The Buffalo International Film Festival wrapped up on Monday night after five busy days of screenings, panels and performances across the city.
The 16th iteration of the event — otherwise known as its “Sweet BIFFteen” — was an uplifting celebration of film, art and community that featured over 160 independent films from Western New York and beyond.
Opening night of the festival kicked off at the historic North Park Theatre, a single-screen cinema on Hertel Avenue. Audience members filed into the gorgeous theatre for the Opening Night Gala: a screening of “Bashira,” the directorial debut of animator and special effects artist Nickson Fong. The trippy horror-musical film, inspired by a Japanese legend, was an appropriate choice to start the weekend. Like many of the films featured at BIFF, “Bashira” was filmed in and around Buffalo.
Audience members were pleased to recognize beloved Buffalo locations like the Theatre District and Venu — a favorite of many UB students.
But more significantly, the film was produced with an entirely local crew.
“Everyone [on the crew] was Buffalo local,” Mitzi Akaha, one of the stars of the film, said. “Because it’s such a tight community, they’ve worked on every film that’s come through Buffalo… they got to share this rich culture of what filmmaking is like here.”
“Bunker,” another WNY-produced film, had its world premiere on Saturday night. Adrian Langley’s World War I thriller was filmed entirely at Buffalo FilmWorks, a local studio.
The film — a body horror sci-fi flick about soldiers who must confront an evil presence while trapped underground — was a hit with the audience.
Though a small city, Buffalo is no stranger to major film productions. It’s become something of a hotspot over the past few years, with huge filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro and John Krasinski passing through.
But a big part of BIFF’s mission is to highlight the independent, grassroots films that have come out of the area, not the big Hollywood productions.
The close-knit, community-oriented quality of the festival attracts up-and-coming filmmakers looking to grow and expand their network. Paul-Daniel Torres, a director whose short film was screened as part of BIFF’s “Racial Justice in View” short film program, cited BIFF as one of the best festivals he’s participated in.
“It’s really everything a festival should be,” Torres said. “It’s a place that makes quality films accessible to all types of people, but also allows itself to be a training ground for young filmmakers.”
That type of accessibility is something truly unique to BIFF. At other festivals, it might cost upwards of $30 to attend a screening with a filmmaker; at BIFF, it’s always affordable, if not completely free.
“I think it’s an important part of a production ecosystem in any major city to have a real film festival,” Anna Scime, BIFF’s executive director, said. “Buffalo is one of the poorest cities in the nation. I think something like 30% of people in the city of Buffalo live below the poverty line… so we really do care that we have full access for everyone.”
One of the festival’s most special moments came on Sunday night at the screening of “WNY Stories,” a compilation of short films entirely produced in the Buffalo area. The incredibly diverse block included music videos, documentaries and animated video essays, all from people who call Western New York their home.
The feeling of hometown pride was tangible as members of the community filed into the North Park Theatre to cheer on their friends and loved ones.
One of the screening’s more Buffalo-centric selections was the music video for rock band Handsome Jack’s song “Roll It,” which follows the musicians as they push their broken-down tour van around the streets of Buffalo. It was a fun and vibrant tribute to the Queen City, with cameos from places like Revolver Records and Highmark Stadium. (Yes, someone in the audience did let out a resounding “Go Bills!”)
A particularly moving moment came during “I’ll Find a Way or Make One — A Rosie Story.” The short documentary profiled Viola Hippert, a 97-year-old Lackawanna native who worked for Bell Aircraft during World War II. She was one of many “Rosie the Riveters,” American women who picked up factory jobs during the war and changed the status quo for women in the workplace.
Hippert herself was in attendance, watching her story play out on the big screen for the first time. The audience was clearly charmed by her sense of humor, her toughness and her many stories; they laughed and cheered throughout the film. When it was over, the crowd erupted in the loudest applause of the night.
This display of unity and joy is exactly what Scime strived to create at the festival.
“I would say that it’s really community-focused,” Scime said. “Our real mission is diversity, inclusion, amplifying all different kinds of voices… but also bringing together our community.”
Meret Kelsey is an assistant arts editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Meret Kelsey is an assistant arts editor at The Spectrum.