BRATTLEBORO—It’s that time of year, my friends, when the leaves change color and the air chills and I look over the selections of the annual Brattleboro Film Festival — its seventh! — and see what looks good, what looks interesting, what will break my heart, and what looks hopelessly awful. (Not too much, I’m pleased to say. And it was ever thus: The festival and its volunteers generally choose great films.)
Every year, it’s an experiment.
If it seems like there are fewer films this year, it’s because there are. For a host of scheduling reasons, the film committee has chosen to cut back on the short films and stick to the full-lengths, this year offering 15 full-length documentaries and dramas instead of 20, and just one short.
“Usually we have five or six shorts,” said Film Festival Chair Merry Elder. “But it’s difficult in the two hours we have available to play a short and a feature. Getting people out of the theater is difficult.”
“I was thinking of having a program just of shorts, but it didn’t come together this year,” Elder said. “We may do that in future years.”
Usually in the festival format, any film is shown only once. But many people clamor for a chance to see a film a second time, or to catch one that friends have seen and raved about. This year, the festival is making an effort to show more of the films twice, especially the dramas.
The theme of the festival this year, Elder said, is women. This seems a little full-circle to me, since the volunteers who founded the festival used to work on the Women’s Film Festival, which still takes place every spring.
“Women are on the rise, it’s clear,” Elder said. “Finally. It’s about time. Our opening film is a very strong woman’s film called Woman at War. We have a film about Emily Dickinson, Wild Nights, which is a romantic comedy with Molly Shannon.
“For many years, Emily has been portrayed as practically a shut-in. Now there’s been some research into her letters, and it’s turning out that might not be the case. The film has taken off in the direction of portraying Emily as a lively and funny person — and as a lesbian.
“Like all dramas, it’s fiction,” Elder said. “But it’s kind of refreshing.”
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One of the more dramatic story films this year turns out to be not a narrative but a documentary. América, by Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside, is not about a country; instead, it’s the name of a demented and demanding 93-year-old woman who lives with her son in Colima, Mexico.
On one of those bad days that all caretakers dread, the son went out to run errands, and América, left to her own devices, fell.
Neighbors heard her yelling and discovered her on the floor, bleeding. Her son was put in prison for elder abuse. Her three young-adult grandsons had to leave their own burgeoning lives to come home, take care of her, and try to keep her out of an old-age home, as well as get their father out of prison.
This is an intergenerational love story; the three grandsons truly love their grandmother; the father, when they finally get him released, wants nothing to do with her.
I found myself mesmerized by the faces of the three grandsons. They are our contemporaries. We know them. One is a circus performer. One teaches yoga and meditation and lives with his girlfriend.
The film confronts the chasm between adolescent yearning and adult responsibilities, the difficulty with sibling rivalry when it’s all hands on deck; and it also highlights the ever-growing pressure we face to care for our elders when our resources are extremely limited.
Brattleboro Area Hospice, wisely, is sponsoring this film.
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The heartbreaker this year (there’s always at least one) is called Anote’s Ark, a documentary shot by Matthieu Rytz about Kiribati, an island country in the Solomon Islands which is being drawn back into the sea because of global warming.
The country’s president is Anote Tong, one of those great leaders like Nelson Mandela who come to us all too infrequently in times of crisis. He’s an older, handsome man who looks good in a tux or a business suit when he’s on the world stage with Barack Obama, and he’s equally handsome when sitting in the sea, hunting with his hands to catch his dinner among the rocks.
For Anote’s people, climate change is real. It’s a matter of survival. Where will they go when their homes are under water?
While he is president, Anote tries to get some recognition of the approaching catastrophe from the more-developed nations whose practices are causing his homeland to disappear.
“I don’t think we have enough time to evolve into fish,” he says wryly. “All these emissions are being sent our way, and all the water of climate change. This is an act of war, and we don’t have the means to counter.”
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The most perfect film I saw was Liyana, a mix of live action and animation by Aaron Kopp and Amanda Kopp.
It takes place in an orphanage in beautiful, war-torn, AIDS-torn Swaziland, where 25 percent of the adults have HIV and where an estimated 200,000 children live alone, hungry, in pain, and vulnerable.
Some of the words critics have used to describe this film are “brilliant,” “gorgeous,” “lyrical,” and “masterful.” I agree.
The teachers at the orphanage are trying to help five traumatized orphan boys regain control over the narrative of their own lives. They do so by helping them create a collective fairy tale about a young girl they name Liyana. Once they have named her, they send her on a dangerous quest.
The boys are live, the fairy tale is illustrated but just as alive, and the whole film makes for an enchanting and highly original narrative, even though, sometimes, the stories of people’s families can end sadly.
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Another documentary, Home Away, tells the story of a group of high schoolers and their families. The families live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and the kids go to school across the border in El Paso. At Bowie High School, at least one-quarter of the students have family living on both sides of the border.
The students — a star male soccer player, a star male baseball player, a star female wrestler — learn to use sports as “a way out to a better life.”
The film illustrates the complete absurdity of Donald Trump’s failed immigration policy; these kids have lives on both sides of the border, and things are a lot more complicated (and, right now, more painful) than something solved by an act as simple-minded as building a wall.
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Made by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who gave us Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Elder told me this film will probably be entered in the foreign language category at the next Academy Awards.
The film tells the story of a recent college graduate, Sinan, played by Dogu Demirkol, a man for whom literature lives and sings; he aspires to be a writer and his literary discussions are at the center of this film.
But Sinan, who has just come back from college, also has a reckless gambler of a father to contend with, as well as a mother who is beyond disgusted with her marriage and her life.
Demirkol plays Sinan with his head constantly tilting down, so it’s hard to get a really good look at him, much less to relate to him.
“Nothing is as it seems,” the film tells us. “You have to take risks. Iron doesn’t become steel until it has time in the oven.”
This film got 83 percent on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer, but watching it makes for a long, hard slog. (I did mention that it’s 188 minutes long, and entirely in Turkish?)
Watching The Wild Pear Tree made me realize that there are real faces in all these films. Hasn’t Hollywood warped us? Would we even go to see A Star Is Born if the musicians didn’t look like Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga?
We are accustomed to having our stories illustrated for us by women with small, symmetrical features and men with broad shoulders and handsome faces. Who looks like that in real life?
Can we ever again be comfortable with people who occasionally have acne or weird faces? Does Hollywood’s insistence on beauty warp our ability to understand our own stories? Or to like our own faces when we catch a glimpse of them in the mirror?
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The documentary Saving Brinton, by Tommy Haines, John Richard, and Andrew Sherburne, is made for film lovers, collectors, art historians, and Americana buffs. If you don’t fall into one of those categories, you might find this film a little long for you.
It takes place in rural Iowa, where 30 years ago a tall, bearded farmer/history teacher named Michael Zahs found and adopted a cache of films and historical documents: thousands of films, technology, and documentation dating from well before the invention of the narrative motion picture.
The films, dating from the 1890s to 1908, were made as for-profit entertainment for rural folk by one couple, Frank and Indiana Brinton.
Zahs thinks the cache, which fills an entire room in his farmhouse, is immensely valuable. So he stores it. For 30 years. Really. Finally, history catches up with him, and he finds a protective home for the precious materials at the University of Iowa.
“I like to keep things, especially if they look like they’re too far gone,” Zahs says. “It took decades to get people to listen and appreciate the oldest films in Iowa.”
The Brinton films are short, stunning, and visually fascinating. The one featuring the three-headed woman is a hoot. And Zahs not only has the film and the projector it was originally shown on, but the projector’s 1890 manual as well.
Score one for the hoarders.
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For those of us who lived through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, there’s not much new inor those of us who lived through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, there’s not much new in 1985, an award-winning drama made with professional actors Michael Chiklis and Virginia Madsen by filmmaker Yen Tan.
But younger viewers might find this story about Adrien, a handsome young man played by Cory Michael Smith, who comes home for the Christmas holidays, shockingly new.
While his nuclear family is conservative and conventional, Adrien has lost six friends to AIDS in the past year.
“O, Lord, teach us how to love unconditionally,” is the blessing he offers at the dinner table.
Of course, Adrien is struggling to find the strength to tell his macho father, his hero-worshipping younger brother, and his mother, who is still trying to fix him up with local women, that he is gay.
If you immediately recognize the plotline, the film might seem derivative. For those of us struggling with this scenario today, the film is harrowing as well as deeply moving.