Q&A with Nevada City Film Festival Director Jesse Locks
by Matthew Bieker
Feature Photo by Ingrid Nelson
Every September, Nevada City becomes our own Sundance, with an independent film festival that draws industry professionals and audiences to the Gold Country foothills, just as the leaves start to turn. To get some behind-the-scenes insight, SL’s Matthew Bieker sat down with Festival Director Jesse Locks, who is also a Nevada City native.
What was growing up in Nevada City like? Growing up in Nevada City was this spectacular, magical, exciting time because it was a really unique moment in history. A lot of our parents had been Boomers, so they were very much into the arts and they encouraged that with us. So I grew up with this real interest in film and music and writing, and anything that makes life—everyday life—beautiful.
Would you say that emphasis on exposing children to art still exists in town?
Oh, absolutely. We were just recognized as a cultural district by the state of California and we’re one of four rural communities that were awarded that designation. So…it’s like the state recognized everything that we’ve been able to do over the last 20 years. I think that’s a true testament to the individuals who’ve contributed to the arts community.
After your degree, you left Nevada City for a time to pursue your career as a journalist. Where did you go and what were your impressions of the new places you found yourself in? I lived in Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Seattle, and spent a brief little stint in Philadelphia. I worked mostly for action sports magazines and newspapers, writing about music and culture, and it was very exciting, as a young person, to go see music every night of the week, and go to movies and theater and opera and big huge festivals, and to have that be just part of your lifestyle. (But when I moved back) to Nevada City, I was really kind of surprised to find the art scene here was just as exciting. Like, First Friday art walks (happen here) and in Seattle; the bands that were coming through Seattle were also coming through here. I didn’t necessarily have to live in a bigger city. I could live in my hometown, around my family and around nature, which is really important to me.
How is the festival structured and has that changed over time? The first festivals were at the Magic Theater, which was this beautiful little 62-seat art house theater. They showed mostly films that were made or directed by local people, and for the first seven years, it was this little renegade crew of artists. It was just, ‘oh you made a movie? You’re in the film festival!’ Then we started accepting more and more films from all over the world and paying more attention to the independent filmmaking community. (Now) we actually get 700 films submitted and we narrow those down to about 70–100 films. We also show predominantly short films, which are kind of an afterthought at big international film festivals. We have this really unique community here that can deal with and loves art house films. So if it’s challenging or maybe it’s a topic that you wouldn’t normally see in major media, to bring it here is really important for us. The other thing is we cultivate and provide a platform for up-and-coming filmmakers. For instance, the Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, we screened all their first films. David Selner, who has this really cool film called “Damsel,” we screened his first film. Finally, we’ve never really been vocal about it, but we try to make sure that 50 percent of our filmmakers are women and 50 percent of our films come from another country. We’re going to challenge you, we’re going to give you stuff that you would never have seen before, and probably will never see again.
What can attendees expect from the venue and setting? Last year we increased from four days to a week, and this year will be a week as well. The change came about because the directors of “Bill Nye: the Science Guy” could only come on a Monday and we usually wrap on Sunday. It worked out really great. We realized a whole week gave us a lot of time and breathing room to open up programming. Our two main screening venues are the Nevada Theater, which is one of the oldest operating theaters in the state of California—a really gorgeous old theater—and then this year we’ll also be at the Onyx, which is a brand new facility—two screens, a little jewel box art house theater. So you get the old and the new.
What are you personally most excited about for this year’s festival? We’ll have a ton of short films and our feature lengths that we’re screening, but we’re also welcoming so many filmmakers to do workshops and panels. We want to have a bigger discussion about the creation of art, the topics that can be discussed through film. We’ll also have our first filmmaker-in-residence, a program we’re working on with producer Karen Chen. A filmmaker will come and live in Nevada City for two months, and they’ll do some community outreach events and screenings, and also go into our schools and work with (students). We hope to work with a Native American filmmaker, and also a Chinese-American filmmaker, because both those cultures had such a huge role in the development of Nevada City and Nevada County. Finally, we always do a program with Pixar, where we have the students from the local grade school come and watch some fun shorts from Pixar and meet an animator, which is really in line with STEM education because, essentially, animators are computer programmers.
Since Nevada City is both a rural community and an example of concrete investment in the arts, do you ever find yourself combating misconceptions about what the town really is? Are there stereotypes about small towns lacking appreciation for culture? Filmmakers who come and visit us are initially kind of taken aback—“How are we going to get there from the airport? Is there no Uber?”—but then they arrive and they’re surprised by how pristine and well-preserved the downtown is. It allows us to have these great conversations about the importance of cultural preservation, which, if you live in Los Angeles, maybe that’s not at the forefront. I think there are also people who assume that it’s just a cute little town and don’t quite realize that it’s always been a working town, with a working-class community based in natural resources extraction, like logging and mining. But to all those individuals, art was (also) really important. Politically, we’re a 49-51—we could go blue or red at the turn of an election. It is a really great example of America in the sense of how do you work together for the things that you value the most? And I think for everyone who lives here, we really value quality of life, and that includes art, nature, the outdoors, the sense of community and family. That doesn’t necessarily have to be someone who you’re biologically tied to—it can be people you’ve known your whole life.
Absolutely. Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about Nevada City or the Film Festival? Yeah, international independent films are sometimes hard for folks because not often are there famous people in them—it’s not like a major blockbuster. So we really just ask the folks who come (to the festival) to trust us—that what we’re going to bring you is really the best of independent international cinema that’s out there. Even if you don’t know who’s in that movie or you might not know what that movie is about, just know that there are no duds.
Thanks for speaking with me today, Jesse.