What everyday folks might not understand about film festivals is their power of connection. Yes, filmmakers are strutting their stuff, seeking distribution and looking to network at such events, but for casual film fans, there’s much to learn. Take the Santa Fe International Film Festival (FKA Independent Film Festival), which hits its fourteenth year this week and runs from Oct. 19-23. Somewhere betwixt its screenings and parties, you’ll find panels and discussions ranging across various cinematic topics that not only connect filmmakers, but offer opportunities for fans and newcomers to gain a deeper insight into how movies get made and wend their way to theaters and/or streaming services. Moderating the upcoming panels is Siena Sofia Bergt, a graduate of Columbia University’s film program and the director of OPIA, an entry that played at the 2019 Santa Fe International Film Festival—while Bergt was at school, which also happens to make her the first-ever Columbia undergrad to complete a feature while still enrolled.
We caught up with Bergt to get a little more info about her qualifications, her take on filmmaking and what makes indie film festivals so vital to the modern cinematic landscape. This interview has been edited for clarity and space.
SFR: Talk about your background in film and what makes you appreciate them on a level that makes you a good candidate for panel moderation.
Siena Sofia Bergt: I think there are kind of two things that led to me enjoying moderating. One is my first mentor. I was a New Mexico School for the Arts kid back when it was across the street from the [St. Francis] cathedral, and acting was what I thought I wanted to do with my life. But my dad was friends with this cult filmmaker named Ted Flicker, who lived in Santa Fe until his death in 2014. My dad took me [to visit], and Ted kind of sat me down and told me, ‘I’m going to make it my project for the next year to convince you that you want to be a director—I know you too well to think you’d be satisfied as an actor. You need a puzzle.’ At the time, he had this amazing film library, and he would take me in every Saturday and we’d talk for hours about how films were made. So when I went to [college at Columbia], that’s what I started taking—classes in directing.
The second thing is, the undergrad film department at Columbia is run by Annette Insdorf, and she’s the main moderator for the Telluride Film Festival. I became kind of obsessed with Annette and took every class she offered; she got me a film gig after I’d come back to New Mexico to shoot my feature, and then, when I went back to school, she got me another screening features for Telluride. I knew I wanted to watch the films, but the thing I was excited about was watching how she’d moderate panels; how she could take five different directors and find the through lines between documentaries, features, things they’d been working on for years. I was amazed by how much she was able to illuminate about the films themselves, but also the ways she was able to create connections between panelists.
How many panels are you moderating this year?
I’m doing six or seven Q&A’s and four panels: The shorts panel, New Mexico Filmmakers, the distribution panel and one on the industry, which is, among other things, about what film commissions are and what they can do to support filmmakers.
Right. Information on how to go about it, since filmmaking has such a high bar of entry.
The model we’re shown in film school is that you make your film short, which hopefully screens at festivals; you make five more shorts and hopefully one gets into Sundance—then maybe someday down the line, you can make your first feature. So many features that people are passionate about don’t get made because people don’t know what to do.
So that’s an important part of moderating these panels for you? Highlighting ways of getting into the industry?
Exactly. Something I love to ask filmmakers about is, not only what are the projects you’re hoping to make next, but what kind of support do you need to make that happen? When you’re talking about a fest like the Santa Fe International Film Festival, too, with an amazing Indigenous program, environmental films...we want to see projects getting made in less exploitive ways, and we want things on the screen. We want to say, ‘Here’s how that happens.’
It’s about breaking down barriers, too, then?
A thousand percent. A lot of how I try to craft questions is to spark a discussion that will get filmmakers talking about the opportunities they’re excited about. All of us have found these little nooks and crannies where we’re finding ways to make films. All of us are looking at it slightly differently. When you get those options laid out on the table together, you can see the commonality, pick out the threads and trends in indie films we can all use and that are easy to benefit from.
Would you say there’s anything you’ve learned as a moderator that you’ll carry with you as a filmmaker?
I feel like I have an immediate rush of things that come to mind. One of the things that’s really stuck with me is the sense that filmmakers don’t want to be in competition with each other. I think particularly in the indie sphere, so often, we’re told there’s this one tiny pie, and a slice you get is a slice I don’t get. The vast majority of filmmakers don’t feel that way, don’t buy into that, don’t want to buy into that. I hope that’s what the panels open up—not competition, but instead, collaboration.