September 13, 2018
Film Festival Della Lessinia

A Film Festival In The Mountains? Why Filmmakers Should Give 'Niche' Events A Second Look

Film Festival Della Lessinia
Film Festival Della Lessinia only programs movies related to mountains, but don't expect to see "Red Bull films" there.

It’s late August in Italy, and seemingly everyone in the film world is crammed into a few tiny theaters on the Mediterranean for the latest Venice premieres. Drive a few hours away, however, and a very different crowd is hanging out in the Italian mountains, watching a very different crop of movies.

This is Film Festival Della Lessinia, held in the tiny resort town of Bosco Chiasanuova, Italy, in the heart of the Dolomites mountain range. Now in its 24th year, the competitive festival has a unique mandate: as befits its setting, it only programs films that have a relation to mountain culture.

Film Festival Della Lessinia
Credit: Andrew Lapin

For most audiences, the term “mountain film festival” likely conjures images of Banff and its breed of highlight-reel winter sports documentaries. Those kinds of titles are dismissed by Della Lessinia’s artistic director, Alessandro Anderloni, who refers to the alpinism subgenre as “Red Bull films.” Anderloni was so determined to make Della Lessinia different that he’s taken the unusual step of banning winter sports films from his competition programming.

“We say 'no' to a big part of the production of films about mountains,” Anderloni told me as we sat in the guest tent just outside the festival’s lone theater. “We focus our research, not on sport, but on the real world of cinema.”

That means a lineup of features, documentaries, and shorts, mainly from Europe, about the people and animals who inhabit mountain communities around the world. The movies themselves, all of which compete for the festival’s top prize in addition to separate awards for best feature, documentary, short, and animated film, may only obliquely reference the reason the festival invited them in the first place.

Filmmakers may not know what to make of invitations to niche festivals like this one, either because they’re afraid of pigeonholing their work or because they don’t understand why their movie fits with a festival’s given theme. “I would like filmmakers to understand that a small festival can be international,” Anderloni said. “It can be organized like the biggest festivals in the world.”

Full disclosure: I attended Della Lessinia this year on my way to cover Venice because my girlfriend, Camille Lugan, screened her narrative short, “La Persistente,” in the program. We were both surprised when they took the film because it’s a genre-bending thriller that happens to use a mountain range as its setting, rather than a work that explicitly has to do with the mountains.

The film screened to a nearly full house, and the audience was extremely attentive; the leisurely Q&A session stretched out longer than the runtime of the film itself, and included a broad range of questions.

The next afternoon, the festival organized a “coffee with the directors” session where a dedicated handful of viewers lounged with us at the festival café to discuss the craft of filmmaking. This is not the kind of venue most filmmakers are likely picturing when they conceive of their festival circuit, but maybe they should.

The day after Camille’s movie screened, we took in a morning showing of the 1990 Twin Peaks pilot (the festival’s definition of “mountain film” becomes particularly elastic in its Classics section, which this year also included Princess Mononoke). That was followed up later by The Ancient Woods, an experimental passion project from Lithuanian biologist and nature documentarian Mindaugas Survila.

The film, which took Survila eight years to make, is filled with long, patient shots of forest creatures feeding, fighting, and foraging. It eventually won the best overall prize at the festival.

On Della Lessinia’s final day, I hung around with the remaining filmmakers and jury members as we hiked to a country home on the top of a nearby mountain, where our reward for dodging a minefield of cow patties was a home-cooked lunch of gnocchi with smoked ricotta and plenty of wine, coffee, and grappa. It’s not the sort of thing you could imagine ever happening in Cannes or Venice.

Film Festival Della Lessinia
Credit: Andrew Lapin

“I thought it was going to be too niche,” said Karen Vázquez Guadarrama, a Mexican filmmaker based in Belgium, as we chatted on the mountains before lunch, "but when I arrived here to just find a bunch of people who are also passionate about mountains, it was nice.”

Guadarrama wound up at the festival after her movie “When the Bull Cried,” a documentary about a remote Bolivian mining town co-directed by Bart Goossens, screened at DOK Leipzig, the documentary festival in Germany. Anderloni was in attendance at the festival scouting for material and approached Guadarrama personally to ask if she would come show the film in the Dolomites. 

Guadarrama hadn’t previously thought of her movie as a “mountain film,” either. She, however, had two mountain tattoos, and this was the last festival she planned to take her movie to, so she figured it would be a good way to close out the documentary’s journey: “I think this is a nice circle, to end up in the mountains in Italy.”

“When the Bull Cried” also won the festival’s award for Best Young Filmmaker, further validating Guadarrama’s decision to attend.

Despite such preferential treatment, niche festivals like Della Lessinia can still be a tough sell for filmmakers who want to prioritize bigger platforms. Anderloni said his festival often loses out on films because the directors will choose to hold their Italian premiere for a bigger invite from Venice or Milan that never comes, or because they’re trying to land a deal for distribution in the country. Anderloni’s argument is that the Italian distribution market for international art films is nearly non-existent and that the directors are better off taking a festival that will guarantee they screen in the country.

In the filmmaking world, this is far from an Italy-specific concern. Festival placement can make or break a movie’s distribution deal, and subject-specific festivals don’t get the same kind of attention as higher profile festivals do. 

To be fair, not every festival is worth a director’s time: events with fewer resources, slim networking opportunities, and weaker programming can clutter a film’s reputation rather than bolster it.  Niche festivals would be wise to look to Della Lessinia as a model for how to attract worthy talent by programming with a clear vision and making the proceedings unique and fun.

A hike up a mountain after a long week of movies doesn’t hurt, either.     

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