VTIFF was born from the anti-nuclear movement in the 1985, making it the world’s oldest environmental and human rights film festival, although its focus today has broadened to embrace a wide spectrum of social issues and a focus on independent art-house cinema. Founded by two longtime peace and social justice activists, George and Sonia Cullinen, the inspiration for the festival came from the success of their 1981 film, From Washington to Moscow, which documented a Walk for Peace between two rural towns — Washington and Moscow, Vermont. The film won the UNESCO prize at the 1983 Hiroshima International Film Festival in Japan and taught the Cullinens that film and video could motivate people to become involved in their own communities and elsewhere in the world. VTIFF grew out of this vision.
The first Vermont International Film Festival was held in 1985 at Marlboro College in southern Vermont. About one hundred people attended the inaugural event. Now based primarily in Burlington, VTIFF also present showcases in other parts of Vermont. Past festival guests have included such activist artists as actor Danny Glover, Bread & Puppet Theater founder Peter Schumann, and historian and playwright Howard Zinn, among others.