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French filmmaker Agnes Varda, whose documentary The Gleaners & I is featured at this year’s festival.

The Arts

A wealth of interesting stories at 20th annual Womens Film Festival

Joyce Marcel writes frequently on the arts in these pages. Her column appears monthly in Voices.

BRATTLEBORO—This month marks the 20th anniversary of the Women’s Film Festival. To celebrate, the festival is presenting a jaw-dropping 39 films in two venues, the Latchis Theatre and the New England Youth Theater, between March 11-20.

The Women’s Film Festival has a wealth of interesting films this year; it would be hard to find a bad night at the festival.

You can approach the festival from a number of different angles, often several at once.

You can choose films that engender outrage and shine their light on unjust victimization.

You can choose to avoid outrage and spend your visual time in meetings with remarkable women, reveling in their wisdom and achievements.

You can choose films as travelogues to visit other countries and learn about other peoples.

Or you can choose to approach the films as art — original images, original stories, original ideas.

During its 20 years in existence, the festival has achieved such renown that filmmakers from all over the world now submit their entries. This means you are as likely to see a film in English as in Hebrew, German, French, Romanian or an African dialect.

Since the festival is entirely staffed by volunteers, how the film choice committee — usually composed of between five and seven people — manages to wade through the submitted material to pick the best is beyond me. But they do it so well that some of the films they’ve chosen in the past remain indelibly etched in our minds for the rest of our life.

Take  Ulrike Ottinger’s 1989 Johanna D’Arc Of Mongolia, a ravishing and colorful musical fantasy set mainly on a sleeper train moving through the brown barren steppes of Mongolia. It was shown at the first film festival; it was also shown a few years later.

I can’t remember which iteration I saw, but that a film of such beauty, wit, and imagination even existed — not to mention that it was made by a woman and centered on images of women — was an astonishment to me.

I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Last year, when the festival asked its audience which films it wanted brought back to celebrate the anniversary, this was the first on the list. And so this amazing film — that, ahem, you can’t rent in video stores or through Netflix — will once again play Brattleboro.

I still remember the thrill of my first festival, when groups of us — mostly strangers to each other, but all of us excited and thrilled by what we had just seen at the Latchis —stood around the corner of Flat and Main streets discussing films. It was a heady time.

From 1992 to 1998, the films were only shown at the Latchis, which back then was privately owned and had a profit-sharing arrangement with the festival.

When the Latchis backed out of the arrangement after the 1998 season, a small group of devotees kept the festival alive by showing three films in Bellows Falls.

In 2000, the committee reorganized.

“We got the Hooker-Dunham and the Latchis,” said Merry Elder, who has been with the festival since the beginning and now heads the film selection committee. “We had a bigger array of films, more choices, we did our own booking, and we were able to show more documentaries. Before, we couldn’t show too many because they didn’t make enough money for the theater, But now we could show what we wanted. And now we accept submissions from all over the world. The festival has grown and blossomed and thrived.”

A few years ago, the festival was forced to abandon the Hooker-Dunham Theater because it is not yet wheelchair-accessible. The New England Youth Theater took its place.

Each year, according to Elder, the festival raises more than $10,000 for the women’s center. She estimates that it’s raised nearly $125,000 over the 20 years of its existence.

This year, the festival has an abundance of everything.

One of the many interesting women whose life is portrayed is the great writer, poet and political activist Grace Paley, who died in 2007. Since this film, Grace, by Sonya Friedman, was done in 2010, we meet Paley mostly in photographs, at readings and in snippets of old interviews.      

Paley, the author of 21 books, innumerable poems and short stories, shines with wit and political courage. In one scene, Paley reads her poem,  Responsibility, which can easily serve as the coda to the festival. 

It ends, “It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman/to keep and eye on/This world and cry out like Cassandra, but be/listened to this time.”

Last year, the festival introduced me to the French director Agnes Varda, with a moving and beautiful portrait of her husband, the filmmaker Jacques Demy, even as he dies of AIDS. This year, she is featured with her 2001 exploration of people who scavenge, The Gleaners & I.

Her camera follows people who gather produce from French fields and orchards after the harvest is over (she herself collects heart-shaped potatoes); from garbage cans after the market finishes for the day, from trash heaps on the streets during collection days.

There’s a political edge to this film — what a wasteful consumer society we live in, throwing out useful objects and so much food, while people are living in makeshift shelters and going hungry! But the film mainly fascinates because of Varda’s curiosity about her own body growing old, and about the lives of the people she meets. She teaches artists that their life as well as their hearts and their selves can be the subjects as well as the objects of art.

In one of the most astonishing visual sequences in the whole festival, Varda convinces a museum to unearth from its basement a large old masterpiece of a painting showing female gleaners running from a rain storm. They haul it outside during a wind storm — this is a woman with serious powers of persuasion — where it blends seamlessly into the contemporary landscape.

Another unforgettable woman you’ll meet in this year’s festival is Carla Zilbersmith, a singer and comedian who is making way with her career when she is diagnosed with ALS.

Leave them Laughing, a 2010 film by John Zaritsky, lets Zilbersmith, a stunning redhead, do just that. Her ability to find humor in her fate (“Can you imagine if they told Lou Gehrig that he had Lou Gehrig’s disease?”) and her remarkable relationship with her son make the film, and Zilbersmith, unforgettable to the end.

Coming back this year is All I’ve Got, a 2002 narrative film in Hebrew by Keren Margalit. It presents a strange imaginative choice to a deceased 72-year-old woman. She can either go into the afterlife as her young self with the hot lover who died young in a car crash, or with the elderly husband with whom she has shared a long life and three children. If she chooses her lover, she will lose the memories of everything that came afterward. It’s an interesting choice to make, and this beautifully-acted film will keep you in suspense almost until the end.

For full information on all the films, visit

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Originally published in The Commons issue #90 (Wednesday, March 2, 2011).

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