The main reason Shela Lahey started the Sycamore Film Festival two years ago was to encourage young filmmakers. The festival raises funds for college scholarships for students pursuing a career in the arts.
“It started because I wanted to do a student program at the high school,” Lahey said. “I wanted to introduce student films and promote them. ... I love helping students any way I can because it’s a tough business and it’s really hard for students.”
The third annual film fest will be held Friday at the DeKalb County Community Foundation in Sycamore.
The idea for the festival began in 2009, when Lahey showed a short feature she had produced at several film festivals. At the time, she was beginning research for a documentary she wanted to make about Sycamore.
“I was just so struck by the generosity of this little town and how much history there was, and I thought, wouldn’t it be great to make a film on this and have a festival to show it?” Lahey said.
She began calling friends who had found success in the industry, asking if they would do a small festival. She originally planned to include 12 filmmakers, but everyone she contacted said yes, and the word spread. To her surprise, filmmakers – including a 16-year-old student filmmaker in Lebanon – began contacting her.
“These were Emmy Award winners, Academy Award winners, people who have done Robert Altman films, all kinds of work,” she said. “It just kept growing and growing.”
The first festival, in 2011, showed 45 films from around the world, from very short films to full-length features. Filmmakers included Tony Award-winning producer Mark Medoff; Barbara Turner, who wrote the screenplay for “Pollock;” Kelley Katzenmeyer, who won the 2010 Young Arts/Gold Award; Mitch Markowitz, who wrote the film “Good Morning Vietnam” and such TV classics as “MASH,” “Monk” and “The Facts of Life;” and Sycamore High School alum Michael Dunker.
“I’m so impressed with what Shela and her team have put together,” Medoff said. “I watched the festival evolve from nothing to one I so much enjoyed two years ago. Audiences were smart and enthusiastic and I met several people who made powerful impressions on me, including the literate (Sycamore) police chief, Don Thomas.”
Medoff and Dunker are returning to screen films in this year’s festival.
“Obviously, we’re more excited to show at the Sycamore Film Festival because of the personal connection, but also, this event was the first festival to accept our first film and gave us our first award, and it happened in my hometown,” Dunker said. “That was an amazing moment.”
The first two festivals were each held over three days at Sycamore State Theatre. Scheduling conflicts this year forced the festival to scale back to a single day and move to a new location. It’s also the first year Lahey hasn’t screened one of her own films; her Sycamore documentary was screened in 2011 and a documentary on DeKalb was shown in 2012.
“I wasn’t sure we were going to be able to do a third one, but our passion is really for the students and the high school program,” Lahey said. “I was going to make a film on another icon in DeKalb County, but the funding wasn’t there, so we’ll probably do it next year. I wasn’t going to do a festival, but the schools came to us and asked us to do one. I was so moved that it was so important to them that we decided to do a third festival.”
Lahey credits Dave and Suzanne Juday of Ideal Industries with sponsoring this year’s festival. She said all six of the movies chosen are from filmmakers who have won awards in past years. The longest is only 34 minutes; altogether, they’re a little over an hour.
“So no one can say, ‘I can’t sit through all of it,’” she laughed.
As in the past, this year’s festival will begin with a special screening at Sycamore High School. Members of the Sycamore Chamber of Commerce will receive a special “V.I.P. Sneak Peak” at noon. Public screenings begin at 4 p.m.
After every screening, moviegoers can talk with the filmmakers. For many people, that’s the highlight of the festival.
“We got all the different aspects of how films are made,” Thomas said of the public discussions. “I think the panelists had as much fun as the audience. As they were answering questions, they were talking among themselves. It was neat seeing the interplay between the writers, directors and producers.”
Lahey said her favorite part is the high school program, especially introducing students to people their own age who are making movies.
“It’s been a really nice connection,” SHS principal Tim Carlson said. Carlson screens the films before they’re shown at the school. “It gives our kids some insights into that career.”
Dunker’s favorite part is returning to his alma mater to speak to students.
“I sat in those seats, listening to handfuls of speakers, but not one of them said, ‘You can go to Hollywood and make movies.’ I am that person that gets to say that,” he said. “I’ve worked with everyone from Julia Roberts to Spike Jonze to Robert Redford, and being able to name-drop those people, after growing up in the same town these students did, might be enough to get one person to start believing their dreams might happen. It doesn’t matter what you want to do; it matters that you try to do it.”
If you go
What: Sycamore Film Festival
Where: DeKalb County Community Foundation, 475 DeKalb Ave., Sycamore
Details: Public screenings of the six films are from 4 to 6 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. A question-and-answer session with filmmakers will be held after each screening. A concert by Buffalo Jump will be held from 9 p.m. to midnight at the Jane Fargo Hotel, 355 W. State St., Sycamore.
Tickets: $25, includes all films, Q-and-A, popcorn and concert. People can attend the concert alone for a donation.