Bruce Dern and Sheila Johnson at the inaugural Middleburg Film Festival
Bruce Dern and Sheila Johnson at the inaugural Middleburg Film Festival

With a prolonged global recession putting increasing pressure on the already fragile financial underpinnings of film festivals all over the world, what’s the argument for yet another curated offering -- and especially one taking place more than an hour from a major city, in rural Virginia?  That skepticism greeted the announcement of this weekend’s first annual Middleburg Film Festival, which was spearheaded by Washington DC (and Middleburg) entrepreneur, filmanthropist and sports team owner Sheila Johnson -- one of the producers of "Lee Daniels’s The Butler." Documentary filmmaker Susan Koch ("Kicking It") was executive director of the Festival. The four-day experience, centered at Johnson’s new luxury Salamander Resort (and including venues around the historic horse-country town of 720 inhabitants), drew filmmakers and fans from around the world, and provided a rousing answer.

Robert Redford had visited with Johnson, a long-time Sundance Festival board member, before her resort’s construction, and recommended that she think about replicating Sundance in bucolic Virginia. Johnson took him up on it and took advantage of guidance from Sundance staff and the filmmaking community. MFF brought a 25-film line-up of titles in the Oscar hunt from the US ("Nebraska," "The Armstrong Lie," "August: Osage County," "The Butler," "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom") and abroad (including Chile’s "Gloria" and Turkey’s "Butterfly’s Dream"), and also documentary and narrative gems less known to the public but already generating substantial critical buzz: "The Square" (about the Egyptian Revolution), "Muscle Shoals," "The Best Offer" and Italy’s "Slow Food Story," to name a few. A number of festivals have drawn loyal filmmaker audiences year after year because of the combination of top-notch curation and a more remote setting that make viewing and mingling easy. Bruce Dern and a number of filmmakers at MFF praised the new festival for offering industry stalwarts a relaxed time with peers and fans, a huge departure from the standard frenetic film scene.

UPDATE: The festival also gave out audience awards for narrative and documentary features: “I am so pleased that our audience chose to recognize 'Comedy warrior: Healing Through Humor' and 'Philomena,' said Johnson.  “We had so many compelling titles I know it was difficult to choose a ‘best’ among this incredible fare."

Panels were top notch, including Janet Maslin’s conversation with Bruce Dern, an extended discussion by journalists John Horn, Ann Hornaday and Maslin entitled “What Makes a Good Film" (with critics like Thelma Adams in the audience), and a keynote talk from SnagFilms’ founder, film producer and business titan Ted Leonsis.

I particularly enjoyed a live concert tribute to film composer Mark Isham that featured his scores for "A River Runs Through It," "42," "Invincible," "Miracle" and other hits, performed by the Shenandoah Conservatory orchestra.  And a crowd of hundreds shimmied nearly to the ground during a short concert by ”the Princess of Africa” Yvonne Chaka Chaka, a South African singer and activist, who pulled her homeland’s US Deputy Chief of Mission Johnny Moloto to the stage to get down with Chaka Chaka and an unidentified audience member.

More highlight moments below: