A glimmer of old Hollywood, the glitz of Cannes, and the genius of film artists from all over the world come to Connecticut this fall for the 15th annual Moondance International Film Festival, September 26-29. Lights, cameras and action will be shining in Mystic, as the iconic festival makes its new home here.
Moondance is the creation of founder/executive director Elizabeth English.
“I realized early on that film and TV really change people’s perceptions,” English explained. “It’s powerful. I want to make the world a better place with my time on this planet. I realized the easiest way to reach millions is through film.”
The festival’s mission is a reflection of English’s values. “I wanted to honor and inspire women with talent who were not being appreciated or rewarded,” she said. “At the time I created Moondance, a woman’s film had never been selected at the Sundance Film Festival. I wanted it to be the opposite of Sundance, so I named it Moondance. After popularity of the Moondance Film Festival began to grow, women have since been selected at Sundance. I like to think I was a part of that change.”
Films selected for Moondance must express certain values. Attention is given to the way women are portrayed and featured as main characters. English looks for films that address complex social issues, promote conflict resolution and/or raise awareness and inspire action to preserve the environment. Ideally, the content enriches and entertains a global audience.
English admits she is frustrated at how women are depicted in most films today.
“How often do we see a woman nervously walking down dark basement stairs without turning on the light? And we rarely see women carrying purses in films. It’s just not accurate,” she said.
And the festival works to recognize a variety of talent. Several years ago, a 9-year old boy submitted a movie he made using his iPhone, about his experience interacting with other children in Africa during a trip with his family. He ended up winning the Moondance “Dolphin Award” — exclusively for young filmmakers.
The Moondance International Film Festival has attracted aspiring filmmakers, screenplay writers and film score musicians from nearly every country in the world over the years. Submissions, which can be done online, range from feature films, film shorts, documentaries and animation to music videos, soundtracks and screenplays. Guidelines are available on the website and are usually accepted up through the month of June each year.
The three-day event is open to the public. More than 100 films will be screened at the Olde Mistick Village Art Cinemas at a price of $10 per hour session (1-3 films) or attendees can opt to purchase a one-day pass or a three-day, all-films pass.
“The films are top notch,” English added. “Nobody has ever walked out of a Moondance film screening.”
Several Moondance films have gone on to receive Academy Award nominations. But the festival is more than just a collection of great movies. There will be educational components as well, with filmmaking, screenwriting, and acting workshops for all ages taught by industry professionals at nearby venues, and of course, networking parties and star-studded award ceremonies.
There is another reason to celebrate this year’s festival.
After connecting with filmmaker and Stonington resident Hans Hartman, who has been an instrumental part of bringing the film festival to Mystic and is now serving as director, English made a bold move.
“I made the decision to move Moondance permanently to Mystic. The festival had been primarily based out of Boulder, Colorado, and New York. Mystic is the perfect venue. A very artsy town and situated perfectly between New York and Boston. Everyone on the Connecticut shoreline has been so welcoming,” she said. “I just want to hug everybody.”
English said she is grateful to the local business owners and town dignitaries who have helped solidify the upcoming event, as she herself prepares to relocate here. She has also created several new awards to honor those who have determinedly supported the festival’s mission and its move to Mystic.
“I look forward to personally thanking many people at the film festival,” she said.
English understands the challenges of getting low budget, independent movies by unknown filmmakers off the ground. English herself, is an award-winning filmmaker and screenwriter, but success wasn’t handed to her. Her mother, Lenore English, was a silent film star in Charlie Chaplin movies. Her grandfather was an on-the-set school teacher for major film studios in Hollywood. After a short stint as a child model in Hollywood (in the 1950s and ’60s she was the face of the little blond girl on the Wonder Bread logo), her mother pulled her from the spotlight so that she could have a normal childhood. English said she soon learned that success in the business must be made on your own merit.
Starting out as a sculpturist, she quickly transferred her artistic eye into the development of a successful interior design company. Her work has been featured in Architectural Digest and other publications. She has designed homes and offices for the rich and famous, including Bette Midler’s home in Hawaii. After completing one home design project in Houston, she was introduced to the homeowner’s son, who serves as the still photographer on the set of Kevin Costner’s films.
“Because of my mother’s background in the film industry, I was always intrigued with films. I wanted to get on the set. I offered some set design expertise along with my knowledge of Native American arts and culture, and landed a six-month gig on the set of Kevin Costner’s “Dances with Wolves” as his technical director.
In the years since, she has worked as an actor, theater producer and acting instructor. She has produced three films and written several screenplays. Just back from a month in Thailand, English is currently doing research for a screenplay for Richard Gere.
Her secret to success? English says, “I just do it. Just do what you want to do. Understand that you need to make a living but never compromise your ideals.”
Her work as an entrepreneur has taken her all over the world — including Antarctica. So what’s next on her bucket list?
“I’ve always wanted to fly a kite from the Great Wall of China, which I will do in November,” she said.
She also has her eye on the development of a Moondance Film channel for television.
But for now, English is excited about the new home and new community of friends she has found in Mystic — for her beloved festival, and for her life.
More information can be found at www.moondancefilmfestival.com.