Far Northern Regional Center's Focus Film Festival
By Carrie Schmeck
Role ModelsOctober 2014
By Carrie Schmeck
Photos: Betsy Erickson
Though she has always loved film, Mary Ann Weston didn’t dare dream that coordinating a film festival would someday become part of her job. At Far Northern Regional Center, where she serves in community relations and advocacy support, her job consists of connecting with the community to provide support and services for people with developmental disabilities and their families. It’s a long way from Hollywood.
But when another regional center hosted a small film festival centering on documentaries about people with disabilities, her interest piqued. It was possible, after all, to blend her organization’s services with entertainment she loved. Even better, she could provide value to her community by doing so.
Ten years ago, her dream and the first FOCUS Film Festival debuted at the Cascade Theatre in Redding. With fewer than 10 film submissions to choose from and fewer than 100 people attending, Mary Ann knew the festival was a leap of faith but forged ahead, believing time and momentum would build this unique event and find an audience. This year’s festival, to be held Oct. 23-25 in Chico, will include 30 feature and short films and expect to entertain more than 2,000 moviegoers.
For the first five years, the festival focused on films about disabilities which she describes as mostly documentary stories showing “accurate and honest portrayals of people with disabilities.” About three years ago, Weston connected with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Chico State University who work to provide a welcoming campus environment where students, faculty and staff can succeed and thrive. Expanding the festival to include a wider spectrum of social issues made sense. “Our community is a circular group,” she says. “Often, we have a less than complete understanding about another group. These ‘fringe’ groups, let’s call them, could use more understanding to be brought into the fold.” The Chico campus now serves as the primary venue where films are shown.
The festival offers both entertainment and education. “This is a great family event, with current films that also happen to inform the community about diversity,” says Weston. Besides that, it’s fast becoming well-known for its quality films, lively follow-up discussions and accessibility for film artists. Submissions now number closer to 50 or 60. “And that’s without advertising,” she says. “A selection committee spends more hours than you can imagine screening each film.” A few are chosen to show, and four will eventually earn awards such as Best of Festival and a modest financial prize. Besides the short films, the festival slates another 25 to 30 films for its regular programming.
Tray Robinson, director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and festival host, says the festival is important to the community because inclusivity needs to be discussed. “We’re becoming more diverse and if we can better understand where people are coming from, we can become better collaborators and supporters of each other. The film format helps build understanding so we become better friends, colleagues and community members.”
As for Weston, it’s her love of film and the chance to share that people are all more alike than different that motivates her to put in the long hours it takes to bring the festival to fruition. “We’re all striving for otherness, but we have so much that makes us human and the same. Whatever that otherness is, the festival celebrates it.”