How Iowa City, Hub of Literature, Became a Landmark for Cinephiles
Hannah Bonner Formally Introduces the Refocus Film Festival
The literary world knows Iowa City as home to America’s first creative writing program and a UNESCO City of Literature, but it’s also a landmark city for cinephiles.
In the early 1960s, Refocus debuted in Iowa City as one of the largest cinematography and still photography festivals in the United States. Rivaling other lauded multimedia events such as the International Arts and Films Festival in New York City, the festival consisted of a mixture of photography and experimental, documentary, and feature films, as well as student works. By 1969, Refocus was programming films by Andy Warhol, Ingmar Bergman, Kenneth Anger, and Bruce Conner, among others.
Though Refocus ended in 1978, FilmScene’s Executive Director Andrew Sherburne and Programming Director Ben Delgado ushered in a new iteration of Refocus Film Festival last fall. FilmScene, a nonprofit, independent theater in downtown Iowa City, programs a range of blockbuster, independent, and foreign films throughout the year, while also recurrently working with and among various communities in Iowa City. Sherburne and Delgado’s revival of the Refocus Film Festival specifically underscores the literary prestige and community of Iowa City by homing its focus to film adaptations—a film category that, anecdotally at least, seems to continue expanding. “Often, the commercial film industry has embraced adaptation for unsurprisingly capitalistic and callous reasons, cashing in on established intellectual property for perceived easy money,” Delgado says. “But thoughtful curation exists in direct contrast to that model.”
For starters, Delgado says, the Refocus programming team looks at the artistic value of the work. With films adapting everything from contemporary novels, short stories, and manga to literary classics and even Jean Luc-Godard’s quasi-trailer of an adaptation of Charles Plisnier’s Faux Passeports (1937)—a film that never came to be—the festival presents a diverse and global lineup of work from established masters, debut filmmakers, and everyone in between.
Beyond book-to-film works, several featured adaptations are rooted in nonfiction, television archives, and song. This capacious understanding of adaptation is evidenced by the extraordinary range of films showcased in this year’s program. From William Oldroyd’s adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen (2023) to Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)—based on the 1989 novel The Melancholy of Resistance by the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai—there is a promiscuous range of works that have the potential to both challenge and inspire the average movie-goer. Some films are old favorites, like Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 classic The Shining, while others are by first time film directors like auto-theorist Paul B. Preciado’s Orlando, My Political Biography (2023).
In the spirit of creative melding, every film is preceded by music or visual art. And throughout the weekend, festival goers have the opportunity to engage in conversations with filmmakers, authors, and other creatives on topics ranging from beginning new creative projects to the WGA strike.
“Adaptation is faithful and direct, and adaptation is bold contrast,” Sherburne says. “It is all those things, and we dissect, we challenge, we applaud, we appreciate. A good festival feeds a natural curiosity to make new artistic discoveries.”
“And who knows,” he continues. “In this town, it might also inspire new stories altogether.”
The 2nd annual Refocus Film Festival will take place in Iowa City October 12-15, 2023. Passes are on sale now.