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The Magnificent Intimacy of the Middleburg Film Festival

Middleburg Film Festival

The first time I set foot in Loudoun County, Virginia was in 2016, to attend the fourth annual Middleburg Film Festival. My husband (Zach) and I had tickets to see Jackie, Pablo Larraín’s new movie starring Natalie Portman. And we were running late.

Two minutes before showtime, we arrived at the Salamander Resort, zipped the rental car into the first spot we saw and full on sprinted to the resort’s stately entrance. Seeing no signs anywhere (poor planning for a film festival, right?) we stopped at the valet stand and breathlessly asked for directions to the screening that started in...45 seconds. The kind gentleman advised that we were in no danger of being shut out of the theater.

We were a week early.

So we drove the rental car to an IKEA to walk off the adrenaline and subsequent letdown, and counted down the days until we could actually attend our first film festival.

And what a festival it was. In the sleepy little town of Middleburg, Virginia -- the nation’s “Horse and Hunt Capital,” population 656 -- we experienced a little bit of magic. For that week, this tiny town was exposed to screenings of the biggest films in independent cinema: Jackie, Toni Erdmann, Lion, Paterson (the films we saw), Loving, Moonlight, Neruda, I Am Not Your Negro … and the list goes on. Of course we went back the next year. And again two years later. I cried my way through Call Me By Your Name, I obsessed over I, Tonya, I fell in love with Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I delighted in the in-between times when Zach and I would stroll into Common Grounds for some coffee and a sandwich, delving into the details of whatever film we just saw. Middleburg had me hooked.

I owe my love of Middleburg largely to the vision of an (incredible) woman -- Sheila C. Johnson. Sheila is a woman of many talents. You might know her as the co-founder of BET (Black Entertainment Television), the team president of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, an executive producer of documentary films, or the CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts. She’s one of those people who can actually do whatever she sets her mind on. And in 2013, she took all her mettle and ambition and love for the arts and she turned it into the Middleburg Film Festival.

Middleburg Film Festival

Since 2013, the Middleburg Film Festival has screened hundreds of renowned films, attracting the attention of upcoming talent, and bringing together the East Coast film community. Damien Chazelle and then-President of the Academy Cheryl Boone Isaacs made appearances at Middleburg in 2016. In 2017, the festival screened 25 films at various venues for roughly 4,000 filmgoers, and Dee Rees and Greta Gerwig traveled to Middleburg to introduce their films (Mudbound and Lady Bird, respectively). The 2019 festival grew to 34 movies. Anthony McCarten opened the screening of his film, The Two Popes, with an explanation of what inspired him to write it.

The existence of a carefully curated and star-attracting film festival in the middle of Horse Country, Virginia is something to be applauded. But my favorite thing about Middleburg is that it sets you up for moments of little connections, like intimate run-ins with filmmakers and actors, or chatting with the same people you met in line earlier that day. Middleburg gives you the chance to make memorable and lasting connections that are otherwise hard to come by.

Case in point: In 2019, Zach and I were standing in line outside a theater waiting for our next film when he poked me and whispered “oh my god that’s Trey Edward Shults!!” We had just seen and marveled over his new movie Waves at TIFF. Trey spoke to the audience during a Q&A after that screening, but we had no opportunity to actually interact with him. So when we saw Trey at Middleburg, I dragged Zach right up to him and said “Trey? I thought so. Hi. I just wanted to say that we saw Waves at TIFF and thought it was powerful and so brilliantly done. You really are incredible and we can’t wait to see what you do next!” I might have said that I thought it was clever how he switched aspect ratios, but my wits went totally out the window so it’s anyone’s guess.

I am confident that Trey remembers none of this conversation. I am also confident he responded with something kind and encouraging. I blacked out from the adrenaline rush. In any event, it was meaningful for us to have that interaction and to imagine ourselves one day standing in his shoes. It ruled.

Because Middleburg takes care to foster a relaxed and informal energy, filmmakers have the freedom to mill about outside venues, to hang around and mingle with their (very appreciative) fans. They aren’t herded out the back door or mobbed by aspiring filmmakers eager to pitch their next project.

Then there was Chris, who we met when we sat down for The Report. I can’t remember how we started talking, or which movies we compared notes on, but suddenly we were wading into a conversation about what worked for us and what didn’t, what we couldn’t wait to see, what we recommended and why. And the best part: we bumped into him a few more times, and then spent an hour waiting in line with him for The Irishman, the festival’s closing film. To this day, Zach and I keep in touch with him via Letterboxd. We’ll read his reviews and say “that’s so like Chris to [love/hate] this movie” even though we haven’t seen him since that weekend. Middleburg’s emphasis on connection helped forge a film-based friendship.

That is the real beauty of Middleburg. It shows big-time movies in a small-town setting. You leave with the feeling that you were part of something meaningful, exclusive, and special. And indeed, you were.

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