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NFF: Masquerade Launches Wednesday

George Wolf George Wolf NFF: Masquerade Launches WednesdayTrophy photos provided by NFF
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It was the summer of widespread discontent, and Jason Tostevin, programmer and co-founder of Nightmares Film Festival at Gateway Film Center, had a decision to make. 

In only four years, Tostevin and his team had built NFF into a festival dubbed “the Cannes of Horror,” with a reputation as a can’t-miss fest experience that was growing every year. How could they keep that momentum in the face of a lengthening pandemic?  

“We started talking about a virtual plan early, but purely as a contingency,” Tostevin says. “At that time, predicting where we’d be in October was like trying to predict a thousand years out. We were trying to look ahead months while things were changing by the hour. 

“With the situation so up in the air, Chris (Hamel, president of Gateway Film Center and NFF co-founder) and I always had August as our final decision moment. That really felt like the point of no return, and when we reached it and we were in the midst of another wave of infections, it was crystal clear we couldn’t invite people from around the world to gather for four days in one place. That’s when we transitioned to NFF: Masquerade, so the community could still get together and celebrate one another.”

This year’s celebration takes place Wednesday through Sunday (Oct. 21-25), via digital streaming platforms and live, interactive virtual gatherings. 

Les Rivera, whose irresistibly titled Papi Ramirez Vs. Giant Scorpions is a NFF Midnight Feature selection, is excited for the opportunity.

“One of my friends had a short at NFF in 2019, and he told me how much he loved it and how cool of a festival it is and how strong the Nightmares community is,” Rivera says. “He told me I should submit my film. I’m really looking forward to watching the other films in the festival and meeting the filmmakers and film lovers in the Nightmares community.”

And ironically, this year’s challenges have gifted that community with an unexpected Halloween treat. By going virtual, everyone with a pass can watch any film (or even every film) on their own at any time during the festival window.

“I think it’s a huge plus,” Tostevin says. “It hasn’t been possible since NFF ’16 to watch every entry in the program, and even then it was a superhuman feat. This year, people can really watch everything. It’s a first, an achievement our “Sleepless” have been wanting to unlock for years, and this is probably the only chance it’ll ever happen.”

Another change spawned by current events is the festival’s Shut-In Shorts category, where writer/director Meg Swertlow landed with her short film jenny.

“I came to Nightmares last year as a nominee with my feature screenplay, No Overnight Parking, and I left energized in a way I never had before,” Swertlow says. “It was one of the best experiences of my life. As soon as I saw that Nightmares had a Shut-In competition, I knew I had to submit. 

“I shot jenny pretty early on in the quarantine. I’m new to directing but I figured shooting something myself would just help me learn more about filmmaking—and I was right. I used my iPhone 11 Pro, the lights I had in my house and wrote a short, which was inspired by isolation, that could safely be shot entirely in my apartment. Then I got my husband to walk around our apartment in a cape and creepy donkey mask from Mexico that his mother gave him years ago. And the rest is cinematic history!”

NFF veterans will notice two big changes to the awards ceremony this year. First, the award itself has been completely re-designed by artist Tony Simione, and Tostevin is thrilled with the makeover.

“Tony is a multi-disciplinary artist with an incredibly rare combination of genuine artistic creativity, a sense of narrative, and the ability to engage an audience,” Tostevin says. “His work is accessible enough to go to mass market, and complex enough to put on your mantlepiece and discuss with friends. 

Photo provided by NFF

“When Chris and I knew we wanted to create a separate award statuette for Masquerade, we gave Tony the background on the change, the feeling we were hoping to give filmmakers and fans at the festival, and the key art. He created the concept that we call The Masqued One. We see it as highly symbolic. The figure has a painfully twisted pose, a little reminiscent of wearing a straightjacket, that is the result of being stifled and constrained by the world. But at the same time, it is breaking through its constraints with new growth in the green tentacles. It has had to destroy itself some to create. We think that’s a pretty good metaphor for where Nightmares and our creators have found themselves this year.”

And this year, the actors vying for Simione’s work will be in categories that are no longer gender specific. Tostevin says this was a move he did not take lightly.

“We’ve always believed there was opportunity to be more equitable with acting awards by separating gender from the selection criteria,” Tostevin says. “But we were methodical in working through the change, because there isn’t one way to do it that doesn’t have some risk. We did lots of reading and deliberating, we evaluated our own culture to ensure the foundation was inclusive, and asked a diverse group of our advisors, including enby friends, what the consequences might be from their perspectives. And in the end, we believed there was more to gain from removing gender from the categories than was risked. 

“Our hope is that the change lets more of our community see themselves in both the categories and the awards. Of course, we are watching the results carefully to make sure they remain representative. Because that’s also the goal.”

Hope Madden, making her debut as a writer/director with Godspeed, says the NFF commitment to inclusion does not go unnoticed.

“Nightmares has always been very explicit in its support and encouragement of women filmmakers, and of women becoming filmmakers,” Madden says. “You can see it in the programming year to year, but it’s also something you can feel during each year’s festival. It’s clear they want to hear new voices, they want new stories, want to see what horror can look like when someone new is writing, directing, filming, editing. 

“It’s wonderful to see someone like Natalie Erika James, who won the fest’s Best Overall Short award in 2017, go on to make one of the most powerful horror features to be released nationally this year with Relic.

“I have deeply loved horror movies my entire life. And I love the horror stories women tell. To have my first short included at Nightmares this year is incredible.”

As with any other annual event, Nightmares Film Festival was presented with unique challenges this year. But with Masquerade about to begin, Tostevin believes the lessons learned will reap future benefits.

“I think transitioning to this digital showcase accelerated our evolution,” Tostevin says. “We experiment every year to fine tune and improve the experience. This year was like going back into the lab. We’ve revisited everything. We’re holding Q&As in an entirely different format we’re calling Cocktail Conversations that we think will be more two-way and more fun. We have a new seminar series called Working Maker Workshops that let people get an insider view on writing and making films directly from people who are doing it on the national stage. We’ve learned how to present a program virtually. I’m certain some of those things will show up in NFF ’21.”

For passes, lineup and additional information, visit nightmaresfest.com.

Read more from George at MADDWOLF and listen to his horror movie podcast, FRIGHT CLUB.

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