Utopia Film Festival: Q&A with Co-Director Chris Haley

Filmmakers, audiences, popcorn and small towns, together at last. For me, those are the best kinds of film festivals. There’s something about the celebration of film that takes place in these out-of-the-way venues that’s magic. Whenever I can find a gem of a festival and connect with a community who loves film, I breathe it in and let the energy fill me with inspiration.

What better place to find inspiration than Utopia.

Meet Chris Haley, Co-Director of Utopia Film Festival, actor, singer, writer, historian, producer, director, and motivational speaker. He also happens to be the nephew of Roots author Alex Haley. I had the honor of meeting him at Annapolis Film Festival last year. See, this is yet one of the reasons we writers need to get out from behind our laptops. Fascinating people are everywhere, especially at film events.

Me being the ever-curious writer, I just had to crawl in Chris’ head to learn more about the 10-year-old Utopia Film Festival. Grab your popcorn and let’s talk film.

JVB: What originally drew you to the Utopia Film Festival (UFF)?

'Little Girl With Iron Fist'

‘Little Girl With Iron Fist’

Chris Haley: My brother, Allen Haley, was a member of Greenbelt Access Television, which is the umbrella organization for the UFF. In 2005, [Greenbelt] decided they would expand their special events into a weekend film festival. That’s when I got involved as a filmmaker, and I had a movie showcased, called The Studio in the festival, which I wrote, directed and produced.

The first year was a struggle for the festival. So when my brother told me all of the issues involved, I think at that point I was on four different boards, and felt I could talk with people involved on how boards work. Plus I was very thankful for having the opportunity of having my film shown. So I came in and started helping along with meetings for that second year – keeping minutes, organizing and helping guide people as to how we should handle it, and probably within about three meetings, I ended up being the one who became the director, and I remained the director from 2006 to 2011. And this year, because it’s the 10th anniversary, I really wanted to get involved again.

JVB: In these small festivals, there’s such uniqueness to them. What are the best kept secrets of UFF?

CH: The history of this community makes it special. This community is an original community created under the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt – the architecture is art deco, the homes are right next to each other, and the way you walk to the store or the park is very much like a community of itself. You get a sense that it’s in its own world almost, where you can get lost in a different type of modern community.

Filmmakers often don’t start with the big commercial blockbuster. Usually you start with something small and have a personal connection to. We ultimately try to promote progressive movies about social change, dealing with issues that people who don’t necessarily have the riches of the Roosevelts, Duponts or Rockefellers, but people who are trying to do better with their lives and what they strive to achieve. That’s why it’s called the Utopia Film Festival… people searching for Utopia. The films that usually win the Utopia Vision Award are the ones that in some way give that type of message. How an individual struggles with an issue and leaves you with a message of hope.

In many ways, it features those types of films that are often documentaries that deal with international issues, not just about this area. We get movies from China, India, Middle East, all over the world that deal with different issues. That’s part of what flows so well within our Greenbelt community. It was built to get people out of a difficult situation, which was the Depression, to give people a new shot at the great American life by giving them that New Deal. You can still feel and sense of that parochial hold to what Greenbelt is and to what Utopia can be.

The people who come have known this community for years and years. Then you bring filmmakers in from all over the world and are about to see their movies with “Joe Public,” who doesn’t even necessarily have the desire to see a Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, or Jennifer Aniston. While they appreciate those stars, these types of films is what we are about and appreciate. For me it’s been a growth and a process to sort of fix my mind around that, because my mind is more geared to the big Hollywood world, where there’s a lot of activity and high energy.

utopiafestivalJVB: The magic of seeing your film in front of an audience is priceless for a filmmaker. So is the opportunity to meet people in the industry. What’s the networking experience like?

CH: Watching a film and then discussing it afterward as a community, that’s where the conversation sits. In our networking, it’s not about what can you do for me, but how did you do your process? How did you find funding for your project? Why did you choose this project? What made you pick that subject? Why did you edit it in this way rather than that way? How would you move it further if you were able to get funding again? It approaches it at a more internal level, which is very interesting. Other film festivals do that too, but here, you’re allowed to be a bit more insulated to whatever the subject matter of the movie is. Because it is a utopian vision, it kind of reinforces that mindset. That these movies are there to encourage and allow you to think about the subject and not so much about the quality of everything that’s in it – the “glamor” of the actors or directors. It’s also refreshing to not have to be concerned with the traditional grind of networking. The concern is for people to get something out of the films themselves. The core community here talks about the movies during the course of their week and come back the next year and are still talking about the past films because they feel an ownership of the venues where the movies are shown. The fact that you are there, you’re within their house, so to speak.

JVB: Are there both films and panels? Do you highlight films beyond the socially relevant ones?

CH: Yes, we have films and panels, with submissions through Withoutabox (submissions typically between March and July). We have comedies, short comedies, features, but we also have off-the-wall things since we’re almost always on Halloween weekend or thereabouts. We like to have fun, over-the-top crazy movies too, like Rocky Horror Picture Show, Texas Chainsaw Massacre Musical, Dracula’s Mother. Utopia isn’t just about examining the world; it’s also about enjoying life.

JVB: Having worked with all of these artists over the years, what have you learned about yourself as a filmmaker by being a part of UFF?

CH: What I’ve found from an artist point of view is just to try to get people to see who am I caring about in this movie very quickly. What is their issue? What should I be concerned about with this main character or in this community or environment?

When we review movies, we have a very even and fair manner of reviewing them, in that we give each entry 10 minutes for their initial view and a grading scale of 1-5. After the 10 minutes are up, we’ll turn lights back on and give out sheets with qualities, for example, appropriateness for venue, production quality, interest in characters, etc. If a movie gets at least a three, then it’s maintained for further consideration. Within 10 minutes, you know if you’re drawn into the movie.

From a film festival point of view, you’re thinking about the person sitting in the audience looking at this work. Ask if this is engaging for someone else, because someone is taking the time to be here and pay money to see the films you’ve chosen. Is it engaging for them? That is what I have to think of in terms of being a filmmaker, writer, producer and actor. What can I give people quickly that can be a hook? There’s something you have to tell me very quickly that makes it worth my staying in my seat. People could easily walk out so we have to be more conscious of people’s time.

JVB: That reinforces for writers you really have to grab them right away.

CH: Hopefully that’s what we put forth. In an ideal world, with a short movie, they’d want to see more.

JVB: The films on the schedule this year look amazing. The feature-length documentary, The Milagro Man, the story of John Nichols who wrote The Milagro Beanfield War. With the concerns about Ebola, it’s fascinating UFF serendipitously chose the short, Random Effect, which ironically covers a deadly scientifically-created virus. Talk about socially relevant. It must have been difficult to choose between all the films submitted. What advice would you have for documentarians to make their films stand out.

Special breakfast screenings of Connected by Coffee about Latin American coffee farmers.

Special breakfast screenings of Connected by Coffee about Latin American coffee farmers.

We try to stay away from films that appear one dimensional, almost like an advertisement for a project or a movement. We still want to present a question within a situation. For someone doing a doc, it’s important to try to show the conflict, not just one side of the argument. New Black was shown at Annapolis Film Fest, and it presented a question about Proposition 8 and the conflict of African Americans who are supportive of gays or gay themselves, but it also showed those who were very religious and very much against it. You need to show a little bit of both sides to keep people interested.

JVB: I know festivals are so much work to organize. What keeps you and the AFF team at it all these years?

CH: Hardly anything makes me feel better than seeing a filmmaker in an audience, watching people enjoy their film, with pride on their face. Then they come up to take questions. I feel good having given this person the opportunity to have other people see what they’ve done. I think that’s one of the core reasons we’ve all been involved in putting together this film festival – to give the small filmmakers an opportunity to feel good about themselves and to give them the inspiration to do more. I always worry if there are enough people here for the filmmaker to feel good? Ultimately it’s that sight of that filmmaker sitting their smiling that makes me feel like it’s worthwhile.

The 2014 Utopia Film Festival is being held in Greenbelt, MD from Oct. 24-26.

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