DUMMERSTON—The second Brattleboro Film Festival, which runs from Nov. 1 to 14, is pulling no punches. It plans to rip your heart right out of your chest, twist it, stomp it, tear it, and then put the beaten and bloody thing back, and then you will feel elated and elevated for having had the experience.
Yes, many of the films are that tough. Yet looking through my notes, I also find the words “dazzling,” “stunning,” “brilliant!” “leaves you drowning in aesthetic happiness,” and “I love her.”
With 30 intelligent, fascinating, and professional films to see, you’ll be happy to know that no one gets into a gunfight with a robot or blows up a small city and saves the world. This film festival hits you in the reality where you live. This film festival hits you in the reality where you love.
Before founding the Brattleboro Film Festival last year, its principal volunteers organized the Women’s Film Festival, which still runs in the spring.
What this really means is that the core of the selection committee has had more than two decades of experience shifting through hundreds of films to find the absolutely best independents. It’s a crack team that demands and recognizes the best.
“The good thing is that we had no problem finding terrific films this year,” said film festival president and selection committee chairwoman Merry Elder. “We have the best slate we’ve ever had [at either festival]. We have at least three films that are on a lot of people’s Oscar buzz list. We’re got some really terrific films.”
* * *
Some of these films are about making fascinating art, like Ben Shapiro’s Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters. Some are amazing art in themselves, like Jean-François Laguionie’s animated The Painting.
Some of these films are funny, like Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish, which brings Bollywood to New York and stars the lovely Indian film star Sridevi playing a character who tries to learn English and get some respect from her family. Or Ken Loach’s charming, brutal, and hilarious whiskey caper, The Angel’s Share.
Some of these films hurt — and hurt bad — like Short Term 12, by Destin Daniel Cretton, which is about a short-term home for at-risk teens and the young workers who try to provide them with a safe environment.
All the people in Short Term 12 have been cruelly used, including the caretakers. And they are all trying, in the words of one, “to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like.”
The festival opens with Australia’s entry to the 2014 Academy Awards, Kim Mordaunt’s transcendent The Rocket, about an energetic and eager young boy trying to survive in a superstitious, corrupt, tribal Laos — a country that has not yet recovered from its contact with America.
Another remarkable, scary, and beautiful film is Test, by Chris Mason Johnson, set in gay San Francisco in 1985, just after a test for AIDS has been created. People are frightened, and no one is really certain about how the disease spreads or how it will affect gay life. One newspaper headline even asks, “Should Gays Be Quarantined?”
But Test is a narrative, not a documentary, and it’s also a dance film starring the beautiful dancer and actor Scott Marlowe and a troupe of gifted dancers doing some wonderful modern choreography by Sidra Bell as they try to figure out how to be themselves in a suddenly unsafe world — a world where they can, as one man cynically says, “come out by dying.”
* * *
It’s always been difficult to be different or to hold your own when everyone turns against you, and many of the films this year tell the stories of people who fought for the right to be themselves and who have made our world a better place because of it.
My favorite film in this category is Margarethe von Trotte’s docudrama Hannah Arendt. Arendt was already a world-famous philosopher and “political theorist” (her term) when The New Yorker credentialed her to cover the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel. She reported truthfully that just as the Nazis were responsible for some of the worst horrors of mankind, some of the leaders of the tightly organized Jewish communities they destroyed made it easier for them to do their nefarious work.
She discovered that evil, instead of being large, dramatic, imposing, almost operatically Satanic, was really small — the accretion of ordinary people going through their lives thoughtlessly carrying out orders from their superiors and conforming to whatever was going on in their society.
Eichmann, head of Nazi transportation, might have known that his trains were going to the death camps, but as long as he filled them with the right number of Jews and they left on time, he had fulfilled his responsibility.
“It was the inability to think that created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale,” Arendt says. “Eichmann surrendered that single-most human quality — being able to think. Consequently, he was no longer capable to make moral judgments.”
For this concept, Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil,” and when you watch real footage of Eichmann during the trial (brilliantly cut into the film in black and white) you can see what she was getting at.
Misunderstanding her brilliant insight, the Jewish community in the United States and Israel accused her of hating Israel and of blaming the Jews for their own destruction. Her book was banned in Israel and most of her friends deserted her. (You can imagine the same results if someone of great stature today condemned Israel for tormenting the Palestinians, and where is that person?)
Of course, today Arendt’s insights are generally accepted. The film also illustrates her loving and happy marriage, and you have to go a long way these days to find a film that does justice to the joys of middle-aged marriage. This would be my personal “best in fest.”
In the same going-against-the-tide category is the girl I fell in love with, Laura Dekker, the star of Jillian Schlesinger’s documentary Maidentrip.
Dekker is a Dutch girl brought up in a boat yard by a single father, and at 14 she decides she wants to sail around the world alone in her sailboat, Guppy. Her parents support her, but the Dutch authorities are so horrified that they start a year-long court battle to take her away from her father and put her in a home.
Eventually, Dekker’s father wins the court battle, and the delightful Dekker sets out to sea. With a handheld camera that is sometimes mounted on a tripod, Dekker films herself sailing over the next two years as she completes her goal.
“I love being alone, and I feel freedom in not being attached to anything,” she says.
She sails, she docks, she makes friends and tours places on land, she sails alone some more. She goes thorough the Panama Canal, she dances on the boat, she rounds Africa in a storm, and not eating or sleeping for three days straight, and succeeds. (She says, “I was at the top of my awareness.”)
Dekker becomes the youngest person to sail around the world alone, and guess what? She keeps on sailing. But this time she takes on a one-man crew (who happens to be a very cute young man.)
* * *
Dekker isn’t the only outsider to pursue her dream. There’s the brilliant Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Alice Walker, in a too-long, hagiographic documentary by Pratbha Parmar, fighting our wrong-headed society at every turn.
She’s in the heart of the Civil Rights movement, of course, and she fights against female genital mutilation. But after she writes The Color Purple, she finds some of her own people turning against her because she exposes the abuse that African-American men inflict on African-American women. “Activism is the rent I pay for living on the planet,” she says.
And speaking of National Book Award winners, I hardly know how to talk about Bruno Barreto’s beautiful narrative Reaching for the Moon, the story of the great American poet Elizabeth Bishop (played by the fragile and beautiful Miranda Otto) and her thrilling, dramatic, long-term, tragic affair with the brilliant Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares (played by a dynamic Glória Pires).
The film is stunning to watch; it offers an education in modern architecture and design, and almost every shot teaches us something about art in the spare Edward Hopper way of clean verticals and clear color. It also teaches us something about love, and how joyously it begins and how heartbreaking it can be at the end.
“The art of losing can’t be hard to master,” Bishop writes.
Another great writer profiled is Gore Vidal in Nicholas Wrathall’s Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia. For a biting, cynical, and authentic history of the United States from Kennedy to today, nothing beats Vidal’s witty analysis of the corruption, decline, and fall of democracy in America.
* * *
I mentioned that the festival is a good place to discover new acting talent, and I would be remiss if I didn’t emphasize the glorious Scott Marlowe, from Test; the warm and sexy John Gallagher Jr., from Short Term 12; Bree Larson, also from that film; the beautiful and ethereal Miranda Otto and the strong and vibrant Glória Pires from Reaching for the Moon, and the sexy Paul Brannigan from The Angel’s Share.
Brannigan falls into the same category of sexy Brits as Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller — at first glance, they’re just weird, skinny, funny-looking guys. At second glance, you’re in love for life.
The festival will be showing all six parts of Freedom and Unity: The Vermont Movie, Nora Jacobson’s ambitious and comprehensive documentary about the state, filmed by 36 Vermont filmmakers. (Part one starts with the Abenaki; part three is about 1960s communes and radicals and features many people from Windham County.)
The festival will also have workshops on filmmaking. It will have special events and more special events. It will have a “Best in Fest” voted on by filmgoers. (Be advised that my personal choices never win.)
It will also show one of the most difficult films made in the last few years, Joshua Oppenheimer, Errol Morris, and Werner Herzog’s The Act of Killing, in which Communist Party members in Indonesia happily recreate for the camera the genocidal tortures, rapes, and murders that they committed between 1965 and 1966.
“We’re very proud we’re showing a film like The Act of Killing, Elder said. “It’s a difficult film to watch, but it’s groundbreaking and important for people to see.”
* * *
How does a volunteer festival of this quality get put on in Brattleboro every year?
“Eighty percent of the cost is film plus venue,” festival vice-chair Lissa Weinmann said. “Local business have stepped forward to help us with in-kind contributions. Everyone pitches in to bring these films to town. We also have donations from sponsors.”
“But for the most part, we put stuff on credit cards and hope the ticket sales pay for the thing,” she continued. “We hope there’s no bad-weather stuff that will throw an ax in the works.”
“This is done on faith but, thanks to the community, we have that faith. People want to see these films. We are building an audience for independent filmmakers.
“And that is a very worthy, necessary effort. And that’s what keeps us going even when we sometimes want to throw shoes at each other.”