Hirschfield Film Series promises compelling, diverse season

By Elsa Korpi

Sam Kann ’20.5 (first from left) is the student representative serving on the Hirschfield Film Programming Committee.

Anyone strolling past Middlebury’s noticeboards is bound to come across the saturated posters of the Hirschfield International Film Series. Highlights from prominent film festivals and other critically acclaimed films will be screened free of charge in Dana Auditorium beginning on Saturday, September 14 at 3 and 8 p.m.

“The key qualifier of films is to bring in films that otherwise wouldn’t be screened at Middlebury,” said Film and Media Professor Leger Grindon.

Per its title, the Hirschfield International Series has sought to represent every language taught at Middlebury. Language departments are encouraged to submit titles and co-sponsor screenings, an offer that the French department has reportedly been especially prone to take up. Screenings can be used as an educational activity for foreign language students.

Curation was previously led by the chair of the Film and Media Studies Department with input from professors, yet since 2018 student and staff representatives have sat on the committee. After reaching out to distributors, two members of the committee watch the promotional “screeners” of films in the catalog. To keep selections up to date, the committee transitioned to adding new titles to the programme in chunks, rather than scheduling a year’s worth of screenings at once.

The series, which has included pre-release screenings and films that went on to become box office successes, has typically obtained screening rights at discounted prices because of its affiliation with the college. Media Production Specialist Ethan Murphy, who sits on the programming committee, declined to share exact costs, citing ongoing negotiations.

In an article published in the Campus in 2013, then Catalog and Acquisitions Associate Sue Driscoll priced the rights at $200-750, with an average cost of $450-550 per film. According to Driscoll, these figures are still accurate today. 

The Hirschfield endowment is separate from that of the college. In addition to screening rights, it finances marketing and external speakers. For the screening of “Children of Men” earlier this year, organizers invited Burlington-based screenwriter and Academy Award nominee Hawk Ostby to Middlebury to share his thoughts on the film and his writing process. 

More than 30 years after its inception, the Hirschfield Series retains an underground character. 

“In a way [the series] has been around for so long that it’s taken for granted,’’ Murphy said. 

According to Professor Grindon, the department often struggles to get its own students to attend screenings. Streaming services like Netflix and Hulu have become the default scapegoat for the declining popularity of movie theaters, yet recent research shows otherwise. A 2018 study by Ernst & Young’s Quantitative Economics and Statistics group showed that “those who attended movies in theaters […] also tended to consume streaming content more frequently.” In other words, people who enjoy film will most likely enjoy it through more than one medium. 

The Hirschfield Series does not attempt to compete with these services, and instead promises a unique viewing experience. According to Murphy, the technical features of Dana Auditorium alone create an unrivaled environment. 

“There are many films that depend more on composition, as opposed to plot, that can’t really make an impact on your computer [screen]. There’s a division in what kind of experience you’re looking for,” Grindon said. “If you take the time to go to a particular screening (…), you’re going to be more patient in watching the film. It gives more challenging films a chance to make a greater impact.”

The 2019-2020 season will launch with “Monos,” a Colombian “survivalist saga” directed by Alejandro Landes. The film is Colombia’s official selection for Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards.