I can't pretend to be objective in writing about Brit Withey, longtime artistic director of the Denver Film Society and the Denver Film Festival, who died Sunday, March 31, in a car accident. I loved him. I loved every chat I ever had with him. And I can't believe that I won't be able to talk with him again this fall in anticipation of the fest's 42nd year.
Not that I was a personal friend of Withey's, as were some of my Westword co-workers. Ours was a professional relationship, based on a mutual adoration of the movies. But working with him for the past twelve years (just over half of the 23 he spent with the DFF) gave me insight into a man who loved what he did and was able to pass along his passion to colleagues, filmmakers and the thousands upon thousands of festival attendees who flock annually to one of the Mile High City's signature gatherings. And everything I learned about him made me like and admire him that much more.
The artistic community of Denver and beyond will be immeasurably poorer for his loss.
Here's how the Denver Film Society announced Withey's passing yesterday:
The Denver Film Society and the entire film industry community are mourning the loss of our longtime friend and Denver Film Festival Artistic Director Brit Withey who was killed in a single-car accident on Sunday, March 31 while returning to Denver from a vacation in New Mexico. Brit was a highly respected artistic director who lived and breathed film. He traveled the world to watch, learn and bring his creative vision back to Colorado where he curated award-winning Festival lineups for Colorado film-lovers for more than two decades. There are no words to describe the loss that his family, friends and our community are going through.
Our prayers are with Brit’s partner, Ruth, and his entire extended family.
Ruth, by the way, is journalist Ruth Tobias, Withey's (very) significant other.
The fifty-year-old Withey was reportedly driving on Highway 285 at around 2:15 p.m. on March 31 when his car drifted across the roadway and hit one tree and then another. The Colorado State Patrol's investigation of the incident is ongoing, but there were no preliminary indications of drugs, alcohol or excess speed.
My first introduction to Withey took place in 2007, when I asked him to pull together a list of must-see picks for that year's festival — one highlighted by an early screening of Juno that included an appearance by director Jason Reitman, who became a prominent supporter of the event. (Reitman helped present The Front Runner, based on the sex scandal that took down the presidential candidacy of Colorado Senator Gary Hart, at this past November's fest.) Withey came up with a flick apiece for each day of the spectacle, and in discussing each of them with him, I was struck by his fierce intelligence, innate sensitivity and sly sense of humor.
We repeated this process each year thereafter, and over the course of our conversations, which could last hours, I got a feel for his likes and dislikes. His personal tastes tended to run toward films that explored the human condition with unsparing depth and beauty, as well as offerings that used fresh, unconventional and quirky techniques to tell stories or deliver visuals.
When something struck his fancy, he could hardly contain himself. His delight in the discovery of a cinematic something that was new and bold and brave was so infectious that I frequently found myself checking out screenings that otherwise would have had approximately zero appeal for me — and while I couldn't always match his enthusiasm for certain projects, I never regretted taking his advice. I'll bet that's been the experience of a great many Westword readers, too.
Curating the film festival was never just a job for Withey, and he brought his own experiences to the task. This last year, for example, Withey moved heaven and earth to turn a screening of Industrial Accident: The Wax Trax! Records Story into a Denver punk-rock reunion by arranging for the attendance of the Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra, Ministry's Al Jourgensen and My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult's Frankie Nardiello, aka Groovie Mann. His reasons had a lot to do with his introduction to Denver in the 1980s: He told me he'd found a sense of community on the block of East 13th Avenue where Denver's Wax Trax retail outlet was, and continues to be, located, and he wanted to re-create it for a new generation.
He pulled it off in memorable fashion. When Jourgenson dropped trou during an out-of-control Q&A, Withey looked quietly thrilled by the merry anarchy he'd managed to unleash.
That was the last time I'd see him in person, and his impish smile and barely contained joy is the image I'll picture when I think of Brit Withey. He was one of the many artistic figures who has made Denver great during the past quarter-century, and one whose exuberance is something all of us can strive to emulate.
Services for Brit Withey are pending.
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