And Now, for Your Feature Presentation

Shawn Quirk is the program director for the Rhode Island International Film Festival (RIIFF), and this is his eighth year working at the festival. In 2011, Quirk had friends with films in the RIIFF, and he worked as a volunteer, an action inspired by his earlier attendance at Cannes. He applied for a position with the RIIFF and started screening titles, eventually heading the RI Vortex Festival, which is focused on sci-fi, fantasy and horror, before  he began working with the main festival.

Quirk explains the RIIFF film screening process just one week before this year’s commencement. RIIFF does not have to spend energy recruiting filmmakers’ work. Quirk noted, “We program exclusively from our submission pool. We don’t really do promotions except typical social media. Everything we’ve done has been through word of mouth. Every year it seems to be growing at a steady pace.”

These submissions include films from Russia, Australia, Azerbaijan, France, Germany, Georgia, Singapore, Turkey, Japan and more. It may seem surprising that Rhode Island is a global destination, but after 35 years of screenings, the RIIFF heralds a stellar reputation. Quirk continued, “After so many years of selecting films from those areas, we have these pockets around the world and little niches. We may have awarded a feature from India five years ago. So then, they will build notoriety for the future when new people are submitting their films. Again, the process is reached organically. It just kind of happens on its own.”

A film then is judged, and a smaller pool of films is chosen. “Judges are based nationally and locally,” Quirk explains. “Each film is seen a few times by different judges.” They are rated, then the panels sift through the highest rated. The international judges are “based all over the world. We have more than 50.” Those well rated are then seen by local judges who start the unenviable task of selecting a smaller group of films. Because films come from around the world, those 50 international judges provide a global viewpoint so that films are not judged from a myopic lens.

“A culturally dynamic festival is part of what we stood for, our identity. We’re all about having balance. We have a lot of film industry judges along with local cinephiles and even film students. That creates a wide breadth of taste. It also helps give us a glimpse of our demographic — knowing whether a film works or not for a certain age group or population,” said Quirk.

Once selected, a film receives an acceptance letter and their laurels, and then they are included in the program and invited. Then a film is grouped by the thematic program. Quirk stated, “When we put them together, the films become part of a larger mosaic. The goal is to create a longer narrative of what the world is facing in the moment. On a lot of fronts. We’re trying to create a portrait of what 2018 represents, and we do that every year. Depending on the year, the themes change. This year we had a lot of refugees in Europe, racism in America, or say, artificial intelligence.”

Films like The Ape Man represent Belgium or #hashtag from Mexico. At RISD Museum on August 9, five films under the “Family Dynamics” banner will be shown, including August Sun from Argentina and Amour du Reel from Iran. Four films from Quebec will be at the Museum of Work and Culture on August 8, highlighting trends in that area. But as the world shifts its focus, we see what was once a boundary subject is now woven into a larger tapestry, such as with the Canadian Sylvia in the Waves, which is the story of a 40-year-old transgender woman and her family in “waves of memory and rebirth, death and survival.” Quirk said, “We’re not trying to be too overt. The best way to get your message across is to be nuanced. But, we have films that deal with issues head-on. We have a film that deals with the ban on conversion therapy.”

Plus, documentaries. Many documentaries, short and full features. Felix, Two Medusas, s t r e t c h, and The Ship of Gold and more show on August 8 at RISD Museum. August 9 boasts Angelica Huston speaking on the James Joyce documentary A Shout in the Street at Chamber of Commerce.

The theaters that hold screenings are partners who were cultivated over the years, and the fest depends on those partnerships. “We don’t make a lot of money doing this. We’re a non-profit.” So the festival is reliant on rooms like VETS, AS220, the Chamber of Commerce, Moses Brown and libraries throughout the state. And while Providence is where RIIFF is showing most of the films, the festival yearns to infiltrate each part of the state. Quirk said, “The goal is to get films seen elsewhere. We’ll be casting satellite screenings in Woonsocket, Narraganset, Warwick, Newport, NK and Wickford.” This is for the enrichment all of Rhode Island. “We do focus on Providence as we have filmmakers centered here and needing to walk, so we treat it like a campus.”

If any of this triggers excited Rhode Island denizens to become involved, Quirk advises, “The best way to get involved in the festival community is to volunteer. That opens up doors to other things.” RIIFF also has internships available. Quirk offers the benefits: “[Interns get] tons of hands-on experience and then they can apply that to work on festivals around the world. We can be their entry-level experience. This is a training ground. We’ve seen interns move forward to work at casting agencies, distribution companies and other festivals.”

The opening night is a platform for 10 films at PPAC — short films that are world and US premieres, including animation, live action and documentaries. Quirk confides, “Our goal is to showcase our love of the short film – the beauty of that medium. It’s an underappreciated medium, but it has been around since the beginning of cinema. You can trace it back to the Lumiere Brothers.”

Quirk continues on the theme. “We’re one of the only festivals that will dedicate its opening night to shorts instead of features. Most tend to showcase a feature. We do the opposite. We enjoy a group of short films. [That approach] works well with the event’s gala. When you see bunch of shorts back to back, it creates an energy that you don’t get with even a well-done feature.”

The Rhode Island International Film Festival takes place in multiple venues from Aug 7 – Aug 12. Go to for more information. Schedule is subject to change. 

For more:

An interview with Mr. Fish

Local film folk pick

Tre Maison Dasan: Three boys grow up with parents in prison

RIIFF highlights


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