Expect the unexpected

Expect the unexpected

Hope, rage, surprise, escapism, and more — all from the 16 films that comprise this year’s Brattleboro Film Festival

BRATTLEBORO — I can't remember a time when I've seen so many brilliant films in one collection.

The 16 long films (and some shorts) that the Brattleboro Film Festival is showing this year - its sixth, at the Latchis between Friday, Nov. 3 and Sunday, Nov. 12 - are stunning.

They will entertain, thrill, impress, educate, and enlighten you, and in a few cases they will do so while also breaking your heart.

Audiences will notice several things that are different this year. First of all, 16 films, not the usual 30.

“We've skimmed off about one-third in order to show more of them twice,” said Merry Elder, the chair of the film selection committee and president of the festival.

Many of the films are dramas.

“Over the years, we've had a lot of documentaries - more than half each year,” Elder said. “It's hard for a festival to get the dramas, especially if they're good, because the major distributors snatch them up and take them off the festival circuit. This year, we have good dramas.”

And the film committee chose with perhaps a lighter touch this year.

“A lot of people go to the movies to escape, and especially this year, we felt it important to have a little escapism,” Elder said.

I expected a comedy from Sara Taksler's film Tickling Giants, a documentary about the Jon Stewart of Egypt, Bassem Youssef, but it unalterably saddened me.

I expected nothing from Nick Louvel and Michele Mitchell's film The Uncondemned, but I found myself enlightened and inspired as well as educated.

I never expected to see another film by the great French film director Agnès Varda, now 89, but here's the enchanting and celebrated documentary Faces Places.

As usual with the BFF, expect the unexpected.

* * *

Among the best drama in this year's festival is the witty French film Lost in Paris - by the amazing-looking Fiona Gordon and her oddly handsome husband, Dominique Abel. Both also star.

The film, a quirky look at Paris from the ground up (to the top of the Eiffel Tower), owes a great debt to Jacques Tati and offers many of the same kinds of sight gags and street scenes as that filmmaker used. Its third star is the great romantic film actress Emmanuelle Riva, who died in January.

Here, Riva explores age, memory, romance, and adventure in a wistful performance that made me write in my notes, “I love this film! It makes you happy!”

If you enjoyed Amélie, you, too, will love this film.

* * *

Another great drama - hard-hitting and equally quirky, (but not funny) - was Danielle Katvan's The Foster Portfolio. I couldn't make out where this short drama, taken from a Kurt Vonnegut story, was going, but in the end it was a hit in the gut with a two-by-four - and it's all about jazz!

A third drama is the fascinating I Dream in Another Language, by Ernesto Contreras. The film, in Spanish, explores what happens when the last two speakers of an indigenous language - a fictional language called Zikril, once spoken by members of a tribe living on the lush coast of Mexico - hate each other so much over a romantic rivalry from 50 years before that they won't speak to each other.

This drives a young linguist who has come to record the language for posterity up a wall.

This film also features an unspoken gay love story as well as a young-defiant-lovers love story.

In my notes, I wrote, “The most moving film I've seen in years.”

But the true meaning of the film, as reported by Variety, is that “in a world of globalization, endangered primitive languages represent different ways of seeing and understanding the world, perspectives that are lost when we fail to show sufficient curiosity in the generations and cultures that have come before.”

* * *

Agnès Varda, one of the original members of the French New Wave, is relentless in pursuit of her singular vision. (Remember her bringing large mirrors to the ocean in the last one?) And vision is everything in her films.

Here, in the documentary Faces Places, she hooks up with a tall and cool young man called JR, a professional photographer who wears a porkpie hat and dark sunglasses and travels around rural France in a truck that looks like a camera and has a photo studio in the back. It makes large-format photos that he and his staff then plaster on the walls of barns, houses, and trains, among other things.

This is a road movie at its heart, and its heart is huge.

* * *

Strad Style, a documentary by Stefan Avalos, introduces us to a creepy, self-obsessed loser with bipolar disorder living in a ramshackle house in a cornfield in small-town Ohio. Yet this guy makes an exact copy of one of the most famous violins in the world.

Over the internet, Daniel Houck, 32, convinces a fast-rising Romanian musician named Razvan Stoica that he can provide a playable copy of the famed del Gesù “Cannone,” made by Giuseppe Guarneri (Stradivari's neighbor and competitor) for the great Paganini.

The film starts out slowly and you kind of want to kick Houck and make him shut up as he talks endlessly about himself.

But the film picks up momentum when Houck begins working on the violin, and it goes to warp speed when he travels to Amsterdam and hands over the violin to Stoica.

The film becomes heavenly as Houck listens to Stoica play it at a concert and then travels to the holy city of Cremona, Italy, where Stradivari and Guarneri made their coveted instruments.

* * *

I loved the documentary Quest, by Jonathan Olshefski, which brings us into a low-income African-American community in North Philadelphia and focuses on almost a decade in the life of the Rainey family, who run a rap music studio in their home.

Chris, a.k.a. “Quest,” and his wife, Christin'a, a.k.a. “Ma Quest,” are raising their beautiful, athletic, and musically gifted young daughter, Patricia, or “PJ.”

“She had rhythm from the door,” says her mother. “She was the coolest 5-year-old ever.”

Quest delivers newspapers to make ends meet; Ma Quest works in a women's shelter. The family struggles. They make music with their friends. And then PJ is accidentally shot in the face and loses an eye, and the community comes together to help the family.

The story begins in the time of Obama's second election, but racism still haunts North Philadelphia and the Rainey family.

We get so close to them that's it's almost breathtakingly ghastly when, near the end, the director cuts to a TV showing then-candidate and now-President Donald J. Trump on the campaign trail saying, “What do you have to lose, African-Americans? I will straighten it out.”

* * *

A documentary I flat-out loved was The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, by Jennifer M. Kroot, which follows the great author of the masterpiece Tales of the City.

Maupin, 73, was the son of an undemonstrative and conservative Southerner. To win his father's approval, the gay Maupin served in Vietnam and even met and worked for Richard Nixon. But, as he says, “My whole success was concurrent with my coming out sexually.”

Maupin talks about having a “logical family” as well as a “biological family.”

“Sometimes the people who share blood with you won't come along for the ride,” he says.

Maupin's success came through his short stories of San Francisco during the Castro period of gay pride and the horrors of AIDS. Back then, Maupin was alone in writing about these characters. Author Neil Gaiman says Maupin has “testicles the size of asteroids.”

Maupin is warm, open (his stories of trysting with Rock Hudson make great dish), loving, and loved. Sir Ian McKellen talks about coming out because of him.

Laura Linney, who starred in the PBS dramas that were made out of the Tales, rides in a gay-pride parade with him wearing the dress she wore a few decades before in the show. We meet his former lover, who left him when the AIDS “drug cocktail” came out because he wanted to be free, and we meet his current husband. (They have an open relationship.)

Amy Tan says, “Armistead tells the stories that make you want to tell your stories.”

* * *

The documentary film Dolores, by Peter Bratt, tells the under-reported story of Dolores Huerta, a Latina activist who, with César Chávez, organized farm workers in California into a union, the United Farm Workers, and brought social justice to an oppressed minority in an oppressive industry.

Huerta was young, 15 or 16, when she became a warrior queen and got involved with the union, the grape boycott, Chávez, and the fight against migrant-worker enslavement in the San Joaquin Valley. As a result of this boycott, 17 million people stopped eating grapes, and the U.S. government shipped the excess fruit to Vietnam.

An environmentalist, she helped stop the spraying of DDT on lettuce and grapes.

Huerta paid a high price for her involvement. Her family life was troubled, and many of her 11 children resented the time she spent away from them. “We soon recognized that our mother didn't belong to us,” says her son.

In the end, Huerta was cut down by her own people. After Chávez died, the rank-and-file expected Huerta to take his place. Instead, she was shut out and an all-male board took over. In other words, nothing has changed.

But in the end, women cannot be written out of what is our history, too, and Huerta was a vital dancer on the the stage of justice. At 86, she's still going strong.

* * *

This brings me to another documentary film I loved, The Uncondemned by Michelle Mitchell, who will attend the Brattleboro screening, and Nick Louvell.

The year is 1994 and, while it's hard to believe, rape is not considered a war crime. No one had ever been prosecuted for rape in war - ever!

Then, an unlikely team of international lawyers bring to the court in the Hague a rural Rwandan mayor who had allowed the rampant rape of women in his town during the genocide there.

This is a town without running water or electricity, yet four incredibly courageous women - the living dead - get on a plane for the first time in their lives to go to the international court and tell the story of their rapes.

“It is incomprehensible that after a person kills your children and your husband, on top of it that person rapes you,” one of them says.

Their courage in telling their stories brings in a judgment that forever makes rape a war crime - used to make a population submit - instead of “just what men do in the heat of battle.”

Again, has nothing changed?

The Uncondemned leaves you alive so you can swell with pride and die of sadness, all at the same time.

* * *

If you want a little hope with your rage, try The Peacemaker, a documentary by James Demo about the compelling international conflict negotiator Padraig O'Malley, an Irishman, an alcoholic, tall, cadaverous-yet- oddly-handsome 75-year-old back-room player who brought peace to Ireland during “the Troubles” by bringing the opposing sides to Boston.

O'Malley has worked as a peacemaker ever since in places like Iraq, Kosovo, Nigeria, South Africa (he was a friend of Nelson Mandela), and Syria.

His idea, which works, is to bring opposing communities together away from their violence and have them hear from people who already went through their own violence and came out on the other end.

“Divided societies are in the best position to help other divided societies,” he says.

O'Malley has women all over the world and goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings three times a week because “that disease resents you getting away from it. It wants you back.”

This complicated and tormented man is utterly devoted to exploring the darkest side of human nature. It is to our great benefit to meet him and learn about his work.

* * *

Tickling Giants is a tricky film, because the climax comes in the middle, and the denouement is tragic.

It tells the story of a 37-year-old cardiac surgeon in Cairo, Bassem Youssef, who becomes the beloved host of a political satire show on television, based on our The Daily Show. He started filming the show in his laundry room, then moved it to television with great success. His model is Jon Stewart, and the two exchange appearances.

As the Arab Spring rises in Egypt in 2011, people tune in to Bassem's show to hear what he has to say, and he is not shy about making fun of former dictator Hosni Mubarak, the democratically elected - and then deposed - Mohamed Morsi, and the military leader who became the current strongman of Egypt, the hypocrite Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

“I love sarcasm,” Bassem says. “I love cutting through people's façades without spilling my blood.[...] The funniest jokes are the ones told at funerals.”

When, after Sisi takes power, his network bails on him, another network takes him up. But eventually, he is forced into exile.

“They want me to stop making fun of authority, and I cannot do that,” Bassem says. “I will not be a mouthpiece for the government. This show is about holding authority accountable regardless of who is in charge. [...] If people can laugh at their differences, maybe they cannot hate each other.”

But he is banished, and grateful that he got himself and his family out of Egypt alive.

With Donald Trump in the White House attacking the media on a daily basis, with journalists being blown up, imprisoned, and beaten for trying to tell the truth, this film turns out to be harbinger of what might happen down the road in the United States.

* * *

So, something for everyone in this festival, and a comedy tonight.

The last big change is in the times the films will be shown.

“We've cut out some of the 8:30 showtimes because it gets out really late and it's hard to drive at that time,” Elder said.

“Also, many people find it hard to see a movie at that time,” she added.

“It's nice to tweak things here and there, and we do listen to the comments people make on the comment cards.”

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