The Middleburg Film Festival just wrapped up its fourth year, running from October 20 – 23, 2016. Having proudly attended each festival thus far, I’m astounded by how much the festivities have increased with each passing year.

Not only has the docket of films increased by each year, boasting 28 as opposed to last year’s 26, but the major players of the festival, founder Sheila Johnson and executive director Susan Koch, as well as the rest of their creative team, found room for a myriad of exciting events. Some of these included, but are not limited to, a discussion panel on the impact and need for women directors, as well as La La Land director Damien Chazelle and star Emma Stone attending the sold out Saturday night screening of the film. I particularly remember attending a screening of the excellent film, The Eagle Huntress, which was followed by a Q&A with the star of the film, Aisholpan Nurgaiv (whom the film was actually about), hosted by Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday. I even got to meet Aisholpan following the screening of her film, which was quite exciting.

Yet, despite all of the attractions, the weekend never feels like you can get lost in all of the hustle and bustle of everything. Everyone I encountered was friendly and down-to-Earth, and there are a couple of experiences I had that fostered a true feeling of community. Not unlike last year, there were several occasions while waiting in line for screenings where I recall having conversations with fellow filmgoers that I didn’t know beforehand about the films that they had seen, sharing experiences and recommendations.

But a particular experience that I simply must write about happened while I was waiting in the rush line for Loving (the line for filmgoers who were unable to acquire tickets online). The expansive line snaked around the corridors of the Salamander, and with me pulling behind the tail end of the line, it looked as though we wouldn’t make it in. Suddenly, a woman walked up to me and, asking if I was by myself, explained that someone in her group couldn’t attend the show, and offered me her extra ticket. I was extremely grateful for her generosity, and most likely wouldn’t have made it into the film were it not for her act of kindness.

Another element that really ties in the whole homey atmosphere is, of course, the setting. I’ve always loved the soft orange glow cast over the town by the lush rural setting. The cascade of fall-colored leaves and the horse country scenery serve as an ideal backdrop for such an event, and the whole event feels nestled in a blanket of northern Virginia heritage. In the past four years of attending, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the festival grow from a charmingly small festival tucked away in one of the pockets of northern Virginia’s horse country to a major event that attracts the attention of some of current Hollywood’s major players.

The venues have remained the same, including Middleburg’s own National Sporting Library, The Hill School, Salamander Resort and Spa, and Upperville’s Buchanan Hall, just up the road. Each of them offers their own flavor of classic Middleburg flair, embracing the vintage while never feeling outdated. But the standout is the illustrious Salamander, whose elegant halls played host to a majority of the weekend’s biggest events. It’s undoubtedly the newest of the locations, and while it does stand out, it doesn’t feel out of place.

As for the films that I saw (Land of Mine, The Eagle Huntress, La La Land, Paterson, Loving, and The Man Who Saw Too Much), they were honestly some of the best that I’ve seen in all of the festivals. Whenever I see a batch of festival films, the vast majority are good to one degree or another, with the one standout that makes you think, “this will definitely have a place on my ‘best of the year’ list.” This year, all of them were to that pedigree, each offering a blend of variety. Some were documentaries, some were true story narratives, some were foreign, and some were pure escapism, but each one was the fullest artistic expression of what it set out to be.

A final aspect that I can’t go without mentioning is the amazing volunteers who make the festival run. Each of them that I encountered did their part and interacted with all of the guests with the utmost of warmth and sincerity, and it feels as though they’re genuinely happy that you’re there. Due credit must be given to volunteer coordinator Tami Erickson for taking on the amount of work that comes with supervising all of the volunteer workers. It’s a big job that not a lot of people take into consideration when casually going to a movie, but again, it’s a job that was done with genuine sincerity, which makes the cinematic experience feel a lot more personal.

After its fourth year, I can honestly say that the Middleburg Film Festival has gotten bigger and better with each outing. The events were exciting, the films were some of the best that I’ve seen emerge from Middleburg, and the setting and interactions were comfortingly down-to-Earth and genuine. I can’t wait to see what next year’s festivities bring.

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