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(Beloit, WI) Robert Crozier, Beloit Daily News

Debbie Fenhouse of Popular Grove came to a Beloit International Film Festival screening for the first time this year, and it’s not what she expected at all.

“It’s exciting,” Fenhouse said. “I didn’t expect to see famous people.”

BIFF wrapped up this weekend with the annual Silent Film Showcase after 10 days of screening independent films at several Beloit businesses.

The famous people Fenhouse was referring to were Melissa Gilbert and her husband, Tim Busfield. She said she feels like she grew up with Gilbert as a fan of “Little House on the Prairie.”

Gilbert and Busfield were in Beloit to accompany their co-creation, “One Smart Fellow.” While it won awards and moved audiences, Gilbert’s ambitions go beyond this one film.

She is a Democrat running for the U.S. House of Representatives in Michigan. She hopes film festivals and independent film companies, like the one she and her husband helped create, can change the film industry by spreading out opportunities for people to make money outside the film studio system.

“We’re trying to create a place for filmmakers like us to create and distribute their material without having to worry about a difficult and suppressive studio and distribution system,” Gilbert said. “I would go anywhere to support this film, and I would also like to support small film festivals all over the country.”

Among small film festivals Beloit has the best, according to Hollywood Film Festival owner Brad Parks.

“I think Beloit, Wisconsin, has the single best small-market film festival in the world,” he said. “This is what Sundance was 20 years ago.”

The two festivals in Hollywood and Beloit have had a special relationship ever since Parks — who hails from Dubuque, Iowa — bought the Hollywood festival and brought the man behind the Beloit festival — Rod Beaudoin — in to run it. The two men knew each other because of their shared involvement in the cultural life of Dubuque.

The relationship gives Beloit access to all the best films making the festival circuit. Parks said great films that didn’t get the attention they deserved elsewhere find an audience at BIFF, and he takes promising filmmakers out of Hollywood to Beloit to get a measure of their character.

“I get to meet filmmakers here in a way that I never could in Hollywood,” he said. “The filmmakers blossom because Vanity Magazine isn’t right there.”

Thanks in no small part to the Beloit Film Society, a local population of critical film watchers who “know about color correction, narrative flow and story arc” has been cultivated, according to Parks. But, unlike viewers in Hollywood, they’re not trying to get ahead in their own film careers, so they’re more honest, he said.

“People here are so good at watching films, and they’re so honest,” Parks said.

The filmmakers enjoyed Beloit as well. Gilbert and Busfield said they did some antiquing, and a filmmaker from Los Angeles who had never been in Wisconsin before said she enjoys seeing small towns.

Nick Spark, who entered “Right-Footed,” called the festival “wonderful” during his award acceptance speech.

“I would not have tried to make this film if I didn’t believe films could change people’s minds and attitudes,” he said. “It’s wonderful to find a festival that shares that attitude.”

“Among the Believers” creator Hemal Trivedi praised the warmth she observed at the Beloit International Film Festival.

“I don’t think I was ever pampered in this way, even by my own mother,” she said. “I think Beloit has been the best festival for me.”

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