ON THE SCENE: Lake Placid Film Festival was a hit

From left are Lake Placid Film Festival Director Gary Smith, festival honoree Barbara DeFina and Paul Hardart, professor of marketing at the NYU Stern School of Business. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

The Lake Placid Film Festival, rated in the top 20 nationwide according to festival director Gary Smith, celebrated New York state filmmakers and the work of trailblazing producer Barbara DeFina and expanded opportunities for making films in New York this past week, Oct. 26 through 29.

DeFina’s credits include “Age of Innocence,” “Cape Fear,” “Hugo,” “The Color of Money,” “Goodfellas,” “The Grifters,” “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “You Can Count on Me,” screened at the Lake Placid Film Festival. A college dropout (Barnard), DeFina got her start as a production assistant on films like “The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3.” DeFina said that the film industry is a community; thus, one’s industry, trustworthiness and ability to deliver matters.

“You’ve got to get out there and meet people,” said DeFina. “If you have to start by bringing coffee to people, cleaning up and doing crap services. That’s the way you get into the industry. Film school does give you a step up. Aside from learning the craft of filmmaking, you meet other people that you can work with. You have to get out there. If you try to wait for that big break, it might never come.”

The festival’s opening film, “Cool Runnings,” a fictional account of the Jamaican Bobsled team’s improbable entry in the 1988 Olympic Winter Games in Calgary, provided one of the most fun openings in the 22nd annual celebration of cinema. It was emceed by local announcer John Morgan and Chris Stokes, a member of the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team. The film attracted a large crowd, featuring many from the USA bobsled Team, including Olympic medal winners Elana Meyers Taylor and Sylvia Hoffman sporting her 2022 bronze medal.

Stokes confirmed that the first time he touched a bobsled and experienced snow was at the Olympic pretrials in Calgary. Morgan said the worldwide exposure bobsledding received because of the Jamaican team dramatically increased interest in the sport.

From left are Yoni Bokser, Deb Goedeke, Tim Clark, Sarah Hamilton and Jerry Stoeffhass. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

“We went to the Olympics to win, not to get publicity or exposure,” said Stokes. “It’s important to understand that when I climbed out of that sled after we crashed, we learned something. If we had not crashed, we would not have returned in ’92 or ’94. We did not know that ‘Cool Runnings’ would be released. I now get letters from cancer patients, from aboriginal people the world over, letters saying we see you doing it. We can do it, too. You inspire me. Everybody was so happy that we tried.”

Their crash made them more determined to keep competing and keep trying. At the same time, it inspired many athletes of color that they too could compete. They too had a place in sport.

“The Jamaican team represents the courage to try,” said Hoffman. “Chris and his team dared to pursue something very new, different, and out of the ordinary for Jamaica. They were elite track-and-field athletes who posted sub-10s; it’s different when you have power behind the sled. They gave it a shot. They did their best. It led to a different kind of success as it led to other people saying if they can do it, we can do it.”

The film festival was not just about watching films. It also presented a series of sessions designed to help filmmakers improve their skills and expand filmmaking in New York state. A highlight and well-attended of the former was “Storytelling in Film: The Story,” led by Alex Abramovich, Kirk Sullivan and Mitch Teich, moderated by Adirondack Center for Writing Executive Director Nathalie Thill. Of the latter, “Making Your Film (Career) Upstate: Regional Perspectives” featured New York state, Albany and Buffalo film commissioners, along with Eric Granger, representing the Lake Placid Film Festival.

“Film is one of New York state’s big economic drivers,” said Yoni Bokser, executive director of the New York State Governor’s Office of Motion Picture & Television Development. “Strengthening the film business is a top priority for the state. New York’s a great place to film because of our amazing locations; we have a very competitive tax-rate policy to attract productions here, we have one of the most diverse and talented workforces, and we have film-friendly partner agencies like ORDA, the DEC and the Port Authority. Plus, we have excellent facilities, such as sound stages, throughout the state.”

“A film shoot provides a massive economic impact to a city or county when it comes in,” said Keene native Deb Goedeke, head of the Albany Film Commission. “I like being able to provide those benefits to our community.”

For example, in our region, the economic impact of filming scenes for “Billions,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Succession” was significant; hundreds of thousands of dollars each time.

A film that impressed many at the film festival was the German film “The Teacher’s Lounge (Das Lehrerzimmer),” so good it rated an encore Sunday afternoon. Carla, a new junior high school hire loved by her students, takes pride in her job, but her and the school’s world is shattered by a thief, leading to suspicion and mistrust among all. Rumors and tension abound in the heart-pounding and gripping film.

In his seminal book, “The Souls of Black Folk,” W. E. B. DuBois posed the question: How does it feel to be a problem, Black America? He was not asking how it feels to have a problem, as everyone has problems of one kind or another, but to be a problem. Jews were considered a problem in Nazi Germany. Native Americans were considered a problem to colonists seeking to expand westward. Americans of Japanese descent were considered a problem during World War II. Now, over 120 years since the publication of DuBois’s book, Blacks are still considered a problem by many.

Thomas Keith’s documentary “How Does it Feel to be a Problem,” based on Dr. J. W. Wiley’s book, “The NIGGER in You,” illustrates the answer to that question through a multitude of news clips and interviews with activists, authors and scholars. Racism in America was delivered like a punch to the gut, be it against Asians, Blacks, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community. It wrapped, illustrating that we can make a difference through becoming active allies.

Wiley and Martha Swan, director of John Brown Lives!, led a thoughtful post-screening discussion that lasted well over a half hour and was continued later at the High Peaks Resort’s filmmaker’s lounge.

“I thought the film was thought-provoking,” said Peter Worth of Syracuse. “I thought it was the type of film everybody should see. It was worth traveling here from Syracuse to see a film like this. Another film that spoke to me was the documentary about Russell Banks.”

“I thought ‘How Does It Feel to be a Problem’ was a very powerful film,” said Jane Tretler. “I wish every police department in America had to watch it. I am very glad we came to the film festival. This is our first time in Lake Placid. We’ve seen a lot of great stuff. I also enjoyed ‘The Cookbook,’ which was set in Syracuse. I appreciated ‘The Dreamers,’ which was wonderful, and I saw a fantastic movie, ‘You Can Count on Me.’ It was a gem. I loved it. Back to the film, ‘How Does it Feel to be a Problem,’ we all need to be allies in life, be allies with people who are struggling. We’re absolutely coming back next year.”


(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the Lake Placid News for more than 15 years.)

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