press coverage of “Festival”

Tom and Jim Isler both live in New York City.

The Portland Press Herald
“Brothers Been There, Documented That”
By Ray Routhier

It may seem redundant to observe that the Maine State Drama Festival has its share of drama.

But that’s what Tom Isler and his brother, Jim Isler, found by filming the event. The Islers were both members of the theatre company at Falmouth High School, and had been to “Festival” several times. So they knew that besides the drama being presented on stage, there was plenty of drama associated with the preparation, the nervousness, and the last-minute disasters that can pop up.

So as adults interested in making films, the Islers decided to follow the Falmouth High theatre company to the state festival one year and produce a documentary film titled “Festival.”

The film will be premiering this Sunday at the Waterville Opera House, during the Maine International Film Festival. It will screen again later in the festival, on July 23 at Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville.

Jim Isler, 26, lives in New York City now and works as a television and film editor. Tom Isler, 23, works as a journalist and also lives in New York.

Tom took a few minutes recently to answer questions about “Festival” and its upcoming premiere in Waterville.

Q: Where did you get the idea for a film about the Maine State Drama Festival?
A: Jim and I are former members of the Theatre Company at Falmouth High School and we always participated in Festival. We were on stage for FHS when it won three of its four state championships, so we knew how important it could be to those who were involved in it. Jim and I and Dede Waite, FHS’s director, had talked about making this film for years because we knew Festival was inherently dramatic, and it’s an interesting subculture of high school that doesn’t usually receive a lot of attention or press. Last year, I had the opportunity to accompany FHS to the state festival, so we decided to go for it.

Q: Was it difficult to get students and teachers to cooperate?
A: We chose to follow just one school so that we could really get to know the kids throughout the film. Because of our relationship with Dede, it was an obvious choice to shadow FHS. The kids were fantastic, very welcoming. And, yet, because there’s so much chaos and nervous energy at Festival, they couldn’t pay much attention to me, and, for the most part, I disappeared into the background, which was exactly where I wanted to be.

Q: What was the most surprising thing about making this film?
A: The most surprising thing was how the real life events mirrored the content of Falmouth’s production. In the play...a writer narrates several stories that are acted out on stage, and a number of times, he ends a story one way and then stops and presents an “alternate ending” — one that’s more uplifting than the first had been. At the state festival, Falmouth’s play wasn’t named as one of the two winning productions, so the cast and crew left the awards ceremony a bit demoralized. A few minutes later, Dede gathered everyone together to announce that FHS, in fact, had been asked to move onto the next level and represent Maine at the New England festival. Dede had been stopped on the way out by the festival’s director and told the news. It was the perfect “alternate ending.” It sounds contrived, but that’s how it actually happened.

Q: What do you hope people get out of this film?
A: Hopefully viewers will either learn or better appreciate what it is that these directors and students do every year. I think one of the film’s greatest strengths is that it presents high school kids in a way you don’t often see on film: without stereotypes or caricatures. The kids graciously handle adversity and experience how unpredictable life can be. A lot of people will be able to relate to that.

Q: What sort of responses have you gotten from people who have seen it?
A: It’s been rewarding to show it to people who have no knowledge of Festival nor any connection to the theater company and see how wrapped up they get in the drama and how attached they become to the personalities. When I was at Yale, I studied documentary film with D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, who made “The War Room” and “Startup.com,” among many others. They recently watched the film and were very enthusiastic about it. I’m excited to see the response at MIFF.

Q: Have some of the people in it seen the film? What do they think?
A: Almost everyone has seen it. I think they appreciate having the experience documented. It’ll be something they can go back to years down the road and relive these memories. There are, of course, certain moments that embarrass some of them, but that indicates to me that we’ve painted a realistic portrait of the people and the experience.

Q: Do you have another film planned? What is it?
A: Right now we’re working on a short documentary about our grandmother’s bridge club, five wonderful ladies who have been playing bridge three times a week for about 12 years. It’s a very different type of film but the footage looks great so far. Hopefully we’ll be back to show it at MIFF next year.

Issue Date: July 14, 2005

The Portland Phoenix
review of “Festival”
By Kirah Brouillette

This is a film about a group of high-school students. They aren’t pimping any rides, exposing their own hidden desire to go under the knife to look like Britney Spears, or letting a camera crew follow them around while they party in the woods with mom’s stolen Marlboros in one hand and a Budweiser 40-ounce in the other. Instead, this film is a testament to the fact that talented, intellectual, and mature teenagers really do exist, despite what MTV says. Even better? These gifted kids were raised on ocean air and lobsters, right next door in Falmouth.

Filmed in 2004, and starring Falmouth’s award-winning theatre company, Festival is a peek into the stress and dizzying elation of the Maine State High School Theatre Festival Competition, where a winning play must be executed perfectly in under 55 minutes (including set building).

With three witty, well spoken boys and a sassy female lead, each student’s talent and hard-headed focus on success comes through as fresh and inspirational. Add a surprise ending, and Festival becomes a wonderful family film that will leave you feeling unexpectedly proud of your teen brethren. That, and you’ll never accidentally utter the epithet “theatre geek” again.

Issue Date: July 15, 2005

The Forecaster
“Real Life Drama, 2 Brothers, 1 Documentary”
By Sherry Whittemore

FALMOUTH — Two Foreside brothers who started out small, filming local high school events, will hit a bigger screen with the release of “Festival,” their first feature-length documentary.

Falmouth High School graduates Jim and Tom Isler’s 79-minute film follows the emotional and triumphant journey of the school’s drama club through the [2004] Maine State Drama Festival. It has been selected to play in the Maine International Film Festival July 15-24 in Waterville.

The Islers were drawn to the subject material after participating in the theater company as students. Jim graduated in 1997, and Tom in 2000. Both believed a Maine audience would be interested in a well-attended, statewide high school function.

“We thought it would make a good subject for a film because it is so inherently dramatic,” Tom said.

He followed the group of students through rehearsals at the high school, up to the competition held that year in Camden, and did all of the filming.

“The kids were great about it. In the chaos and nerve-wracking environment of the festival I just faded into the background with my camera, which is what I was hoping for. That really caught what the festival is all about,” Tom said.

He said the emotional charge of the film is what makes it a strong documentary.

“People who participate (in the festival) are really quite serious about it and that comes through in the film,” he said.

The documentary’s climax was a surprise to everyone, Tom said. The students performed...a play adapted from short stories by Russian writer Anton Chekhov. In the high school production, the main character — a writer/narrator figure — introduced a series of characters with individual conflicts. Each vignette had an alternate ending, as sort of a joke in the play itself. “It was sort of like seeing the narrator’s mind working,” Jim said.

The irony was the play’s sentiment carried over into the students’ reality. As judges announced the winning schools selected to advance to the New England competition, Falmouth was not called as a finalist. Then, as the sullen, disappointed group digested the news, [the festival’s director] tapped Falmouth High School Theater Director DeDe Waite on the shoulder, Tom said. He told her another school with scheduling conflicts declined their seat. Falmouth was chosen as the alternate.

“Their real-life situation, losing then moving on, mirrored the content of the play, which was really surprising,” he said.

Once Tom finished filming, the brothers began editing with Tom in Maine and Jim in New York City. They communicated by phone and e-mailed film sequences back and forth, Jim said. The entire production process took just over a year.

“I am amazed that it has gotten to this point,” Jim said. “To develop a full enough story with one weekend of filming. I couldn’t be happier it is playing in this Maine festival.”

The film was released by Gloaming Pictures, a New York-based production company started by the brothers in 2000. They have produced four films and are working on a film about their grandmother’s bridge club.

“Mostly the film is about the women and the stories and relationships that they share and have with each other,” Tom said.

Tom dabbled in filmmaking as a student at Yale University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in American studies in 2004. Tom studied documentary filmmaking with nationally known documentarians D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. For his work in film and journalism, Tom was awarded the George A. Schrader Jr. Prize for excellence in the humanities. His writing has appeared in several newspapers and his video footage has been broadcast on the CBS News Sunday Morning show.

In 2001, Jim earned a bachelor’s degree in film studies from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. His senior thesis film, “Getaway,” a narrative short about a man whose life is a smoldering nightmare until he begins to live within his dreams, was the first project under the Gloaming Pictures label, for which he received the Ross Prize for best undergraduate film at the university. Jim is a freelance film and television editor in New York City and has edited programs for A&E, VH1, Trio, Discovery Channel and National Geographic.

“Festival” will be screened at 4:50 p.m., July 17, at Waterville Opera House and at 12:45 p.m., July 23, at Railroad Square Cinema. For ticket information and a complete film festival schedule see www.miff.org.

Issue Date: July 14-20, 2005