116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
It’s where the cool kids go.
So mark your calendar for April 20 to 24 and head to the 2022 Julien Dubuque International Film Festival.
It’s so cool that in years past, the Hollywood who’s who in the audience has included actors Abigail Breslin (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “Zombieland”), Maggie Grace (“Fear the Walking Dead,” “Taken”), Trevor Morgan (“The Sixth Sense,” “The Patriot”); producer and game show host Robert Belushi; model Emme; director Mary Lou Belli (“Bull,” “NCIS: New Orleans”); and producer Randy Tat (“How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”).
Founded in 2012, that’s 10 years of cool contributing to MovieMaker magazine declaring it one of the “25 coolest film festivals in the world” and one of the “Top 50 film festivals worth the submission fee.” It’s also among the Top 100 Best-Rated Festivals on FilmFreeway.com, the leading film festival submission website.
What: 2022 Julien Dubuque Independent Film Festival
When: April 20 to 24
Where: Various Dubuque venues, with the main screen at the Five Flags Theater, 405 Main St.
Festival headquarters: Hotel Julien Dubuque lobby, 200 Main St.
Tickets: Individual event tickets $10 to $12; day passes, $60; three-day pass, $150; five-day pass, $200; half-price for students; julienfilmfest.com/tickets
Festival Executive Director Susan Gorrell attributes the “coolness” to a couple of factors, based on what she’s heard from filmmakers over the years.
“One, the communication and everything we have planned out for not only filmmakers, but the attendees,” she said.
“And then I think the city itself. Dubuque is right on the Mississippi. It’s a beautiful town. The people are wonderful. They’re very accepting, they’re a very artsy community, so they are very open and welcoming. And people feel that when they get here. And we do offer a lot of things.
“Along with the film festival, we offer a lot of the evening events, panels, unique showings,” she noted. “All of that combined adds up to a very cool festival, and very highly revered, as well, so we’re really lucky there, too.”
Out of nearly 1,000 submissions, the 120 films selected for the festival will be shown twice. Venues range from Five Flags Theater, the Hotel Julien Dubuque and the Phoenix Theatres at Kennedy Mall to the Dubuque Museum of Art, the Holiday Inn, the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium and several other smaller sites. Gorrell expects between 90 and 100 filmmakers to attend and participate in festival sessions.
It’s also not unusual to see themes emerge among festival submissions, and this year, the pandemic shutdown has been a major influence.
"There was a lot to do with COVID,“ Gorrell noted. "A lot with being locked down. There always is a lot of drama. We get a lot of drama films to do with sex trafficking or abuse or those sort of things. The one thing we usually have less of is comedy. However, I saw more comedy this year, which was interesting.
“When we’re programming, when I’m looking at the films and the scores … I don’t want all the films to be depressing or all the films to be about COVID. I need to mix it up, so we always have a nice mix of comedy, drama, documentary or always we like to get some scary — we have a little more scary ones this year — so you try to mix it up. And family — we try to have at least something for the family.”
Student filmmakers also are in the festival spotlight, along with documentaries, features, shorts, animation, thrillers, musicals and LGTBQ+ offerings. See details at julienfilmfest.com/film-guide.
In a state that loves films and filmmaking, it’s the international flair that sets this five-day event apart from Iowa’s other film festivals.
“We get films from all over the world,” Gorrell said.
This year’s lineup includes films from Austria, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States, coast to coast. The 2021 festival even had a submission from the Faeroe Islands.
The international filmmakers weren’t able to attend last year’s festival, because of COVID travel restrictions, but Gorrell expects to see international attendance numbers ramping up this year, as in the years before the festival paused in 2020.
Beyond the screens
“We are not only just a platform for showing films,” she explained. “We have a lot of world premieres, U.S. premieres, but we are also a platform for business. Filmmakers come here and they get to mingle and they network. We’ve had filmmakers here that have come to this festival and have collaborated on a feature project or have been hired by somebody else. We have film critics here, distributors.
“So it isn’t just great independent entertainment, which it is in films. It’s also a networking business model for those that want to learn. We have panels and Q&As, so all that adds to our structure,” she said.
Dubuque is an easy 72.6 miles northeast of Cedar Rapids via Highway 151, and 84.5 miles northeast of Iowa City via Highways 1 and 151. Guests can choose individual screenings for $10 to $12 or choose day passes for $60 or three-day all-access passes at $150 or five-day all-access passes at $200, and half-price across the board for students. If you’re looking to stay in town overnight, book early for hotel, motel, B&B and Airbnb lodging.
Filmmakers also are invited to stay in private residences.
“We do get at least 25 to 35, maybe more, that do the home stay,” Gorrell said. “We have some wonderful people in our community that open up their homes to filmmakers. It works out really nice.”
In addition to all of the festival’s diverse events, Dubuque has other attractions just waiting to be discovered and rediscovered.
“Things that end up being really popular at the festival that are kind of funny and just organically become well known is like Paul’s Tavern, because he’s got stuffed animals over the wall. He’s not a sponsor of the festival — that just seems to be a gathering place,“ Gorrell said.
The Fenelon Place Elevator, also known as the Fourth Street Elevator, is a must-see site. Billed as “the world’s shortest and steepest railroad,” it climbs up the bluff for magnificent panoramic views across the historic downtown, the Mississippi River and Wisconsin and Illinois on the opposite shore. The elevator runs 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, April 1 through Nov. 30, and fares top out at $4 round trip for adults, half price for children 5 to 12, payable by cash-only at the top. Kids 4 and under ride free. For details, go to fenelonplaceelevator.com.
Festivalgoers also enjoy seeing the murals, Gorrell noted, as well as the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium along the waterfront — a complex full of exhibits and hands-on attractions for all ages, from historic buildings and riverboats to an aquarium giving glimpses into marine life along the river. Of special note is the stunning, world-class Thomas D. Mangelsen wildlife photography exhibit on the second floor. For museum details, go to rivermuseum.com.
Gorrell also encourages filmmakers and attendees to explore the businesses and organizations that support the festival through sponsorships and donations. They are listed on the festival’s website, julienfilmfest.com.
The festival has grown by leaps and bounds since 2012, and word-of-mouth keeps reeling in filmmakers and their submissions. It now takes more than $200,000 to stage the festival, with those costs mostly offset by sponsorships and donations, Gorrell noted. Ticket prices and submission fees, which run between $40 and $75, are kept low to make the events affordable.
Gorrell, 55, of Dubuque, knows very well the power of word-of-mouth recommendations. A producer, she came to the festival the first year, winning best Iowa documentary honors with “A Million Spokes,” about RAGBRAI, the annual bicycle ride across Iowa.
She returned as a volunteer, then was hired part-time and has now served as executive director for eight years, eventually moving to Dubuque from Florida. She’s no stranger to Iowa, however, with family in the Donnellson area in the southeast corner near Fort Madison.
She and her husband and sons are entwined in the film industry. Her husband does pyrotechnics and special effects, including explosions, wind and rain for such movies as “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Transformers,” and won a Primetime Emmy in 2008 for the John Adams mini-series. He can live anywhere, but also has a place in Georgia, since he works on a lot of films there, Gorrell said. While their older son also does special effects, their younger son works with the location side of movies, and both recently finished projects in New Orleans.
When hired to lead the festival, Gorrell said her “sole purpose was to grow the festival internationally so that people would come from all over the world, films would be from all over the world, and that it would not only just be a great product entertainment, but would also create a meeting place for filmmakers to network and mingle and the community to be part of all that — and just people to come.”
She has met that goal.
“People come from all over the world, not only as a filmmaker but also an attendee, and they leave Dubuque as friends.”
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