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Who needs the Oscars? Local artist helps make Salem Film Festival special

Posted by Your Town  February 25, 2011 08:51 AM

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(Photo by Christian Brink)

Think of it as the Oscar of the Salem Film Festival. But unlike the same golden statue that appears on stage every year for a night of red carpet glamour and lengthy acceptance speeches, the winning filmmakers at Salem get to take home a more organic alternative – the work of local artist, Mik Augustin.

In 2009, Dinah Cardin of Art Throb, an online North Shore art magazine, approached Augustin, 38, to see if he was interested in making the awards for the documentary film festival. At the time, Cardin was writing for the festival’s blog. Augustin agreed and then met with Joe Cultrera, an award-winning Salem filmmaker and co-founder of the film festival with Paul Van Ness, to look at the awards from the previous year when the festival began in 2008.

“The first year (of making the awards) was nerve wracking,” said Augustin. Having discussed the design of the prizes with Cultrera and Van Ness, owner of CinemaSalem,
Augustin realized he had the freedom to make whatever he wanted.

This year, the film festival runs from March 4th –10th, and is comprised of international documentaries that tell a wide range of stories from people all over the world. While the main venue for the festival is CinemaSalem, an independent theater, films will also be shown at the Peabody Essex Museum and the National Park Service Visitior Center. And the winners of the festival will take home a piece of Salem with Augustin’s prize.

“Basically we didn’t give him any instructions,” said Van Ness. The only thing Augustin had to keep in mind was that the filmmaker needed to be able to physically carry the award off stage. “We told him, just use your imagination and we’ll be happy to present that as the award each year,” said Van Ness.

Now in his third year of making the awards, Augustin tries to incorporate aspects of both the city and the festival in his art. Previous works have included a nautical themed woodcarving and a film projector made of three different found materials.

“I try to think of something that’s very Salem,” said Augustin. “The film represents the city in so many ways and that’s what I try to do with the awards.”

Each year Augustin makes two sculptures: a jury award and an audience choice award. For this upcoming festival, he hopes to make a brass or bronze representation of a seafaring navigational tool and a compass rose carved stone.

“The great thing about his work is it’s original. That’s maybe the most amazing thing,” said Van Ness. “Filmmakers who receive his awards or who even get the chance to look at them are amazed because they’re completely different.”

Having lived in the city for nine years, Augustin finds it a great atmosphere for making art. “Salem’s community is so important for creating,” said Augustin. “There’s a vibe around the city. It’s almost like there’s an inherent energy that keeps people creative.”

But Augustin is not the only volunteer behind the scenes at this year’s film festival. He’s part of a much larger volunteer body that makes the event possible. From teenagers to senior citizens, there’s a wide range of people who sign up to help, according to Chris Gilbert, a freelance filmmaker from Beverly and the festival’s volunteer coordinator.

“Everybody involved in making it happen is a volunteer,” said Gilbert. “There’s no paid staff.” It’s in the volunteer attitude of the festival that Gilbert has seen real camaraderie emerge among all who are helping.

While there are numerous aspects of volunteer work to run the festival including scheduling, promotion, and organizing sponsorship, the most unique feature is what goes into making the festival, “filmmaker-friendly. We put the filmmakers up in hotels. We find local sponsorship to get them accommodations,” said Gilbert. “This year we’ve even been able to help some of the filmmakers with their flights.”

The hospitality doesn’t stop with getting them to Salem. “Our volunteers will pick them up at the airport or train station and bring them to their accommodations,” said Gilbert. Support like this is what makes the Salem Film Festival stand out as a community effort.

But until the filmmakers arrive, Augustin will continue working on this year’s two awards. He’s also completing his third degree and teaching as a paraprofessional at Collins Middle School in Salem. When not in the classroom, he can be found on stage in various locations throughout the city performing his poetry.

As Van Ness said, “Salem has a really strong bent toward honoring the individual artist (like Mik) who’s working in a community.”

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and the Gordon College News Service.

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