Rick Rubin and Tom Petty in "Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free," one of the movies being shown at this year's Boulder International Film Festival. Photo by Robert Sebree

Boulder International Film Festival is Back

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The Boulder International Film Festival was the last big party in Boulder before everything went on lockdown. The annual event held its 2020 closing night celebration, and two days later the governor declared a state of emergency.

Now more than a year later, BIFF’s about to be the first big party back.

For 17 years, BIFF has been one of the biggest events in Boulder, but (hopefully) bookending the COVID-19 quarantine and shutdowns, it feels even more significant in 2021.

It’s going to look a lot different, too — with more outdoor parties, a theater under the open sky, new locations and more film industry guests than ever before.

The Boulder International Film Festival, June 24-27, is four days of local, national and international films that typically draw more than 25,000 film fans. However, this year, tickets are being sold at limited capacity; even with restrictions lifting, event organizers say they want to stay on the safe side (and will continue to adapt to any changing restrictions or safety requests). The festival also attracts filmmakers and producers from around the world. BIFF has a reputation for bringing in big stars, such as Alec Baldwin, James Franco and Martin Sheen, to name a few.

BIFF is more than film screenings, too. It offers panel discussions, happy hours and parties, live music and food prepared by some of the region’s top chefs. That’s the annual CineChef event, which kicks off this year’s festivities on Thursday, June 24. CineChef challenges Boulder and Denver chefs to create film-inspired dishes for diners to enjoy. Normally, it’s a competition, but this year’s event is intended to be more of a celebration, says Kathy Beeck, executive director and founder.

“It was an unusual year … a tough year for all the restaurants,” she says. “We want to celebrate the chefs and their restaurants.”

As for the films, Beeck says the line-up is unsurpassed. At first, she says BIFF organizers weren’t sure what films they were going to be able to land and if any filmmakers would be interested or able to attend. The concerns turned out to be unnecessary.

“Everybody was like, ‘Yes!’ They’re really excited about it,” Beeck says. “We have more filmmakers coming this year than we’ve ever had, ever. And so many film subjects. It’s unbelievable.”

She says they are bringing in more than 40 special guests with their respective films.

While the goal is to keep the festival as close to normal as possible, this year’s BIFF will look quite different. First and most obviously, BIFF was pushed back from March to late June due to Covid restrictions. This change opened up new possibilities. Thanks to nicer weather, many events will be held outside and BIFF added the Chautauqua Auditorium to one of its screening locations. The auditorium is unheated and closed in colder weather, but in June, the sprawling space is ideal, Beeck says.

A scene from the film “After Antarctica.” Photo by Tasha Van Zandt

“You can open the big doors and sides, and it has big fans,” she says. “It’s a nice, big, airy place to spread out.”

Now with Chautauqua a part of the festival, BIFF is using the “Chautauqua Green” (the grassy park out front) for its opening night party and free community fair on Saturday. For that event, about 20 arts and cultural organizations and nonprofits will have booths to promote their events and activities. People can learn about upcoming performances and buy tickets, while sipping drinks and eating food to live music.

BIFF’s annual singer-songwriter showcase will also be held on the Green. This show brings about 10 musicians to the stage for a free performance from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday.

For the opening night on Friday, Beeck says she expects it to be one of the best in BIFF’s history. It features a film called “Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. The film, a documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.

“It’s a powerful film, one of my favorite documentaries I’ve ever seen,” Beeck says.

Also new this year, BIFF will have an outdoor cinema set up at the Boulder High School soccer field. Here, you can watch a free screening of “Us Kids,” an uplifting documentary about the kids in Parkland, Florida, who organized a campaign about gun violence after a shooting in their school. While the other outdoor cinema films are ticketed and cost, BIFF is showing “Us Kids” for free for the community (with hopes to draw in local high schoolers), in light of the March supermarket shooting in Boulder. Politicians, the filmmaker and a survivor of the Parkland shooting will all be in attendance.

“It feels like the community still needs to come together about what happened, and we are hoping this will be a healing experience for everyone,” Beeck says. “We can talk about what we can do to be part of the change and honor the memory of the people who perished.”

The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in “Mission: Joy – Finding Happiness in Troubled Times.” Photo by Miranda Penn Turin

The outdoor cinema will also feature a film about the U.S. women’s soccer team and equal pay, and a film called “Buried” about an avalanche (featuring a panel with an avalanche expert).

BIFF’s locations aren’t all different; recently, the fest got approval to show some films in the Boulder High School auditorium. It also will show the same film at the same time in three different, limited-capacity theaters at the Century Boulder movie theater at the Twenty Ninth Street Mall. This allows more people to watch the films without cramming the theaters to capacity.

The fest also will feature three adventure films; multiple films by local filmmakers; six music films; and a documentary about Tom Petty, among other highlights. It’ll end on a high note with “Mission: Joy – Finding Happiness in Troubled Times,” by Academy Award-winning director Louie Psihoyos (of “The Cove”). “Mission: Joy” is a feel-good story about the relationship between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, Beeck says.

“I feel like this film was handed to us on a silver platter. What a way to wrap up this festival,” she says.

BIFF’s goal this year was to emphasize inspiring, joyous and uplifting films. After the last year, it’ll be a nice escape, she says.

“It’s a very different year, but we’re excited,” Beeck says. “We are one of the first in-person festivals to come back, in the world. A lot of people are paying attention to us, seeing what we are doing.”

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