The Middle Coast Film Festival, now in its fifth year, has new surroundings. Moving from Bloomington, Indiana to Chicago’s Davis Theater, the MCFF will screen approximately 60 films, including five feature films September 21- 23, 2018.
The festival will focus on equality between the genders as well as … wait for it … FUN! With a professional photographer capturing a headshot for everyone, busking artists quite literally drumming up business outside, parties, panel discussions, an awards ceremony and the anniversary screening of The Birdcage, hosted by nonbinary Kat Sass, there seems to be, as festival director Jess Levandoski says, “…a seat at the table for everyone” in Chicago’s film festival arena.
Levandoski has handed over the programming reigns of the festival to filmmaker Mylissa Fitzsimmons who continues Levandoski’s vision of not only gender equality in the director’s chair, but also in screenwriting and giving other underrepresented groups a voice in storytelling.
This year, the festival will include Muslim, Latino and Native American stories as well as narratives about the LGBTQ community with dramas, comedies, animated films and more. Of course, there’s a Chicago flavor to the festival with 20 Chicago filmmakers as well as the opening night film from writer/director Emily Lape, Mercy’s Girl.
I had a chance to sit down and talk with the Texas-born Levandoski as she shared her background and hopes for the festival this year as well as its future here in Chicago.
Pamela Powell (PP): What’s your background and how did you get into film?
Jess Levandoski (JL): This will be my sixth year, sixth year of festivals in general and then the background in filmmaking is in year eight. Being a film lover is however old I am, 37!
I went to school for biology and I’m not doing anything with it. I sold pharmaceuticals right out of college. You make a lot of money. It took six months and I was like, that’s enough!
PP: Why did you start the MCFF?
JL: I founded MCFF in Bloomington because it was a bit of a film desert there. There wasn’t a lot going on. Anything we were doing we were having to fly out of state. [I thought] maybe if we do the, “If we build it, they will come” and it ended up happening. I assembled a team of women, it’s always been women that I’ve worked with. … Women! They get it done. They do respond to the fact that I’m a female festival director [which is] a lot less common, but I don’t see how it could have been done any other way because there wasn’t anybody else doing it there. I didn’t see it as a female thing, I saw it as an opportunistic thing.
PP: And now as you have moved to Chicago, so has the festival. What are your hopes for the festival here?
JL: Michael (Glover Smith, filmmaker) helped find the Davis Theater. I want the community to [say], “It’s September. It’s Middle Coast month. We’re looking to introduce ourselves this year. Give a little taste and then we’ll expand. … We have plans to make our Q&As a little more formal. Call individual filmmakers up with prepared questions…make it more high stakes. Keep it snappy.
PP: Tell me about your panel discussions.
JL: We’re going to have cool moderators and panels. Chicago’s Women of the Now
Panel will be talking about what it’s like right now working in the scene, being a female filmmaker in Chicago and then we’re going to have another panel working with more established filmmakers from L.A., the L. A. Women’s Filmmaker Collective, a group of 1500 women, women who wanted to hire women DPs, colorists, etc. working and hiring each other. Writers and directors who work on things like Insecure, Transparent and Menashe.
PP: You also direct and program the Adirondack Film Festival in NY. What do you love about festival programming and directing?
JL: I get to influence what 200 people see and I really like that. It’s powerful and … film is the only medium where you can be empathetic even when you’re not an empathetic person. When you’re in a film festival setting where people are there to watch and enjoy it with one another, I just feel like people are a lot more open-minded. You see more crying, you see more laughing. … There’s more camaraderie.
PP: You’re a leader, wearing many hats to develop this festival and break into an arena that is typically male. What words of advice do you have for women?
JL: I was just on the panel for the Women Funny Festival at Stage 773. … My tip for women was, don’t feel like you need to drink to network, that’s not part of it. You don’t need to be the “fun girl.” You don’t need to be fun to be welcomed into the room. You can be a serious person and a lot of people will remember you because you are a serious person. The main thing is to butt your way in. Act like a dude is what I tell them to do because when you see the women at the festivals who do push, who are the first to jump on the mic, they’re the ones getting the audience to interact with them.
The MCFF will conclude with an after party on Saturday on the rooftop of the Dank Haus, overlooking the Chicago skyline and the Davis Theater. Ticket prices are only $25 for the entire festival, but act quickly as this price will jump to $35. Use the promotional code Flamingo 18, or if you’re a student, show your ID and you can get in for $10. For more information, go to https://www.middlecoastfest.com/
© Pamela Powell (9/6/18) FF2 Media
Photos: Festival director Jess Levandoski & still from opening night film from writer/director Emily Lape, Mercy’s Girl (IMDb)