Refocus Film Festival

Iowa City’s Refocus Film Festival revives a storytelling tradition. Photo: David Greedy

Writer: Madeline Cisneros

Iowa City has a rich history in the arts, including the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But a more recent — or recently revived — addition is the Refocus Film Festival, which celebrates cinema and various other art forms for a jam-packed weekend in early October. The new festival started in 2022 and focuses on film adaptations, highlighting stories that jumped from one medium to another.

“We are a community that loves storytelling, and cinema’s a big part of that tradition,” said Andrew Sherburne, a filmmaker and co-founder of the local nonprofit cinema FilmScene. “We want to celebrate that, strengthen it and make sure that everyone else, not just here in Iowa but from the other 49 states and around the globe, really understands just how special this place is.”

During the festival, film fans can see films in various genres at FilmScene’s five theaters. The lineup includes classic book-to-movie adaptations, as well as newer projects that are just starting on the festival circuit.

“The festival is a celebration of adaptation in all of its forms,” said Ben Delgado, FilmScene’s programming director. “Literature is where our main focus is, it’s where we started, but that’s grown in its scope to encompass larger forms of adaptation — anything from poetry, theater and even things like video games and podcasts. It’s also a place for conversation between those creators and their adapters.”

To emphasize that multimedia idea, local musicians perform before many of the screenings, and the Refocus organizers collaborate with their counterparts from the popular Iowa City Book Festival. Both teams share guests for panel discussions, for example, so festivalgoers can learn directly from their favorite authors and directors how they create their work.

Sherburne and FilmScene co-founder Andy Brodie toyed with the idea of a film festival when they started the nonprofit in 2011, but the Refocus Film Festival is really a throwback to a festival of the same name that lit up Iowa City screens in the 1960s and 1970s. The original festival focused on film and photography and some notable guests included Robert Redford, Robert Altman and Cindy Neal, Sherburne said.

FilmScene hosts several other film series throughout the year, including one during Pride, in June, and another called Reel Representation, which celebrates the work of female and nonbinary filmmakers. The organizers program films they hope the “community will respond to one way or another, rather than purely by box office potential,” Sherburne said.

If you’ve never been to a film festival, you might want to scan the program before you go, so you don’t feel overwhelmed. But be sure to try something new. Sometimes the best movie experiences happen when you walk in knowing nothing.

“Leave the thinking for after the film,” Delgado said. “We’ve done the thinking beforehand, and then you process afterward.”

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