by Mark Burger

With 166 films from 44 countries – 76 features and 90 shorts – the 18th annual RiverRun International Film Festival is ready to roll this week in Winston-Salem. The festival opens Thursday and continues through April 17.

The principal screening venues remain the same: a/perture cinema, Hanesbrands Theatre, the ACE Cinematheque Complex on the UNCSA campus, and SECCA (Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art). Much of the staff and many of the volunteers are the same, and despite the departure of executive director Andrew Rodgers, who accepted the position of executive director of the Denver Film Society earlier this year, RiverRun 2016 looks to be a film fan’s frenzy.

Whether or not you’re ready, at RiverRun they are! “I think it’s our strongest line-up in years,” says Dale Pollock, board-member emeritus of RiverRun and the principal architect in its establishment in Winston-Salem in 2003. (Rodgers once called Pollock “the Godfather of RiverRun.”) Pollock, a former dean of the UNCSA School of Filmmaking and current faculty member, lauds the ongoing efforts of the RiverRun team: Mary Dossinger (program manager and interim executive director), Christopher Holmes (program coordinator) and Mickey Flynn (operations manager).

“Sometimes we don’t say enough about Mickey,” Pollock says, “but he’s really been a force at the festival.”

Naturally, the question on many minds is who will succeed Rodgers as executive director. Dossinger admits it’s a “looming thought,” but “we’re trying to keep our heads really focused. There will be a time to get to that later.

Right now, it’s about the filmmakers and the films, and this is one of our best line-ups.”

“The community understood the uncertainty it could have presented,” Holmes observes. “But (advance ticket) sales are up from last year, and that’s a great sign.”

There’s also the running (raining?) gag about the inevitable spate of inclement weather that always seems to coincide with the festival. With the name “RiverRun,” perhaps some precipitation is to be expected. More often than not, however, the community has stepped up to brave the elements and attend screenings anyway (umbrellas in hand). Andrew Rodgers once noted that some of the festival’s biggest screenings were during the worst weather.

“Too cold is not good,” Dossinger says wryly, remembering one outdoor screening that took place on a day where the temperature topped out at 50 degrees. “The best potential for weather is overcast – ‘in-between’ weather.”

“We’re thinking about putting money into cloud-seeding,” Holmes deadpans.

At a time when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has had to address racial diversity in its nomination process, Holmes points to the racial and ethnic diversity of the filmmakers whose films were selected this year.

“We’ve been very inclusive – and I think we always have been,” he says. “We have female filmmakers, Latino and Hispanic filmmakers, African-American filmmakers — a very healthy representation of various cultures.”

Since embarking on its “Eastern expansion” from Asheville and Brevard to Winston-Salem in 2003, RiverRun has evolved into a year-round organization with special events and screenings throughout the year, becoming one of the most popular events in the region every year.

“It’s unfortunate that a few people – like Bill Pullman – won’t be able to attend (due to scheduling conflict),” Pollock says, “but it’s really the films that count at a festival.”

To say nothing of the filmmakers, an unprecedented number of whom will be attending this year’s festival. Some are first-timers, others more familiar with RiverRun.

Stephen van Vuuren, who calls Greensboro home, is certainly aware of the festival. He’s been to RiverRun before and this year his short film, Return, originally made for the 48 Hour Film Project, where it was a runner-up and won several awards, was selected.

Since he didn’t have to adhere to the 48-hour rule before submitting to RiverRun, “it’s got a bit of spit and polish added to the post-production from the 48 Hour version,” he says.

Being selected as part of the NC Shorts Program – Return is included in “Program Two,” which screens Sunday at SECCA and April 15 at Hanesbrands Theatre — “was actually a big surprise,” van Vuuren says. “I’m really impressed how much the festival has grown since I screened in the mid-2000’s, but despite that it does not seem to have lost the filmmaker-friendly vibe it had when it was small. It’s also nice to see the increased emphasis on North Carolina filmmakers.”

Filmmaker Rod Murphy, who hails from Asheville, is delighted that his documentary feature El Chivo, which profiles marathon runner and humanitarian Will Harlan, made the cut. In fact, Harlan will be participating in a “Run With El Chivo” event at Salem Lake on Sunday at 1 pm. (The film will screen Friday at Hanesbrands Theatre and Sunday at UNCSA’s Babcock Theatre, following Harlan’s run.)

“I have been aware of RiverRun for many years,” Murphy says. “I have several filmmaker friends from out of state who have had great experiences at RiverRun and they highly recommended it. I am looking forward to watching a lot of movies with my kids and wife – and producer – Gina.”

Another documentary with an athletic angle is Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari’s T-Rex, which profiles 17-year-old Michigan boxer Claressa “T-Rex” Shields, whose aspiration is to be the first woman to win the gold medal in Olympic boxing. (The film will be screened Friday at SECCA and Saturday at a/perture cinema.)

According to producer Sue Jaye Johnson, T-Rex offers inspiration for all audiences. “Claressa grew up in extreme poverty and she experienced pretty much everything bad that could happen to a kid – her father was in prison, her mother deals with addiction, she was abused as a young girl,” she relates. “We spent nearly 18 months filming nonstop, and we are still shooting, because her life continues to be amazing. With a record of 67-1, she’s unstoppable.”

So too is the film, which premiered at the SXSW Festival in 2015 and has racked up several awards on the festival circuit, including Best New Director at Traverse City, the Student Choice Award at HotDocs, the Audience Award at SFFS, best feature at Woods Hole, and even a jury award at the Providence Children’s Festival. (“Despite some salty language, it’s a film for all ages,” says Johnson.)

Toronto-based filmmaker Michael Sparaga, whose documentary The Missing Ingredient (screening Friday at Hanesbrands Theatre and Sunday at UNCSA’s Gold Theatre) examines the controversial decision by a New York restaurateur to adorn his restaurant with the “zebra wallpaper” made famous by the legendary Gino’s Restaurant, drives to Hilton Head each year and whenever passing the I-74 cut-off to Winston-Salem “I always think ‘Hey, that’s where RiverRun is!'” he laughs.

“I’ve been attending film festivals for 11 years now and whenever filmmakers hear about a festival they always ask ‘What are the venues like and how are the audiences’? RiverRun has always come up in conversations at being top-notch in both categories.”

For his directorial debut, filmmaker Alden Peters turned the cameras on himself in Coming Out, a heartfelt documentary in which he films friends and family members as he tells them he’s gay. It’s as much about his coming to terms with his homosexuality as those around him, often in humorous terms (which was Peters’ hope all along).

“Documenting the entire process acted like a safety net for the whole experience,” he says. “It allowed me to be much more confident during a very vulnerable time. At times I would definitely say that it didn’t feel like it was real life; it was a film. For example, I came out to some people by saying ‘I’m working on this documentary project about me coming out as gay,’ instead of coming out to them. The lines blurred heavily during the process, because I was both re-establishing relationships with my family members while also sculpting a story for a documentary. When I was coming out, I was thinking not only about the very big announcement I was making, but also how the navigation between personal moments and moments where I was a filmmaker was difficult.”

Coming Out, which will be screened Tuesday at a/ perture cinema and Wednesday at Hanesbrands Theatre, premiered at the 2015 DOCUTAH International Documentary Film Festival, where it won the audience choice award. The film enjoyed its New York premiere at Newfest, where it was promptly acquired for distribution by Wolfe Video, and had its international premiere at BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival last month.

Despite the forward strides toward equality for the LGBT community, the issue remains highly incendiary – as witness by the controversy surrounding the North Carolina General Assembly’s vote to block protections against discrimination last month.

“We’re playing at the RiverRun International Film Festival at a crucial time for LGBT rights,” Peters says. “The success of the LGBT equality movement is very new. It’s easy to look at recent political successes and feel like we’ve made significant changes for subsequent generations. But that would ignore the fact that, despite marriage equality, it can be life-threatening to come out of the closet depending on where you live.

“Playing at RiverRun puts this film in a state that needs to experience more LGBT stories,” Peters observes. “The significance of seeing this film in the programming of a prestigious film festival undoubtedly impacts LGBT youth in the state. Progress for the LGBT community has been spectacularly successful over the last decade, but we’ve started to see an aggressive backlash, such as North Carolina — (and) Mississippi just passed something equally as discriminatory.

“Screening here feels like the most important screening we’ve had.”

For more information about the 18th annual River- Run International Film Festival, including ticket prices and a complete schedule of screenings and events, call 336.724.1502 or visit the (often-updated) official website: