Brit Withey died last week. He’d been artistic director of the Denver Film Society since 2008, and he’d worked with the group in various ways for 23 years.
He was only 50, and his death is a loss — most of all to his friends and family of course, but to the cause of film in this part of the world.
For me, he programmed the good stuff in the festival, the films you might never get to see on a full movie theater screen, films you might never even hear about again. But often the real gems, the films with something unusual going on and something unexpected to think about and feel.
He did his searching at some of the international film festivals that take cinema seriously — Berlin, Cannes, Karlovy Vary (a terrific festival in the Czech Republic).
Some say that he hunted for the dark stuff, but I think it was more that he looked for films with a certain kind of courage, the nerve to look at something off center or off kilter. He didn’t seem obsessed by perfection — one or two great sequences were enough for him to put a movie in the festival.
I teach a course every year at UCD based on the Denver Film Festival. Brit always came to the first class meeting to talk about how he chose films and what movies he thought were particularly interesting. He’d explain that programming a film festival is not just a chance to show his favorite films of the year.
He often chose work he didn’t particularly care for because he knew that some part of the festival audience would appreciate those films. Brit was not an arrogant programmer. He never suggested that he had a monopoly on good taste or a flawless eye for great film. He didn’t pontificate.
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He was a dream to work with. Inter-institutional projects can be full of dicey jousting and jostling. For my class, sometime in early summer we’d go to lunch — always at El Taco de Mexico — to talk about it.
Most of the conversation was about the lunch, which made both of us smile and hum, and movies of course, but at some point I’d say, “You wanna do the class?” And he’d say, “Uh-huh.” And that was that — and the details never got devilish.
In my experience, Brit didn’t talk out loud in much depth about films — bits and snatches, but no long conversations about meaning or the philosophy of the cinema. I think he talked inside and through films.
What he had to say was in the films he mentioned, so maybe he felt no need to repeat was what there. I know he liked it if I understood the power in a movie he’d put in the festival; his expression revealed that what he’d wanted to say to me was in the film — and didn’t need words outside of it.
He had a canny sense of humor; he could joke about some particularly grim event in a film. And he got a kick out of off-center comedies. He introduced me to the daft — and touching — work of the Belgian/Australian couple Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon — The Fairy, Rhumba, Lost in Paris, which like Brit traffic in quiet, but potent, understatement.
He turned my eye to some of the best movies I’ve seen. Just last year he recommended a Turkish film, The Wild Pear Tree by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. It mostly shows people talking, until you notice that the images of where they’re talking and how they’re talking grab your attention and force you to care about it.
A young writer walks down a dirt lane in a village with two imams, in conversation about free will. On screen, it could be a dreary event, but this film made the question urgent and immediate.
Brit brought Paradise by the Russian filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky to Denver, the eccentric Danish picture Granny’s Dancing on the Table, a wild 2016 Portuguese film The Ornithologist, and the dreamy and profound Cemetery of Splendor by the celebrated Thai director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. He brought back the Decalogue by the Polish master Krzysztof Kieslowski.
This is just a taste of what this man brought to us.
I had to learn how to read Brit when he talked about movies. He didn’t wave his arms or raise his voice or gush. Mostly, an understated smile would appear and maybe a nod.
The people who program significant film festivals tend to be a lot showier than Brit. He wore black, and as far as I could tell never brushed his hair. He never indicated that he thought what he did was important. I hope he did, because it was.
Howie Movshovitz teaches film in the College of Arts & Media at the University of Colorado Denver and is a film critic at KUNC.