Greenwich International Film Festival unveils lineup, appearance by WWE’s Becky Lynch and more

May 3, 2019

GREENWICH — The slate of programming for the fifth annual Greenwich International Film Festival — which was unveiled Friday morning — includes dozens of films along with appearances from the first director of homeland security and a multitime WWE women’s champion.

A cocktail party Friday night at Richards on Greenwich Avenue will toast the news from the festival, which will run from May 29 to June 2. There will be 58 films, covering narrative features, documentaries, shorts and films focused on Connecticut; panels on representation of people with disabilities in films and the success of Greenwich-based Blue Sky Studios; an opening night party featuring a musical performance by Kesha; and the annual Changemaker Gala.

“We set the bar high for the five-year anniversary festival, aiming for five days of films, panels and special performances that will help transform the way our audience views the world,” GIFF Executive Director Ginger Stickel said. “I’m happy to say that we have more than achieved our goal with the caliber of events we have organized this year.”

Past panels and discussions have talked about the business and art of making film and featured celebrities such as John Turturro and Will Arnett as well as Oscar-winning screenwriter and director James Ivory. And there are several panels planned for the 2019 festival.

A panel on “The Ability in Disability” will be held at 1 p.m. June 1 in the Cole Auditorium at Greenwich Library. It will be moderated by Tom Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania and the first U.S. director of homeland security, and will feature Millicent Simmonds, a hearing-impaired actress from the blockbuster hit horror film “A Quiet Place.”

The panel is underwritten by the Stapleton Foundation in honor of the late President George H.W. Bush and his work to pass the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. Simmonds will receive a “Make An Impact Award” at the panel discussion.

More star power will be at another June 1 panel at the Cole at 11 a.m. called “The Price of Gold.” Greenwich resident and former New York Yankee Mark Teixeira will be part of the panel along with Becky Lynch, the current Raw and Smackdown women’s champion. Lynch, known by her fans as “The Man,” recently was part of the first all-women’s main event in Wrestlemania history.

The panel, which also includes Sam Taylor, a physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery, is presented by the hospital and ESPN. The award-winning athletes on the panel will talk about what it took to become champions as well as the highs and lows of their careers.

Another panel on May 31 sponsored by JP Morgan is called “Storytelling to Inspire Change,” which looks at enacting positive social change on a national and global level through film. And on June 2 at 12:30 p.m., fans can go “Behind the Scenes with Blue Sky Studios,” as the Greenwich-based studio gives a look at the different stages of animation. It will include Steve Martino, director of the blockbusters “The Peanuts Movie,” “Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who” and “Ice Age: Continental Drift.”

More information about the panels as well as a full schedule of the films, complete with synopses, and how to purchase tickets will be available online at www.greenwichfilm.org starting on Saturday.

Festival co-founder Wendy Stapleton said she was excited about The Ability in Disability panel. The late former President Bush was her uncle but her excitement goes beyond the family connection.

“The panel is going to be a fantastic one to bring the whole family to and will hopefully open up a discussion about how we can empower and employ more individuals from the disabled community, which has been grossly underrepresented in film and other industries,” Stapleton said.

Overall, Stapleton said she was thrilled with the lineup for 2019.

“Our films, panels and events are going to be more dynamic and inspiring than ever before,” Stapleton said.

The festival’s centerpiece films include the already acclaimed drama Blinded by the Light, which shows a British youth of Pakistani descent being inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen, and the comedy Brittany Runs A Marathon, starring Jillian Bell, which will be the opening night film and include a Q&A session with director Paul Downs Colaizzo.

Festival co-founder Colleen deVeer, who is in charge of programming, said Brittany Runs A Marathon is “heartwarming and inspirational” and noted that it won the audience award earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival.

“We have no doubt that it will be a crowd pleaser in Greenwich too,” deVeer said.

The film screening, which will take place at the Bow Tie Cinemas, will lead right to an opening night party at Gabriele’s of Greenwich featuring the music of DJ Dinero. And that will only be one of the celebrations as on June 1 the GIFF will hold its Epic Anniversary Party Concert at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester featuring a performance by Kesha and actress Connie Nielsen, from Gladiator and Wonder Woman, giving out the awards for the festival’s films. Last year’s party featured a performance by Lauryn Hill.

On May 30, the GIFF will hold its black tie Changemaker Gala honoring film and television star Eva Longoria Bastón for her activism and work with her foundation to help Latinas build better futures for themselves and their families through education and entrepreneurship. Additionally, Bobby Walker Jr., CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich, will also be honored with the Community Changemaker award at the gala at L’Escale.

Previous Changemaker Awards have gone to names like Harry Belafonte, Mia Farrow, Ashley Judd, Trudi Styler and more. The gala will be preceded by a cocktail reception on Greenwich Avenue at Betteridge Jewelers.

And even with the galas and panels, it will still be the films that stand out during the festival. According to deVeer, of the 58 films being screened, 38 of them will have cast, crew or subjects representing their films, which is a new record for the festival. The slate will also represent 20 different countries.

“Part of the GIFF mission is to use the power of film to serve the greater good,” deVeer said. “Our lineup of films has a social impact focus exploring a broad range of subject matter from politics and health care to human rights, education and racial discrimination.  We found several themes running through our program of films and panels this year.”

DeVeer said that environmental conservation is explored in many of the films as well as homelessness and disability inclusion.

“Something that we wanted to address this year, was the gender stereotyping in entertainment,” deVeer said. “Because we are an all-female founded and run festival, we sought out films written and directed by women. We also searched for films that featured strong, intelligent and unapologetic female characters who were not sidelined as arm candy for their male counterparts. It is important for us to help make that change and tell the stories of powerful women.”

DeVeer praised the Storytelling to Inspire Change panel which features Abigail Disney, a founder, partner and producer at Level Forward, Laura Lewis of Rebelle Media and Melinda Arons of Participant Media as “three inspiring women at the top of their game in entertainment.” She said they will speak about the power to enact positive social change on a national and global level, enabling conversation, audience engagement and empathy through storytelling.

Another centerpiece film during the festival is Brian Banks, about a high school football star wrongly accused of a crime fighting to clear his name and get his NFL dreams back on track. The real-life Banks will be on hand for a Q&A after the screening and for a discussion about The California Innocence Project.

The centerpiece films also include Safe Spaces, with Fran Drescher and Justin Long about a controversial professor reconnecting with his family, Auggie, about a man falling in love with a virtual reality companion, Any One Of Us, a documentary sponsored by Performance PT about a professional mountain bike struggling to walk again after a spinal cord injury, Luce, starring Naomi Watts and Tim Roth about a married couple trying to reckon with their idealized image of their adopted son, and Cold Case Hammarskjold, a documentary about the investigation into the killing of a secretary general of the United Nations.

Another movie in competition, called Then Came You, stars Greenwich’s Kathie Lee Gifford as a widow planning a trip around the world with her husband’s ashes to visit the places they loved in the movies. Actor and former talk show host Craig Ferguson co-stars. There may also be local interest in Pizza, A Love Story, a documentary about Sally’s, Pepe’s and Modern, which are billed as “the holy trinity of pizza joints” in New Haven.

The female-founded and female-founded festival is celebrating its fifth year and the 2019 festival will be a celebration because of it.

“In the world of film festivals, making it to year five is a significant accomplishment,” Stickel said. “It takes vision, talent, resources, and serious commitment to launch a festival and continue to grow it year after year. Thanks to our board, supporters, filmmakers, the town of Greenwich and the state of Connecticut we are proud to celebrate this landmark anniversary.”