If you’ve ever been to Julien Dubuque International Film Festival, it’s easy to get caught up in the flurry of films, filmmakers and movie lovers hopping from one screening to the next.
What you might not notice is the petite woman behind the scenes, working among the mass of volunteers helping to keep what has evolved into a well-oiled machine running smoothly.
“I’m right there in the trenches with everyone else,” said Susan Gorrell, with her trademark,
As Executive Director of the film festival, the event — which debuted in 2011 — has expanded its reach. This year taking place April 26 through 30, it will include 180 films, with nearly 1,000 filmmakers in attendance — nearly 300 more than in the previous year.
It also will host several world, U.S. and Iowa premieres, in addition to panel discussions, workshops, coffee talks and other events.
MovieMaker magazine named it among the “50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee” in 2022, calling it “one of the coolest film festivals.”
“That’s the kind of thing you want,” Gorrell said. “You look for that national recognition, but the filmmakers also really love coming to Dubuque. They think it’s a beautiful community, and they’ve picked up on how receptive and supportive it is of the arts.”
That support has been key, according to Gorrell, whose family had deep roots in the entertainment industry, prior to arriving in Dubuque.
Gorrell, 56, was born in Chelmsford, England, before relocating to Donnellson, Iowa, as a child.
“My mom is from Deery, Northern Ireland, and my dad is American and was in the service when they met,” she said. “Unfortunately, I did not get an accent, as we left when I was 1 year old.”
Her earliest exposure to show business was though the music industry.
Her parents owned a Christian record label called HeartBeat Records, where Gorrell gained experience contributing as a production coordinator and graphic designer, before working as an event producer for the Unity Catholic Music Awards and Video Associations Unity Awards.
An underlying interest in film came to fruition after meeting her leading man, Ken.
“I was living in California at the time, and he had just gotten out of the Navy,” Gorrell said of her husband. “He had always wanted to get into film. He sent a resume to Universal Studios in Florida and basically said he could do all the things he couldn’t do.”
Ken was taken under the wing of American television director and producer Virgil Fabian, who is affiliated with Nickelodeon shows, including “All That,” “Kenan & Kel,” “The Amanda Show” and “Drake & Josh,” in addition to “The All New Mickey Mouse Club” and “Family Matters,” among others. He offered Ken one piece of advice: “It’s up to you to make your career in this business.”
Ken eventually found his calling in special effects and in the past three decades has worked on a lengthy roster of television series and films.
Meanwhile, Gorrell gave birth to the couple’s two sons, as well as one daughter, filling the rest of her time performing as various Disney characters at theme parks before supporting the special events manager for Walt Disney World.
However, the Gorrells soon opted to return to Iowa to raise their family.
“The thing about the movie industry is that is doesn’t matter where you live. I was home with the kids. Ken would go on location. It’s very non-traditional, but it worked. It’s probably why we’ve been married as long as we have,” Gorrell said, with a laugh.
Introduction to JDIFF
As the kids got older, Gorrell started to seek her own creative outlet, also working in film as a producer.
In 2012, her documentary, “A Million Spokes,” following the journey of RAGBRAI, was screened at Julien Dubuque International Film Festival, then managed by Michael Coty and Christopher Kulovitz.
“I didn’t think very much of it at the time,” Gorrell said. “I remember thinking I might not even go because it was just this little film festival in Dubuque, Iowa.”
But she did attend. Her film won the award for “Best in Iowa.” And the festival and community made an impression on her.
She also noticed an air of familiarity about the city.
“My mother reminded me that I had gone to college for awhile in Dubuque, at Clarke (University), before it had gone co-ed,” she said, laughing. “College didn’t really work out for me, so that’s why I had tried to do something else in California for awhile.”
After her exposure to the festival, Gorrell became an active volunteer with the organization, eventually landing a position on its board of directors.
“The first time I attended the festival, I thought Dubuque was absolutely beautiful,” she said. “And the community was so welcoming, I knew right away that I wanted to use my contacts to help grow it into a more internationally recognized event in any way I could.”
With her background and experience in the film industry, she took on the role of Executive Director in 2014. Even through the COVID-19 pandemic, which paused public gathering for the festival and for a time pivoted to a virtual format, Gorrell continued the momentum.
The Gorrell family now calls Dubuque home, with Ken continuing to work in special effects. Her son, Skylar, also works in film and was nominated for an Oscar in 2017 with the visual effects team for “Deepwater Horizon.” Her son, Brandon, scouts locations for movies.
“We take it for granted, but being situated on the Mississippi River makes it a great place to welcome filmmakers and film watchers from around the world,” Gorrell said. “Dubuque also has great support for the arts. It’s wonderful. The one reason I decided to spend more time here to grow the festival is because of the community support.”
Moving forward, community support is something Gorrell is eager to continue building upon — particularly for tri-state residents who have yet to check out the festival. She’s encouraged that by expanding the festival’s offerings to encompass a winter film series, as well as taking on Dubuque’s annual Halloween parade, with moviemaking as its theme.
“Our festival already is popular and continues to grow among the filmmakers, and we have wonderful support from local businesses and the best volunteers,” Gorrell said. “I hope to make Dubuque a top destination for festival attendees — not only locally, but regionally, nationally and internationally. This can create a great economic impact, which I think is really important. We screen all types of films, and our attendees are very diverse.
“I think film is one of those artistic mediums that has the power to make a difference and connect us emotionally. Julien Dubuque International Film Festival brings people together from everywhere. That’s what makes an event like this so great.”
Megan Gloss writes for the Telegraph Herald.