By Jan Mercker

Launching a first-year film festival in the suburbs in the middle of a pandemic is gutsy, crazy or a little of both. And it’s happening right here in Loudoun this fall.

The Loudoun Arts Film Festival makes its debut in September. And while the format isn’t what organizers initially had in mind, the content has surpassed expectations.

“If you had told me beforehand the programming that we’d have, I wouldn’t have believed it. It’s amazing,” said organizer Kaeley Boyle. “It’s got the feel of a local film festival with the credibility of an international one.” 

The festival will include a robust virtual component along with drive-in screenings at 50 West Vineyards near Aldie. Organizers also are planning satellite arts programming at 50 West’s sister winery, Sunset Hills Vineyard near Purcellville. Live screenings run Sept. 10-13 and Sept. 18-20, with online screenings starting in early September. Organizers are finalizing the program, which will be released in early August.

Boyle, an artist and downtown Leesburg gallery owner, cooked up plans for the fest last year with Loudoun-based filmmaker and novelist Owen Palmiotti. The co-founders had launched an ongoing discussion on how to bring together and spotlight Loudoun’s growing arts community and by January of this year announced plans for the film festival.

“It’s really very much based around building community and using the arts as a vehicle or a language to talk to people and bridge those gaps,” Boyle said. “Recognizing the creative people that are here and creating one event that’s like a beacon to call them out of the woodwork.”

With support from the Loudoun Arts Council and local businesses, Boyle and Palmiotti initially confirmed plans for a three-day festival in downtown Leesburg with screenings at the Tally Ho Theater. Boyle and Palmiotti brought in Florida-based actor, director and producer Wendy Keeling as LAFF’s creative director and award-winning indie actor Dallas White as social media director to round out the team. Keeling is a film festival veteran brought in to help steer programming and use her industry connections to get the word out on the festival circuit. Keeling went to the iconic Sundance Film Festival in January to promote the Loudoun festival. By February, connections were being made, and promising submissions started to flow in. 

Then COVID-19 hit. There was talk of starting over next year, but Boyle says the scrappy team of creatives wouldn’t let go of a 2020 festival.

“We had some serious conversations,” Boyle said. “We had already developed a list of programming that was crazy to be able to do as a first-year festival. … It seemed like we were too far down the road and everyone was too gritty to say no.”

There were some moments of serious scrambling as the team searched for venues and made tough decisions about what the festival would look like. But their confidence in the content and a drive to promote local and international filmmakers kept them motivated.

“I was describing it as standing on tectonic plates with lava coming up,” Boyle said with a laugh. “And now we’re on stable ground. We have partners that understand the different aspects, and they’re thirsty to do something, too.”

Like film festivals around the world, LAFF is taking a big chunk of its programming online. And while the feel is different from a traditional in-person festival, streaming presents new opportunities for access—both for viewers and filmmakers, Boyle said.

“With all the craziness, there have been really great silver linings,” she said. “We have access to people that we wouldn’t have been able to speak to previously being a first-year festival.”

Boyle is also thrilled with the idea of drive-in starlit screenings at the picturesque 50 West with the Blue Ridge mountains in the backdrop, combining top-notch independent films with Loudoun’s rural charm.

“It’s kind of the best of both worlds,” she said.

Organizers are planning a series of theme nights including horror, science fiction and a Virginia’s First night. While programming is under wraps for now, Boyle has confirmed that the festival will include an Oscar-winning short film, stellar documentaries and an impressive piece by a 12-year-old Loudoun filmmaker. Organizers are also planning virtual Q&A sessions with filmmakers around the world. For Loudouners and film lovers around the DMV, it’s a chance to learn more about the industry.

“It’s an event that allows people access to a world that they might not have thought was open to them,” Boyle said.

And while LAFF is a grassroots regional effort with a very different feel from the prestigious Middleburg Film Festival, Boyle gives Middleburg credit for putting Loudoun on the film fest map. That festival, launched by entrepreneur Sheila Johnson in 2013, is known for attracting big films and plenty of star power. 

“I think with Middleburg laying the groundwork made it possible for us to walk through the door,” Boyle said.

Middleburg Film Festival organizers are currently planning a “social-distanced, in-person festival with a virtual online component” for Oct. 15-18 of this year, said the festival’s public relations director Dana Bseiso Vazquez. Programming is slated to be announced in late August or early September.

“Everyone’s safety and well-being comes first and we will continue to monitor the situation regarding COVID-19,” Bseiso Vazquez said.

For Boyle, whose initial mission in launching the festival was all about community building, LAFF is truly building community but not necessarily in the ways she initially imagined. Instead of a Leesburg-centric in-person event, the festival is branching out in unexpected ways. The festival is co-sponsored by the Loudoun Arts Council and the Leesburg-based online arts publication Artistic Fuel. Finding partners in Sunset Hills and 50 West was a pivotal development for the festival’s new format, Boyle says, and organizers are looking for additional sponsorships from local businesses. 

The logistical challenges have been tough, Boyle says, but in the end, LAFF will deliver the kind of creatively delivered arts programming that communities need more than ever.

“We still need to be around each other from a distance, to be able to have something to look forward to that gives us a sense of normalcy in some tiny regard.”

The Loudoun Arts Film Festival is scheduled for Sept. 10-13 and Sept. 18-20 with virtual screenings starting in early September. Tickets and programming details will be available in early August. For tickets and information, go to loudounartsfilmfestival.com.

The Middleburg Film Festival is scheduled for Oct. 15-18 in Middleburg with additional online screenings. For more information, go to middleburgfilm.org.