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Arts Watch: L.E.S. Film Festival Gears Up For Year Five

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The pool party at last year's "Gay Night" screening at the L.E.S. Film Festival at Sixty LES. This year's festival runs from June 11 - 21.
The pool party at last year’s “Gay Night” screening at the L.E.S. Film Festival at Sixty LES. This year’s festival runs from June 11 – 21.

We checked in with the Lower East Side Film Festival directors as they were preparing for their fifth annual extravaganza of screenings, panels and neighborhood shenanigans — all in the name of celebrating independent film.

After starting out in a pop-up storefront, b.y.o.b. space on Norfolk Street, their festival has grown quickly. They now utilize bigger downtown venues for their screenings, but they’ve held on to the quirky and intimate spirit, even with larger audiences.

“We’ll always have some screenings in a proper theater,” Tony Castle said, “but I think we’ll also always want to do something that totally re-imagines where you can watch a movie.”

Past venues have included a make-shift “drive-in” at the parking lot on Broome and Ludlow, rooftops with swimming pools, club houses and this year they will create a secret “biergarten” for one of the screenings.

The festival parties are not your average film festival parties, either. It’s not unusual to find circus performers, female wrestlers, djs and other artists rubbing elbows with audience members and filmmakers alike.

Lower East Side Film Festival Directors Damon Cardasis, Roxy Hunt, Shannon Walker and Tony Castle.
Lower East Side Film Festival Directors Damon Cardasis, Roxy Hunt, Shannon Walker and Tony Castle.

“We really care equally about the filmmaker and the audience and we try to make sure they both feel like they are special, and that they’re welcome, and are going to get a good experience out of it,” Roxy Hunt said. “That’s why we get so many filmmakers coming back and submitting again and audience members coming back  — because it’s a welcoming vibe.”

“You can’t go to other film festivals and feel as welcome as, I hope, you feel at our festival,” Tony Castle added. “We try to create an environment where everybody’s sort of on the same page and you get to mingle with the filmmakers, and chat with them. The Q & A is on stage for a second but then, it’s over a beer, and everyone’s invited.”

The focus is on an overall great audience experience and they make sure to watch their final selections together, as a group, before making final decisions. The results are a very well programmed festival that leads to many top names in the industry acting as judges; this year’s jury includes Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black), Parker Posey (Clockwachers, Dazed & Confused) and heavy hitting producer Rachael Horovitz.

Because of the limited number of films that screen at the festival, the quality is always high. As submissions have increased, it’s been harder for the team to decide on which features they will show, Shannon Walker said. This year’s lineup includes eleven New York premiers, four world premiers, two North American premiers and three US premiers.

“This year’s opening night film, Life in Color, is a great representation of what we like in our filmmakers,” Walker said.  “People tapping into whatever limited resources are available (to them) and figuring things out.” The director, actress Katharine Emmer, financed the project with her own money that she made as a nanny. She wrote it, stars in it, directed it and then taught herself how to edit. “It’s sort of the ultimate LES Film Festival, ‘d.i.y.’ kind of movie,” Walker added.

The Lower East Side Film Festival runs from June 11 – 21. Visit their website here for tickets and more info.

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