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New film fest opens in world's longest-running theatre — and it isn't where you think it would be

An image of the exterior of The State Theater in Washington, Iowa.
Samantha McIntosh
Iowa Public Radio
The State Theatre in Washington, Iowa was certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest continuously operating cinema theatre, in operation since May 14, 1897.

It may come as a surprise that the world's oldest continuously operating cinema is in rural Iowa, but the people of Washington take pride in their city's long history with motion pictures. Now, a new film festival is celebrating that history, while paving the way for filmmakers of the future. Farm to Film Fest kicks off this weekend and features 36 films from across the state, country and world.

The State Theatre in Washington, Iowa is the world’s oldest continuously operating cinema, and now it’s playing host to a new film festival. The inaugural Farm to Film Fest takes place this weekend, May 20 and 21, across a number of venues surrounding the city square.

Attendees will have multiple opportunities to see 36 curated films, which include documentaries, narrative features, shorts and animated films.

According to festival co-chair Sarah Grunewaldt, the festival will showcase films from around the state, country and world.

“We’ve got a majority of Iowa filmmakers, but we have a bunch from all over the world,” Grunewaldt said. “There’s a film from Spain. There’s a film from China, and Sweden — all over.”

Along with engaging audiences and inspiring thoughtful conversations, the festival also celebrates Washington’s local film heritage. As early as 1897, the city has been showcasing some of cinema’s earliest motion pictures.

“It’s such a cool thing to be able to say that we were showing movies first and that our community loves film, and that we were guinea pigs way back in the 1890s for films,” Grunewaldt said. “People were coming off of their farms to see places across the world that they had never seen before, or cultures they had never experienced.”

Charity Nebbe and Farm to Film Fest co-chair Sarah Grunewaldt talking to each other in IPR's Iowa City studios.
Samantha McIntosh
Iowa Public Radio
Talk of Iowa host Charity Nebbe interviews Sarah Grunewaldt, co-chair of the Farm to Film Fest.

A sneak peek at the lineup

Farm to Film Fest, despite the name, includes an array of subjects that go beyond agriculture, Grunewald said.

“We wanted to highlight the fact that ag is a huge part of our economy and our community, but it’s not the only thing we’ve got going for us,” she said.

One such film, which has been awarded the Farm to Film Fest 2023 "Iowa Made Award," is Unintended: Unlocking a Nation’s Pregnancy Secrets, from Iowa filmmaker Colleen Bradford Krantz.

“It’s very interesting, and it sparks good conversation,” Grunewaldt said. “I think it’s going to get people talking.”

Another documentary that creators hope will get audiences talking is Combined Efforts: Changing Perceptions of Disability through Performance. It follows a community theater group in Iowa City that seeks to include people with disabilities in the performing arts.

Janet Schlapkohl, founder of the community theater company Combined Efforts, said she wanted to capture the experience of the stage production on film so that it could be shared with a larger audience.

“I’m hoping that people will become inspired, when they see the documentary, to do this in their own community, at their own school or some place,” Schlapkohl said. “That’s my biggest hope for it.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be Farm to Film Fest without some films about farms.

Livestock on the Land, a film by Practical Farmers of Iowa, tells the story of farmers and the importance of regenerative agriculture in rural communities.

Nick Ohde, producer and director of Livestock on the Land, said he looks forward to sharing the project with a broader audience this weekend.

“It’s always a good opportunity to talk to people that are outside of farming and share the struggles that farmers are facing, but also the really cool things that they are doing,” he said.

The mission behind the festival

Sharing stories and bringing people together through film are two of the driving forces behind the Farm to Film Fest. Making those stories accessible to the public was a priority for festival organizers, which is why they decided to make admission free, according to Grunewaldt.

“Our community has been very generous, so we don’t need to charge for tickets to make this happen,” Grunewaldt said. “It’s really [about] the films, showcasing our heritage and building off of that.”

All film screenings during the festival are free and open to all. A schedule of events is available on the festival’s website.

Nicole Baxter is a Sponsorship Coordinator and covers film as a contributing writer for Iowa Public Radio.