Beloit Film Fest reaches out beyond audience to community
By Guy Stephens
BELOIT, Wis. — Many people know the Beloit International Film Festival as an event that brings films from around the world to the City of Beloit. The festival, often referred to by its acronym “BIFF,” began its ten-day run Thursday. But BIFF connects with the community in other ways, too.
Beloit International Film Festival Executive Director Max Maiken said much of his team’s focus is on bringing the highest-caliber films from all over the globe to Beloit. Connections with the Hollywood Film Festival over the last several years have raised the level further, he said, and BIFF is on the map among filmmakers worldwide. As a Beloit native, Maiken appreciates what that brings to the community.
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But, Maiken said, BIFF has become about more than that. For one, there is the impact of the Illinois–Wisconsin Showdown, featuring regional film artists, that has been a part of the festival for the last five years. Maiken said it was conceived as a friendly play on the Bear-Packers rivalry, as a sort of sidebar to the big films. But, he said, the level of growth has been amazing, and the films stand on their own.
“It’s just really impressive to see the quality that is just developing in our own backyard here in the Midwest,” he said. “It competes with the rest of the world and in some ways with a lot of the films that are coming out of L.A. and New York.”
Maiken said he’d like to believe that the encouragement of the BIFF showcase has been at least partly responsible for that.
Competition aside, Maiken said the festival also includes a component called BIFF Cares, which features documentaries that deal with quality-of-life issues.
“Over the years,” he said, “it’s dealt with issues of teen homelessness, disease prevention, cancer, child abuse. This year we have a couple of films that will be featured. One is ‘The Harlem Vets Project: Making A Soldier,’ and also the documentary ‘Desert Around Me’ a story of ADHD awareness.”
But it doesn’t stop with encouraging local and regional filmmakers, or documentary showcases. BIFF is reaching out to the community under the umbrella of BIFF Classroom. It started with KIDS@BIFF, a program that brings hundreds of area fifth-graders together to view and critique short films. There’s also a newly revived after-school program for disadvantaged and at-risk kids in middle and high school, held in conjunction with Beloit College’s Help Yourself Program, which helps kids create their own films.
“[It uses] the prompt of ‘you’ve crashed in this place as an alien from another planet.’” Maiken said. “‘Find out where you’re from. Determine your coordinates. Take me to your leader.’ Those kind of fun things that get kids involved with people in the community.”
Maiken said he hopes to increase participation in the programs further. He said they are important for the kids and the local community, and also to the film community the festival represents.
“Education is key, I feel, to BIFF being relevant in the future,” Maiken said. “And with the education program we have with going right now, BIFF Classroom, and under that the Kids at Biff and Help Yourself program, I think we have a good foundation.”
But, he said, he would like to take the idea further still.
“What I’d ultimately like to see,” Maiken said, “is the Help Yourself Program turn into something where we can have an educational outreach program in the summer — some sort of film camp.”
A place, Maiken said, where kids could learn the technical aspects of filmmaking – like lenses and lighting — but also the creative side – like scriptwriting and framing. Then BIFF could start to develop the next generation of filmmakers — in Beloit.
“Because there are so many stories right here in the region that are untold that ought to be told,” he said, “that would resonate with people here. So that’s ultimately my goal over the next several years — to help and to inspire these students to want to tell the stories of where they’re from.”
And, perhaps, share them with others at BIFF.