Berkshire International Film Festival's Kelley Vickery discusses difficult decision to postpone event

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GREAT BARRINGTON — March 15. Crunch time at Berkshire International Film Festival; the day notices had to go out to the filmmakers who had been selected for BIFF 15, May 28-31. Instead, out of concern for the potent effects of COVID-19, BIFF's founder and artistic director Kelley Vickery shifted the dates to Sept. 10-13. Now, BIFF 15 will have to wait altogether — until June 3-6, 2021.

There was, it turned out, reason to beware the Ides of March.

March typically finds Vickery, executive director Laura Palmer, and executive assistant Lauren Ferin in what Vickery characterizes as "full production mode," as notices go out to the filmmakers; the jigsaw puzzle that is the BIFF schedule begins to be assembled; publicity is prepared; final arrangements are made with the various venues. But in this year of the coronavirus pandemic, nothing is typical.

"I remember walking into the office Wednesday that week, March 9," Vickery said in a phone interview, "and remarking to Laura that this coronavirus was really gripping the country. Still, we really didn't think it would affect us in late May."

By Friday the 11th, "you could feel the concern about the pandemic in the community," Vickery said.

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The notion of moving the festival to September took root. It felt safe; right. Vickery's first choice was Labor Day weekend. She made a few phone calls but two key venues — the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center and, new to BIFF this year, Tanglewood Learning Institute's Linde Center — weren't available. Both were available the following weekend, Sept. 10-13.

So, on March 15, rather than send out notices to BIFF 15 filmmakers, Vickery prepared a presentation of the new plan for a board meeting a few days later.

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"Our patrons and sponsors were supportive of the move," Vickery said, "so were our filmmakers."

They held their collective breath. March came and went. Then, on April 1, the dominoes began falling. Jacob's Pillow announced it was canceling its entire 2020 dance festival. Cancellation, curtailment, restructuring or repurposing announcements followed in short order from Shakespeare & Company, Barrington Stage Company, Berkshire Theatre Group, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Chester Theatre Company and, on May 15, the biggest domino — Tanglewood.

"The Pillow's announcement was heart-wrenching," Vickery said. "My last frontier was Tanglewood." But by the time the Boston Symphony Orchestra announced its decision to stay away from the Berkshires this summer, the situation had become "pretty clear," Vickery said. "I mean, how crazy would it be to mount a festival in September and run the risk of the virus coming back? So, we made the hard decision to cancel.

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"It's been hard on everyone, especially the filmmakers, all of whom work so hard."

BIFF debuted in 2006 with 40 films from 12 countries, including the United States, and programs in four Great Barrington venues — Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Triplex Cinema, and the long-since-defunct Club Helsinki and Mixed Company. The festival has grown to, on average, 70 films from 23-plus countries. BIFF expanded to Pittsfield's Beacon Cinema in 2010 when the festival introduced the Next Great Filmmaker Award competition with Berkshire Bank.

In addition to the screenings at the Mahaiwe, Triplex and Beacon, there are workshops, films for kids, film forums, talkbacks with filmmakers, and BIFF's grand celebratory tradition — the Saturday night tribute to a major filmmaker. Among past honorees: director Martin Scorsese; actors Christopher Plummer, Rachel Weisz, and Kevin Bacon; filmmaker and New York Film Festival director Kent Jones; special effects master and director Douglas Trumbull.

BIFF may not be in moviehouses this year, but it is not abandoning the field. It will be hiding in plain sight with drive-in pop-up movies at various sites around the county; a film series streamed on the Triplex Cinema website; a collaboration with Palm Springs International Film Festival; and, thanks to a grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a virtual filmmakers summit, featuring filmmakers who have been invited to BIFF 15. And, Vickery said, Berkshire Bank has announced it will continue sponsorship of the Next Great Filmmakers competition.

"Hopefully, this [pandemic] will be leaving," Vickery said. "[At BIFF], we will continue to think and play outside the box."


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