Seeing the world we live in, and our own selves
<i>1971</i> chronicles the story of protestors who broke into a F.B.I. office in Media, Penn., stole all its files, and released them to the press.

Seeing the world we live in, and our own selves

Festival will screen 31 works to astonish and amaze us

Ahhhh, Brattleboro Film Festival! How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

At the press screening, Pride, your opening film, made me laugh out loud, and I burst out of the theater cheering. My Name Is Sand unfolded before my eyes an unknown world of beauty and mystery.

Boy and the World, with its gorgeous animation, broke my heart and showed me how the world might end. The Starfish Throwers taught me that all is not lost and people really can, if their hearts are big enough, change the world. Angel Azul just flat-out astounded me.

And that's just the beginning.

I am a person who is greedy for good films. I drink them in as a person who is lost in a desert would drink clean water. Most of the year I am lost in an entertainment desert of uninteresting, well-acted, neatly-plotted-but-ordinary films and television shows where the good guys always win and occasionally things blow up. Then comes the Brattleboro Film Festival to save my soul.

This year, the festival's selection committee has scoured the indie film world and found 31 new films to astonish and amaze us.

The festival, as many people know, broke away from the Women's Film Festival after a long debate over showing only films made by women about women. Both festivals show wonderful films, and Brattleboro is deeply enriched by having both of them.

For the new (and less-doctrinaire) BFF, at first, survival was uncertain.

“It's hard to believe that less than three years ago a small group of us, all volunteers, launched the festival with a shared dream, blind faith, and a credit card,” said Merry Elder, film guru, past president of the Women's Film Festival, and current president of the BFF board.

“Today, the festival is steadily growing, thanks to the generous businesses and individuals who are supporting us financially along with all the film lovers who anxiously await the reveal of our slate.

“It's a major year-round undertaking to put on a 10-day festival. We'll always be working out those eleventh hour kinks, but I'm so happy and proud to say, we're here to stay!”

This year the festival will run at the Latchis from Oct. 31 to Nov. 9. A complete schedule, descriptions of the films, and some reviews can be found elsewhere in this supplement.

So let me get right down to some of the films I had the honor to preview and loved the most.

* * *

The British feel-good film Pride was written by Stephen Beresford and directed by Matthew Warchus. You could call it The Full Monty for our times, only with gays and lesbians.

Pride is wildly popular in England - it has a few famous faces in it - and was received with a standing ovation and an award at the Cannes Film Festival. It is now showing in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other cities.

The producers were hesitant to let it play - even once - in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere called Brattleboro, Vermont. But then they looked at the Latchis website and saw that the Boston Gay Men's Chorus will be here the same weekend that the film festival opens.

Then and there they decided that Pride would be the perfect movie to open the festival. They are right.

Pride is set in 1984 and tells the unlikely but true story of a small bunch of very brave, activist gays - and one lesbian - who decide they feel enough solidarity with striking Welsh coal miners to start collecting money for their strike fund.

Even though one man says, “Why should I help them? They beat me up every morning when I went to school, and then they beat me up again when I came home,” the brave young leader of this group says that being beaten up by police and getting lied to and threatened by their own government - Margaret Thatcher's government - gives them common ground.

When their newly formed group, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, goes to a little village in Wales to donate their contribution, the film becomes one of those great British small-town comedies like The Full Monty or Calendar Girls. Cultures clash, consciousness is raised, hatred turns to hilarity, warmth and wisdom ensue, and there's a finale that will not leave a dry eye in the theater.

I'm not kidding when I say I burst out into the street ready to march and cheer, and I told everyone I met for the next two hours how great this film is. [Editor's note: She did.] Opening night. Be there!

* * *

Speaking of a government acting for the status quo and against the well-being of its people, one of the most astonishing films the festival is showing is 1971, a documentary directed in 2014 by Johanna Hamilton.

It tells a remarkable story.

If you are old enough to remember, 1971 in the United States was a time of fervent protest against the Vietnam war. It was the era of My Lai and the Tet Offensive. Many in the peace movement felt that the country was unravelling.

As a matter of fact, so did FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who started spying on Americans. (Is this ringing a bell?) He employed agent provocateurs and kept many files on innocent citizens. It was as if the FBI had become the East German Stasi.

By protesting an immoral war and expressing their constitutional right to freedom of speech, activists were being turned into enemies of the state.

A small group of protestors decided to act. They broke into a satellite office of the FBI in Media, Pa., and stole all its files. These they made available to the press.

Many newspapers passed on the scoop, but not The Washington Post. Soon, the paper began publishing stories about a strange program called cointelpro, begun in the 1950s to rout Communists and at that point being used illegally to spy on ordinary Americans.

Exposure forced Congress to face the music and eventually hold hearings. These led to Hoover's downfall and paved the way for the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.

The best part about the break-in? No one was ever caught! (Julian Assange, hiding in an embassy in London, Edgar Snowdon hiding in Russia, and Chelsea [formerly Bradley] Manning, languishing in an American prison: Take note.)

For three years, more than 90 agents worked to uncover the identities of the burglars, yet they remained hidden in plain sight for 43 years. After they had raised their children and lived their normal, community-minded lives, they finally came forward and told their story.

You have to love these people for risking everything to tell the truth. As one of the protestors says, “If all we did was want to be safe, that would allow people to take our government away - and they would be safe.”

* * *

Leaving politics for a moment, there's a charming 2013 French animated film from the folks who gave us the lovely Triplets of Belleville - Stéphane Aubier, Benjamin Renner and Vincent Patar - about an unlikely friendship between a burly musical bear named Ernest and and a tiny young mouse named Celestine. It's called, not surprisingly, Ernest & Celestine.

Watching it, I was being carried away by the Frenchness and the cuteness of it all when I noticed that there was a decidedly not cute and not French and very live mouse crawling out of the utility room next to my desk.

I stopped the film and started screaming. The mouse ran into a handbag that hangs from the doorknob.

Still screaming, I picked up the bag by holding a ruler at arm's length, put it outside, and watched the mouse scurry away under the leaves.

I told Merry about it, and she emailed back, “Excuse me for any insensitivity, but I find your mouse story hilarious!”

There will always be a disconnect between cartoon and real mice, but I think that Ernest & Celestine will be lovely for children and adults alike. It's gorgeously drawn, and the lead mouse, unlike a real one, is adorable.

* * *

If American roots music is a river - and it is - then its source can be found in the Appalachian foothills, in a small Virginia town called Maces Springs. That's where the Carter family lived.

Beth Harrington's 2014 film The Winding Stream tells the story of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and her sister Maybelle; their music, their children's music, and their children's children's music.

Since one of Maybelle's daughters was June Carter, who married Johnny Cash, who begat Rosanne Cash, you can see that the stream is still flowing forward.

The film offers archival footage, interviews and music - lots and lots of music. Hearing a wiser and older Johnny Cash talk with love and devotion about June and Maybelle brought tears to my eyes.

“At the center of most great creative artists is essentially a mystery,” A.P. said, and this film unlocks history and mystery together. True, you will have to suffer through some weird moving cutouts, but the film is revelatory and well worth the watching.

* * *

The environment is a big issue, and the festival attacks it on many fronts.

The wordless, stunning, and terrifyingly beautiful 2014 Brazilian film The Boy and the World is an animated film by Alê Abreu, who has a brilliant imagination and a cruel understanding of how urbanization might destroy us all.

Some call this film “a cautionary tale of globalization,” and others a “universal parable.” Besides breaking your heart, it will dazzle you with the creativity. If you are one of the many warriors on the environmental front lines, you need no other film but this one to convince the world.

And if you're not an eco-warrior, and if The Boy and the World doesn't scare you straight, you might want to see Sand Wars, Denis Delestrac's 2013 “epic eco-thriller,” which teaches us that the world is running out of sand.

Who knew? Who ought to know? All of us.

Sand is used to make concrete, glass, cleaning products, and even toothpaste. In fact, it is needed by almost every product in our industrialized world. And, yes, you heard me - we're running out of out of it.

It turns out that there are sand thieves and sand pirates and sand trafficking and even islands in the Pacific that are disappearing because their sand is being stolen - 25 of them in Indonesia alone. Call this well-documented film eye-opening. (And you thought the first resource wars would be over water.)

* * *

Happily, the festival introduces us to people who are actually making a positive difference in the world.

The film in the festival with the most outrageously ravishing images might be Angel Azul, Marcelina Cravat-Overway's 2014 film about sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor.

Taylor, a deep-sea diver as well as a gifted artist, is concerned with vanishing coral reefs. His solution is to make life-sized casts of the interesting bodies and faces he finds around him, turn the casts into sculptures, and drop these sculptures into the sea where they slowly become the foundations for new reefs.

Imagine a circle underwater of lifelike people with colorful tropical fish nibbling at their noses, if you will. Or government officials with their heads buried in the sand, if you will. Or a beautiful angel with fan coral for wings. These sculptures can be found in an underwater museum, MUSA (Museo Subacuático de Arte), which tourists can access from Cancún or Isla Mujeres in Mexico.

But along with the tourists comes their uncontrolled pollution, which eventually drives Taylor away from Mexico. He's now working in the Canary Islands.

Taylor brings me to Jesse Roesler's award-winning 2014 film The Starfish Throwers, which tells the stories of three heroic people who are trying to feed the world and somehow manage to feed at least a part of it.

In India, five-star chef Narayanan Krishnan fights the caste system to cook and deliver meals to hundreds of homeless people who are living by the side of the road. Many of them, male and female, have been abandoned there by families who no longer want to take care of them. Eventually, Krishnan raises enough money to build a home where the homeless can bathe, eat, and sleep in dignity.

In America, 12-year-old Katie Stagliano of South Carolina has created Katie's Krops, 73 gardens around the U.S. that feed the poor and hungry.

And in Minneapolis, Allan Law, a retired teacher, spends 365 nights a year delivering sandwiches, mittens, and other necessities to the homeless people of his city.

The title of the film comes from a story by Loren Eiseley about a man who rescued starfish, one at a time, by throwing the beached animals back into the sea.

“While many of us have put aside some of those innocent dreams of changing the world and making a difference, I believe that sharing these stories will help us all to rediscover our own potential to affect positive change,” writes Roesler.

In other words, a little compassion married to a little direct action can have big consequences.

In The Great Turning, which is basically a 27-minute talk, the eco-philosopher Joanna Macy presents the hopeful argument that the world is in the process of turning from industrial destruction (see The Boy and the World and Sand Wars) toward sustainability.

Even to a cynic like myself, Macy makes a good case. “How do we look straight into the face of our time without going crazy?” she asks, and her answer is that we should not be afraid of looking and allowing our heart to break open.

The turning, according to Macy, comes from the heart broke open.

She finds many people who are creating ways for humankind to meet its needs without destroying the Earth. She cites local agriculture and the localvore movement, global warming activists, new forms of healing, the increased focus on renewable energy, new ideas (see Angel Azul) about protecting vulnerable parts of the earth, new forms of currency, and a new and growing shift in consciousness “that recognizes that our planet is a living system.”

Whether you think she's a cockeyed optimist or really onto something, there's no denying that she makes a strong case for a new way of being that might be strong enough to save the world.

* * *

Documentaries seem to prevail at the festival this year, but it offers other dramas beside Pride and the two animated films. Among them are the brutal short film One-Armed Man written by Horton Foote, which might be headed for an Academy Award this year; an absorbing Croatian film called Mother, I Love You; and a 2014 Swiss docudrama, The Circle, about a forbidden gay European literary magazine that published in the 1940s and 1950s.

But I'll leave you with one last documentary film that irritated me at the start and left me awed and breathless by the time it ended. It's Farida Pacha's 2013 Swiss/Indian film My Name Is Salt.

The film opens on a parched and dry desert; you know water once flowed there, but you don't know how long ago that might have been. Across this wide moonscape comes a truck bearing Sanabhai and his family.

The truck pulls up in the middle of the desert, and the family sets about settling in. Out of the mud that lies below the dried-up crust they dig up an old pump engine. (How did they know it was there?) They spend the next few months at hard labor, digging salt flats, pumping water into them, creating and mining salt.

“Year after year, for an endless eight months, thousands of families move to a desert in India to extract salt from the burning earth,” Pacha writes. “Every monsoon their salt fields are washed away, as the desert turns into sea. And still they return, striving to make the whitest salt in the world.”

There is no narration. Not until the film is almost finished do you understand the parameters of what you've seen - the story line, if you will.

The visuals are stunning. The film has been called “lyrical, poetic, but austere.” “The desert becomes a character: strange, illusory, mesmerizing, hard.”

Pacha writes, “As viewers, we are given the space to meditate on a different experience of time; to sense things, to perceive a whole visual and acoustic universe, to be able to make the leap from the natural world to a more poetic, abstract level....”

“In Sanabhai's story, there appears a mirage-like reflection of the ancient tale of Sisyphus, who so loved life and so struggled to prolong it that the gods punished him by condemning him to work without reward. By reducing life to its most basic equation: that work is our condition, and not to work is to be outside life itself.”

In My Name Is Salt, you can find echoes of the entire Brattleboro Film Festival this year. As Pacha writes:

“The film, then, is a philosophical meditation on deeper questions: What is the meaning of work? Why do we do the work we do? What is the relationship of work to life?

“In the end, Sanabhai's story is meaningful not just because it tells us something about the world we live in, but because it tells us something about our own selves.”

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates