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Special section

For fifth year, a series of films focuses a lens on humanity (and inhumanity)

At this year’s Brattleboro Film Festival, more dramas appear on the schedule, but documentaries still predominate

Joyce Marcel reports and opines regularly for The Commons and for a number of other publications. For years, she has written features that review the offerings of both the Brattleboro Film Festival and the Women’s Film Festival.

BRATTLEBORO—In a year when humanity is being sorely tasked, an area film festival dares to reclaim humanity for human beings.

For the fifth year in a row, the nonprofit Brattleboro Film Festival is running 30 remarkable films at the Latchis Theatre. This year’s festival takes place from Nov. 4 to 13.

While man’s inhumanity to man will be on shining display — Want to know how many different ways there are to torture somebody? Tune in and find out! — there is also much that will uplift you, bring you joy, make you cry in rewarding ways, and melt your heart.

Documentaries dominate the festival, mostly because there are so few mainstream showcases for films of this genre that their creators rely on festivals to reach an audience.

But this year, “We tried hard to have dramas,” said Merry Elder, the chair of the film selection committee as well as the festival itself. “We pay attention to the comment cards, and the audience frequently asks for more dramas and comedies.”

“As a festival, we have a harder time getting topnotch dramas and comedies because they are often taken by big distributors and leave the festival circuit,” Elder continued. “Sometimes a film we want shows up on Netflix, etc. just before the festival, so it’s a road full of potholes. We still try.

“That said, documentaries in general have gotten better over the years, [with] better production and better storytelling through real footage. And we have at least two or three films that are entries into this coming year’s Academy Awards.”

Every year, the festival allows me to stream the films at home in advance so I can write about them. This time I’ve managed to see about 13 of them.

Which one made me gasp out loud at its beauty and originality? Which one made me cry? Which one, in my notes, made me write the phrase “like watching paint dry?”

Read on.

* * *

The festival is opening with perhaps the most beautiful dramatic film I’ve ever seen; it’s the real “Avatar,” and James Cameron should be eating his heart out.

The film, “Tanna,” by Marvin Butler and Bentley Dean, is Australian, but Australia really plays no part in it. “Tanna” is a Romeo-and-Juliet story where the star-crossed lovers live in tribes on the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. It is filmed in the native tongues of its native Yakel actors. The scenery is lush, and the natives are beautiful.

The film is based on a real event that happened in 1987 between two tribes who live in the old ways in villages perched in the shadow of an active volcano.

To try to keep hostilities down, the tribes exchange young women as brides. The plot evolves when one lovely and strong-minded young woman, Wawa, falls in love with an exceptionally handsome and kind hunter from her own tribe named Dain. (The two actors use their real names; Dain was chosen by the tribe to play the part because he was considered the handsomest among them.)

Wawa refuses to be given away as a bride. Instead, she runs away with Dain.

In the film, the two tribes make peace and vow to find a way to make “love marriage” a part of their culture.

“It’s a gem,” Elder said about the film. “It’s amazing to get to see people who basically have lived the same way for centuries. It was a privilege to see this view of their culture.”

* * *

“Tanna” is not the only drama this year with a native playing a lead. In Jeremy Sim’s 2015 film “Last Cab to Darwin,” which brought me to tears, an elderly (but still sexy) Australian cab driver loves, but denies his love of, an Aboriginal woman neighbor named Polly.

This is another Australian film; are they finally getting it together down under about having to share their world with the Aboriginals?

After learning that he has terminal cancer, the cab driver decides to drive his yellow cab across most of the gorgeously empty Australian landscape to reach the town of Darwin, where a doctor is working on the cutting edge of physician-assisted suicide.

So it’s really a road picture. Along the drive, the man picks up a young Aboriginal man (also sexy) and a young British nurse. After “Tanna,” I think I loved this film the best.

* * *

There’s another old-man-dying drama in the festival, a hilarious Swedish film called “A Man Called Ove.”

This film tells the story of an older man, Ove, who hates the world since his wife died and just wants to kill himself and rejoin her beyond the grave.

But every time Ove tries — by hanging, a rifle, and carbon monoxide by car — life, in the form of the needs of his neighbors, interrupts.

The film becomes more and more comic as Ove, against his will, ends up with a full life, lots of love, and no desire to die. The film is just about perfect in its depiction of the importance in life of human connection.

* * *

The film I loved best next was Kathlyn Horan’s feature-length documentary called “The If Project.” This film follows the long-term efforts of one Seattle detective, Kim Bogucki, to understand what keeps the women she arrests addicted to drugs, in jail, and away from their families.

Sparked by one of the inmates, Renata Abramson, the If Project takes small groups of women incarcerated at the Washington Corrections Facility for Women and lets them write answers to provocative questions such as, “If there was one thing someone could have said or done to keep you out of here....”

The film follows Bogucki and many of the women — inside and outside of jail — who get involved in the If Project. We learn their stories and see their struggles. It’s a revelatory film, and the filmmaker and Bogucki will be at the festival for the showing. Don’t miss it.

* * *

If it’s out-and-out brutality you want, the festival has lots of refugee films this year — it’s a theme, but not so much of the festival as of the kind of world we’re now living in.

For example, who knew that two decades ago, the Kingdom of Bhutan evicted one-third of its population? These Nepali-speaking people landed in Nepal and lived in refugee camps for 18 years before coming to the realization that they are never, ever going to be allowed to come home again.

So these rural tribal families face resettlement in, of all places, New Hampshire and Georgia, where they have to adjust to winter, to other refugees from far away and unknown places like Somalia, and to the urban environment itself. The film is uneven, but the resettlement story itself holds your interest.

Even more chilling and more up-to-the-minute are the refugee documentaries about Syria: “After Spring” (the title refers to the lost hope of the Arab Spring in Syria in 2013) and “50 Feet from Syria,” Skye Fitzgerald’s fascinating story about doctors who volunteer in the refugee camps (and who are bombed by the Syrian government for their efforts).

“After Spring,” Ellen Martinez and Steph Ching’s documentary — and one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen — is set in the refugee camp of Zaatari on the Jordan-Syria border.

In Zaatari, families have been struggling for six years to make a life out of almost nothing. Almost 110,000 people are jammed in there — a fraction of the 4 million who have fled their country in fear of their lives, or worse. We get to spend time with several families and hear their stories.

Here’s where the Syrian government’s treatment of its own population shows the special madness that affects people — especially soldiers — in the heat of war, when they are relieved of all of civilization’s restrictions. (Think about the U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib, if you don’t think we can’t do it too.)

Here’s where you’ll learn about government forces firing on peaceful marches, burning babies in front of their parents, raping women, and unleashing all the other dogs of war that force these families, many of them still young and growing, into a desert tent city.

The film describes a “lost generation” of youth raised in these camps, with few schools and fewer books. About 90 percent of the young men are unemployed.

One bright thing: a South Korean tae kwon do master arrives, sets up classes, and finally gives the kids something positive to do and learn. He’s taught more than 300 of them by now.

Watch this film, then please take it up to Rutland, where they’re trying to resettle a few well-vetted Syrian refugee families amid growing opposition that they’re “terrorists.” Then make every person in that town watch it, too.

* * *

Getting off my high horse now, I also recommend “The Last Laugh” by Ferne Pearlstein, which tries to answer this burning question: Can you make jokes about the Holocaust?

The answer turns out to be yes, because, as one interviewee in the film says, “humor is the only thing the Nazis didn’t understand.”

Pearlstein follows Auschwitz survivor Renee Firestone and intercuts footage of her reuniting with other survivors and speaking about the Holocaust with footage from famous comedians seriously addressing the question.

Mel Brooks calls work like his multimillion-dollar Nazi/Broadway spoof “The Producers” “revenge through humor.”

Sarah Silverman says, “Comedy is putting light on the darkness, and darkness can’t live where there’s light.”

And Judy Gold warns, “You can tell a joke about the Holocaust. You just can’t tell a crappy joke about it.”

“Comics are the conscience of the people,” Brooks says in this interesting film about the people who are wrestling with one of life’s darkest questions.

* * *

The engrossingPolitical Animals” is another film I want to rave about.

Created by Jonah Markowitz and Tracy Wares, this documentary introduces us to four pioneering female politicians — lesbians all — who, one by one, are elected to the California State Assembly and make profound changes in the laws that protect LGBTQ people in the state.

In a year where we’ve had to watch Hillary Clinton again face the misogynistic hordes by compromising her butt off, these four openly gay women — Sheila Kuehl, Carole Migden, Jackie Goldberg, and Christine Kehoe — form a bond, watch one another’s backs, and remain entirely faithful to who they are and what they believe in. I loved learning about them; they gave me hope.

“The more you can separate people into groups, the more you can tell lies about them to other people,” one of the women warns.

How true is that in this election season?

* * *

Another film that gave me hope was “Tyrus,” the documentary by Pamela Tom which tells the life story of Chinese-American artist Tyrus Wong.

Wong created the illustrations that animate the animated Walt Disney film “Bambi,” as well as hundreds of other famous films. At 106, Wong is finally getting his due as an artist, and that’s always a heartwarming thing to see.

One of the few downsides, “Ema” (“Mama” in English) is an Estonian whodunnit in which unattractive characters in a gloomy place tell dull, unattractive things to a young male teacher while he is in a coma. You might not figure out who-done-it until the ending is revealed, but I want my one hour and 25 minutes back.

And “Territory” is a short documentary about monkeys in Gibraltar. Maybe watching paint dry is more exciting than watching animal-control officers using pea shooters to herd ratty monkeys away from an urban area, but not by much.

But these are the only downsides I could find. And on the plus side, you will smile from one ear to the other watching Dan Lund’s animated “Aria for a Cow.”

There are so many different ways to enjoy this festival that I am certain that you will, at least, find one or two films that will change your life. I know I did.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #381 (Wednesday, November 2, 2016). This story appeared on page C1.

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