s films, and ask local volunteers for schedules and anything you’d need.

The Five Flags Theater.

After that I was off to the Five Flags Theater, just a short walk away, to see “Goodland,” a crime thriller by Josh Doke about a small farming town in Kansas where the dead body of a drifter is found around the same time a mysterious photographer rolls into town. After the screening, someone in the audience asked Doke where he came up with the idea. Doke grew up in the real Goodland, Kansas, and said that his hometown had four banks (in the movie, there are only three), and as a kid he used to wonder what would happen if all four were robbed at the same time. How could their small police force take on a situation like that?

Josh Doke, director of “Goodland,” fielding questions from the audience.

I really enjoyed the film. Being from Whittemore — a small town in northern Iowa that I imagine is a lot like Goodland — I, too, was left wondering what would happen if a situation like that were to happen back home.

I spoke with some of their crew later in the weekend and was glad to hear they’ve been scouting for locations in Iowa for their next film — another great outcome of film festivals across the state. Filmmakers from around the world get to see how great Iowa can look on the silver screen.

After seeing “Goodland,” I walked two blocks down to The Venue, an underground bar that was set up for showings of various shorts. That was another aspect of the festival I really enjoyed: how so many local establishments transformed their spaces into unique pop-up theaters. It really embedded the festival into the community and gave you an inside look at the people and places of Dubuque.

Since this was my first film festival, I was really surprised by how shorts can leave such a big impact in just a few minutes. The first short I saw was “35 Years to the Moon,” about a father’s journey through grief and joy as he remembers the life and death his son. In the story, a little boy who dreams of becoming an astronaut becomes ill and doesn’t have much time to live, so his dad builds him a spaceship out of wood and other materials for them to play in and pretend what it would be like to be an astronaut. Soon the boy passes on, and 35 years later, the father discovers the scattered pieces of the spaceship. After rebuilding the spaceship, he lies inside of it and reminisces about his son.

John Lewis, co-creator of “The Story of Percival Pilts,” showing his clay characters from the film.

Another short during that session was “The Story of Percival Pilts,” a stop-motion animated film out of Australia about a child who loved to play on stilts and vows that he’ll “never again let his feet touch the ground.” Eventually, he builds his stilts so tall that he no longer fits into normal society — a lesson on “living an impractical life based on a childhood promise,” according to the promo materials. Afterward, one of the filmmakers, named John Lewis, explained the stop-motion process, which involved moving the clay character 24 different times for just one second of action. That added up to more than 11,000 movements to create the 8-minute film. But it paid off: “The Story of Percival Pilts” won the festival’s award for Best Family Feature or Short.

After watching a few more shorts, grabbing a bite to eat and settling into my hotel room, it was time for a panel that I was really looking forward to coming into the festival.

Eric Stein, Michael Dunway, Matthew Stibbe and Dion Eusepi.

The panel was called “Making, Distributing, Marketing and Watching: What’s the Impact of Digital?” The panelists — Eric Stein, Dion Eusepi, Matthew Stibbe and Michael Dunway — discussed how those four aspects of film have changed over time with the success of streaming services like Hulu, Netflix, Amazon and others, which have prompted consumers to demand access to TV and film not just in our living rooms or the neighborhood movie theater, but wherever we go, on screens of all sizes.

This wasn’t your normal panel where you sit there and listen to people talk at you. It was more of a conversation between the panelists and the audience. (I think the beer and pizza helped.) People brought up real-world scenarios about filmmaking — and distributing, marketing and watching — in today’s digital age. So it was a chance for up-and-coming filmmakers to bounce ideas and questions off of people with proven track records and practical suggestions. An opportunity like that doesn’t come along very often.

The Fenelon Place Elevator.

While I wasn’t at screenings or panels or other festival events, I walked along the Mississippi River marveling at the old and new buildings. I ate at a few cafés and restaurants and rode the old Fenelon Place Elevator, which former mayor J.K. Graves built in 1882 so he could zip back and forth from his downtown office to his house on the bluffs. The trip took him half an hour with a horse and buggy, but the new-fangled elevator saved enough time to scoot home for lunch and even take a quick nap.

After breakfast on Saturday, I saw another screening of shorts and then headed out to the Mindframe Theater on the west side of town for a feature called “White Night.” It was filmed by five directors all in one night during Nuit Blanche, an annual all-night arts festival in Toronto where more than 500,000 people walk the streets of downtown to see museums and art galleries and pop-ups. The film followed six stories of characters “weaving their way through various installations and tackling issues of love, loss, aging and the ever important question: Is it art?”

This was probably my favorite film of the weekend. Most of the directors were there, along with some of the other crew, who explained how they split into four different camera crews to get all the footage they needed throughout the night. They said the organizers of Nuit Blanche were cooperative and excited about the idea and its execution.

The red carpet rolled out on Saturday night for the awards ceremony and after-party at the Five Flags Theater and Civic Center. The ceremony was hosted by Dana Snyder and Guy Hutchinson, who on Thursday night had hosted another event, inspired by their “Drunk on Disney” podcast. The awards ceremony featured live music by the Ruby Blonde Band and, as a random bonus, an appearance by a very convincing Richard Simmons impersonator.

After the awards were handed out, we all headed to the after-party across the hall, with tables and couches, a smorgasbord of snacks and more live music.

In case you go next year, here’s a tip: After the after-party, the place to be is the Rainbow Lounge, “Dubuque’s hottest karaoke bar,” just a couple of blocks away in the Canfield Hotel. I won’t name names, but one of the directors of a film I saw used the excuse of “too much karaoke” to explain why he’d partially lost his voice.

Sunday featured a few more screenings, a special event for kids, and the festival’s closing ceremony.

Overall I had an excellent time. With all of its culture, history, bars, restaurants and friendly hospitality, Dubuque was the perfect place to host the festival. The mix of films, panels and other various events was great so no part of the weekend got stale from doing one thing over and over. It was obvious how passionate festival-goers were about the film industry and the films that were screened there, and the locals were just as proud to show off all their city has to offer.

After seeing all of the films, meeting the people and taking part in such fun events, I’ll definitely be going back and can’t wait to see what the festival executive director Susan Gorrell and her team have in store for the future!

Check out a full photo album from the weekend by Digital Dubuque.

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