Appropriate Behavior, Fort Tilden and Zero Motivation

Liliana Greenfield-Sanders on Curating The Wassaic Project

Now in its seventh year, The Wassaic Project is once again providing a showcase for film amongst the many different mediums it covers during its weekend-long festival from August 1st through 3rd. Taking place at a former grain and feed mill in the Hudson Valley, this year’s festival will play host to a bevy of shorts and three celebrated films: the SXSW Grand Jury Prize winner “Fort Tilden,” the Tribeca Film Fest Grand Jury Prize winner “Zero Motivation” and the Sundance standout “Appropriate Behavior.” Recently, the festival’s director of film programming Liliana Greenfield-Sanders took the time to talk about the evolution of the festival, how she decided on this year’s films and approaching programming from her perspective as a filmmaker.

It’s a unique environment to show a film in, both physically and in terms of the other facets of the festival going on around it. How do you take advantage of that as a programmer?

The place is just stunning. It’s gorgeous up there in the Hudson Valley, and it’s not just the property itself that’s really special because it’s really about taking all these spaces and using art to reinvigorate it. We took this property that was an abandoned auction ring and turned it into a movie theater, as well as this granary that hadn’t been in operation for years, and turned it into an art exhibition space. Bowie [Zunino], Jeff [Barnett-Winsby], and Eve [Biddle, the Wassaic Project’s executive directors] have done so much to give back to the local communities and there’s a spirit of generosity that infiltrates the whole festival.

But there’s also really something special about having it all going on at the same time. I’ve never seen that at another festival, and I went to 50-plus festivals with one of my short films, “Adelaide,” and even really amazing festivals that like South By Southwest or Sundance where there’s an art component or music going on [along with film], they feel a little more separate. With our festival, you’ll be watching a dance performance, then you can walk right from it into the art exhibition, go up the stairs, see a bunch of art, and then mill around downstairs and walk 200 feet over to the cattle auction ring and come into a short film program, then go into a field and see some music. It’s an amazing festival for people, who especially in this day and age, have these short attention spans. There’s so much content going on, and it’s all really well-curated.

You’ve actually seemed to place a premium on shorts. Is that part of the reason?

We started out with shorts when we started the festival, then in the last two years, we added features. At first, I was nervous when we started screening features because I didn’t think that people had the attention span during a summer festival, [particularly when we] didn’t have a proper state-of-the-art indoor theater with great air-conditioning to sit through a film, but I was really pleasantly surprised that people had this thirst for these great films, and it was really about programming really good stuff. We always had great shorts, so as soon as I brought in some exciting films like “Short Term 12,” and people kept coming up to me and saying, “This film is incredible, and can we bring more films like that here?” I thought, “Yeah, I definitely can.”

How did this year’s feature choices come about?

I went to the Sundance Directors Lab with Talya [Lavie, director of “Zero Motivation”], and we also showed “The Substitute,” which was the original short [“Zero Motivation” was based on] at Wassaic a few years ago. I love that short, so I was really eager to see how [“Zero Motivation”] turned out and it’s so well done. It doesn’t feel like anything else tonally and that’s really the kind of stuff we want to show at Wassaic — surprising, bold and also things you aren’t going to see many other places. We’re programming partially for people coming from the city, but also for people in the local community, and I’m not sure it’s going to reach local audiences up there in the Hudson Valley, so it’s exciting to get to screen it up there.

For “Fort Tilden,” I was down at South By Southwest, and Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers both went to NYU, which is where I went to grad school, as did Desiree [Akhavan, director of “Appropriate Behavior”], actually. These are actually all first features, which is very much in keeping with the art portion of Wassaic [where] we don’t show a lot of work from established artists, so it’s very much in keeping with that to screen people who are making exciting new work in the indie feature landscape.

Does being a filmmaker yourself give you an interesting perspective as a programmer?

I do try to separate that a bit when I’m programming, but I think you can’t separate who you are from what you do, so I definitely bring who I am to it and all of my personal connections. It’s a lot to take on, so I’m always asking for favors from my friends, reaching out and asking people what the best movies that they’ve seen recently are. But when it comes time to program, I try to think a lot about the audience and what I would want out of the festival.

I’ve also taken the best of all of my experiences at NYU grad film and the Sundance Labs, and I’ve tried to think of how can I support people at different points in their careers. That’s why we’ve started a new residency this year. Bowie started a residency for artists a few years ago, and it just made so much sense to invite writers up because we have the space. We have the horse barns that we’ve converted into these state-of-the-art studios that are incredible, where we have printing presses and silk screening, but we don’t have writers up there.

Desi [Akhavan] seemed like the perfect person to come up there as our first screenwriter because she’s doing really smart, original work. We’re talking now about who the right mentor is [for her], but somebody that is right to talk to her at exactly this point in her career. That’s how we want to support her, not overreaching in the script process, but just to talk to her about the next step as she moves into her next feature or into television.

What’s it been like to see the festival evolve?

What’s been really amazing is to watch each part of [the festival] — art, dance, film and music — grow in its own way, but also all of us together at the same speed.

The Wassaic Project runs from August 1st through 3rd. A full lineup can be found here.

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