After over a yearlong hiatus, the Hirschfield International Film Series is returning to Middlebury College. The upcoming Oct. 5 screening of “The Royal Hotel” marks the series’ first event since May 2022, offering the college community the chance to see an Australian social thriller the day before it is released in theaters following its recent run at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals.
For film enthusiasts like John McCulloch ’24, a Hirschfield Programming Committee Member and Film and Media Culture major, the comeback of this Middlebury cinematic tradition is a major victory.
“It’s really great to be able to bring a diversity of films to a college campus like Middlebury,” McCulloch said. “But also to give students exposure to just how diverse that palette is [by] just taking films from all different continents and countries and being able to have that sort of representation on a college campus.”
Diversity and representation are the hallmarks of the Hirschfield International Film Series, which has run for decades as a way to introduce students largely raised on Hollywood films to the best in modern world cinema.
“It’s basically an initiative from the Film and Media department to bring together these contemporary arthouse films that have been theatrically released around the world,” McCulloch said. “We try to focus on that sweet spot between theatrical releases that are out in the world but are not yet on demand or streaming.”
The series’ pedigree of screened titles is impressive. In just the past four years, Hirschfield has featured two Best Picture winners, “Parasite” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” bringing the former to Middlebury at a time when it was only playing in New York and Los Angeles and the latter in April 2022, long before it blew up into a pop culture phenomenon during the awards season. Other notable films screened at Hirschfield, which also shows American independent films, are Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You,” Jia Zhangke’s “Ash is Purest White” and Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car.”
Acquiring such globally renowned films for exhibition on a small Vermont college campus is no easy feat. After taking charge of Hirschfield’s programming committee in 2018, Ethan Murphy, media production specialist for the college, spent the next four years overseeing the process of contacting distributors, securing screeners and evaluating films for presentation. It was under his guidance that smash hits “Parasite” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” found their way to Middlebury, emerging as the highlights of a period that saw weekly screenings being held virtually during the Covid-19 pandemic and then in Axinn 232 once occupancy limits were lifted. But Murphy could not run the series alone. Staffing shortages ultimately rendered it unsustainable, bringing a flourishing era of Hirschfield to an abrupt end.
For a year, no Hirschfield films were screened at Middlebury College. Then came David Miranda Hardy, associate professor of film and media culture, and a contingent of motivated film students committed to saving this cinematic experience. Hardy, a filmmaker and sound designer who created the Peabody Award-nominated Chilean show “Bala Loca,” never intended on leaving Hirschfield for dead.
“I believe in film, in its power to create community, to inspire thoughtful conversations, to reflect about the world and society,” Hardy said. “I think these kinds of community-building experiences are a very important contribution to what a college experience should be.”
After being revamped over the summer by Hardy and his team, the Hirschfield International Film Series returns this fall with a new look: one-night-only screenings in Dana Auditorium on the first Thursday of each month, or “Hirschfield First Thursday Films.” Programming will remain consistent with the series’ original mission, but the organizers are hoping that the monthly schedule, upgraded venue and pre-screening pizza party will serve to make Hirschfield more of a campus-wide event than it ever was before.
They are also counting on “The Royal Hotel,” which follows a pair of young American women who take jobs as bartenders in a seedy Australian pub, to open the proceedings with a bang.
“I mean, it’s clearly a gripping thriller where you’re going to probably question a few assumptions of what you believe about sexual violence. I think it’s both going to be food for thought and highly gripping entertainment,” Hardy said.
Despite their thorough preparations for the event, neither he nor McCulloch can predict whether the revival of the Hirschfield International Film Series will be a successful one. Hardy remarked that demand for more screenings per month would be a good indicator that they did something right. For now, though, he and the Hirschfield team are just happy to see international and independent cinema screenings back on campus. Next week’s opening night will be the first time in a while that students and faculty who live for those two hours in the dark can come together to explore their passion and find community among those who share it.
Say what you will about sequels, but that sounds like a part two worth sticking around to see.
The Hirschfield International Film Series’ fall 2023 season kicks off on Thursday, October 5 at 7 p.m. with an exclusive screening of “The Royal Hotel” in Dana Auditorium. Join fellow audience members outside Dana at 6:30 p.m. for pizza before the film.
Jack Torpey '24 (he/him) is an Arts and Culture Editor. He writes film reviews for the Reel Critic column.
Jack is studying English with a minor in Film and Media Culture. Outside The Campus, he works as a peer writing tutor at the Writing Center and is a member of the Middlebury Consulting Group.