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One hundred feature-length films from 37 countries. It was half a scouting mission and half a film enthusiast’s dream when Aaron Wiederspahn of Munsonville and Laina Barakat of Keene, leaders of the Monadnock International Film Festival, or MONIFF, touched down in Park City, Utah to scope out the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

The two-week independent film festival is one of the most recognized festivals internationally, and certainly within the country, said Barakat, who is the executive director of MONIFF. While on a far more massive scale than Monadnock’s own annual festival, she and Wiederspahn plan to have a presence at the festival every year to be able to make crucial film connections, secure premium films for the Monadnock festival in April, and farm one of the most successful film festivals in the world for ideas on growing their own.

“It really is Disney World for filmmakers,” said Barakat in an interview Wednesday. “It’s packed and it’s lively, and left and right you turn around and see filmmakers and celebrities.” Barakat said that among her celebrity sightings was Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was exciting enough at the time, said Barakat, but after news broke on Feb. 2 that Hoffman had died of an apparent drug overdose, it’s a moment that’s become sacred to her, she said.

The two got the chance to attend a panel featuring William H. Macy, Mark Duplass and Maggie Gyllenhaal talking frankly about some of the obstacles that lie before people in the film industry, and other panels featuring other big-name Hollywood stars including Mark Ruffalo and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Not to mention panels featuring strategies for film festivals with representatives from festivals all over the world.

“You’re on and your networking the whole time,” said Barakat. “It’s thrilling and exhausting. It’s like speed networking, but it goes on for 12 hours a day. But you can’t be sad there. you can’t complain. It’s a lot of work, but it’s so rewarding.”

The Monadnock Film Festival is still in its infancy, with this year only being its second in existence. During the 2013 festival, over 1,500 people attended the three-day event, which included 14 films. Wiederspahn and Barakat see nothing but growth for what they hope to expand into a region-wide event. The film festival takes place in Keene, but eventually, Wiederspahn said in an interview Tuesday, he hopes to see it grow beyond that area and spill into Peterborough, Jaffrey, Dublin and Walpole. Seeing how the Sundance Festival operates, it’s not an unreachable goal, noted Barakat.

“The most exciting thing was to look at Park City, and how the program operates in that city, and to realize that Keene is a very similarly sized and resourced town,” she said. While Sundance obviously has a far larger budget to work with, something similar for Keene is not out of the question in the long term. “It’s our goal to make this a destination event.”

That’s in the future, however, as the festival grows enough to support an expanded operation. But there will be pieces that are put into operation this year, said Barakat. For example, one element of Sundance is that in between panels and film screenings, people often stop to listen to nationally-touring bands that play the festival. MONIFF will be adopting a similar tradition, mining Barakat’s connections from when she used to book musical acts to create a music cafe.

And of course, this year’s trip will also yield world-class films which were shown at Sundance for this year’s MONIFF. Some of those films have been procured, and they are still negotiating for others, said Wiederspahn, so the list of films that will be appearing at MONIFF won’t be released until the first week of March. However, Wiederspahn confirmed that the festival has procured what will be its topper — the film they will show prior to awarding the Jonathan Daniels Award on the last day of the festival.

Jonathan Daniels was a Keene minister-in-training who was active in the Civil Rights movement and was killed while protecting a 17-year-old African American girl named Ruby Sales while assisting with the movement in the South. Starting this year, MONIFF will use his name for an award that spotlights a film that has a high social consciousness, artistic excellence and upholds the spirit of Jonathan Daniels.

The Monadnock International Film Festival is a non-profit organization. To learn more, visit www.moniff.org or call Laina Barakat at 757-3929 or email monadnockiff@gmail.com.

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ex. 244, or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaari.

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