Film Fest 17: A feast for the eyes and soul

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Like most of us fortunate enough to live here, I’ve attended the Woodstock Film Festival many times, and this year was a deeper immersion. I didn’t catch the panel discussions this year, but viewed several movies in largely sold-out audiences and attended the celebrity-heavy Awards Ceremony on Saturday evening.

The buzz at WAAM in Woodstock was palpable on Thursday when press credentials were distributed. In addition to the electricity of opening day and the energy of all the media and industry people camped out in the main gallery, Alec Baldwin was holding court behind closed doors in the back gallery. Wearing a grizzle on his normally smooth-shaven face and no crisp designer duds, Woodstock casual suited him. That evening, Blind, starring Baldwin and Demi Moore kicked off the weekend, reuniting the two actors who hadn’t done a film together in 20 years. Norman Mailer’s sons — director Michael Mailer and writer and Blind actor, John Buffalo Mailer — created this nuanced love story, which was very appealing for its smart dialogue and emotional sophistication.

I happened to sit next to the proud mother of actor Renée Willett, who delivered a well-executed pivotal role in the film’s early moments. Mom was snapping photos of film credits (including her own name as one of the producers) and rattled off a list of upcoming films featuring her favorite rising star. Actor Karen Goeller, who offered a stellar performance as Home for the Blind employee, was seated one row back, smiling broadly and looking very glamorous, quite unlike her snarky onscreen persona. Best takeaway of the night? Baldwin’s quip to the packed Woodstock Playhouse audience: “Donald Trump has promised to donate a million dollars to the Woodstock Film Festival if I win an award and have to stay here on Saturday night,” a rakish nod to his recurring role on Saturday Night Live as the Republican nominee.

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At the 17th Annual WFF Maverick Awards Ceremony at BSP in Kingston on Saturday evening, Blaustein welcomed the star-studded crowd of more than 500 filmmakers, film industry and community leaders and audience members by saying, “If you’re not winning here, you’ll win elsewhere.” More than 120 films from 21 countries — created by more women directors (44) than ever before — reinforced the quality and artistic integrity of the festival and furthered its mission of celebrating the human condition in all its fascinating complexity. Proud mother Blaustein invited her son, Adam, to the stage as the band played “Springtime for Hitler.” Just five years old when the festival was conceived by Blaustein and his father, Laurent Rejto, he spoke about the value of choosing to tell and share stories, calling it “important work and an opportunity to learn and reflect.”

Baldwin didn’t win an award, but Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA, Miss Sharon Jones!, American Dream, Woodstock: Now and Then) presented the WFF Lifetime Achievement Award to Woodstocker Leon Gast, who shared funny stories of filming The Grateful Dead (“don’t take the punch; it’s electrified”) and Hells Angels, and gave an endearing view of what it was like to have complete access to Muhammad Ali during the filming of his best known documentary, When We Were Kings. Gast’s newest work, Woodstock: A Love Poem, had its world premiere as closing film for the festival on Sunday evening and, at 80, Gast said, “I hope to be the first 100-year-old to make a documentary.”

On the day after the festival closed, WFF executive director Meira Blaustein said, “I believe that this year’s Woodstock Film Festival had the breadth of programming that embraced and reflected today’s diversity of the creative visual storytelling worldwide. Having the likes of Alec Baldwin, Michael Mailer, Alejandro Iñárritu, Catherine Hardwicke, Oren Moverman, Ben Foster, Leon Gast and Barbara Kopple, among so many outstanding filmmakers who have come here from near and far, only contributed to the increasing sense of meaning and importance that a festival such as this one has. I hope that many were inspired and empowered by what they saw and experienced here in the past few days. I want to thank everyone who has contributed in one way or another and look forward to doing it all over again next year!”

 

A Few (More) Films Worth Mentioning

I wanted to see Monster in the Mind for a personal reason — my father has Alzheimer’s disease or some form of dementia — and I arrived at the Bearsville Theater with Kleenexes. I was pleasantly surprised to find veteran CNN reporter Jean Carper’s exhaustive examination of the topic to be highly entertaining — funny even — and informative in groundbreaking ways. Carper, now 80, delivers a hard hitting push-back on our current fear-based beliefs about aging and what used to be simply called senility, dementia or forgetfulness, though now widely accepted as a disease in search of a ‘cure.’ When Carper discovered she carried the #1 gene for Alzheimer’s, she decided to take viewers along with her for test taking and results, interviews with leading researchers, and as the experts helped her debunk the overblown fears we have about losing our minds.

Allison McGourty brought two of the films in her trilogy, American Epic, to Saugerties on Friday evening (the first, featuring contemporary musicians, was shown in Woodstock the night before), and they were superb historical captures of diverse Americans, reminding us that we are a people who have always used music to convey our selves to each other. Over 10 years of searching official archives and tracking down recordings, photographs and family film footage, McGourty and director Bernard MacMahon assembled an impressive portrait of our early musical heritage — “love letters to America” — and they were. Stories featuring The Carter Family and especially Mississippi John Hurt were my personal favorites, but the breadth of musical landscape included Native Americans, Hawaiians, Appalachians, Cajuns, Mexican Americans, West Virginia coal miners, African Americans and more. Narrator Robert Redford calls this “America’s greatest untold story” for good reason. It’s an outstanding series.

Rebel Citizen, a film tour of the works of Haskell Wexler, was pure inspiration. It’s astounding how many influential films Wexler made in his lifetime. Many were Academy Award winners and commercial successes — like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Coming Home, American Graffiti, In The Heat of the Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Bound for Glory — but this film focused on his citizen activism and desire to speak truth to power. Onscreen interviews with Pamela Yates highlighted Wexler’s views about the responsibilities of documentarians, and footage from the 1960s up until his death in 2015 revealed how seriously he treated his calling. “Social change can happen when people join together with some strength,” said Wexler in between footage from The Bus (1963) — “a statement of resistance” — and Medium Cool (1969). During the time of the Vietnam War and the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, as authorities tightened up on those who resisted existing systems, he said, “You’ve got to deal with fear consciously, without letting it immobilize you.” He called it “the worst scorn” to be called unpatriotic and not a good citizen and stressed it’s important to learn something when making a film. “It’s not about telling the story I decide to make, not about what you want, but (it’s about wanting) what you get. To know that (a film is) doing some good — that’s the ultimate satisfaction as a documentarian.” Who Needs Sleep? (2001), his investigation of the crisis of sleep deprivation, 19 hour working days in the film industry and the unwillingness of unions to address the issue inspired the 12on12off organizing campaign.

Wexler’s body of work, including films on torture in Brazil, the Weather Underground, war in Nicaragua, My Lai veterans, racism in America, the Occupy movement and more, earned him respect, national honors and Lifetime Achievement Awards from the American Society of Cinematographers and from the Woodstock Film Festival in 2008. What was his advice to the next generation of documentarians? “Be engaged but not married to the system. Seek the truth, not just to be angry or contrary, but to present important things. As communicators, that’s our obligation to society. Ideas — good or bad — give you power or influence as part of a group. To be silent or fearful is debilitating. I hope they don’t fall victim to that.”

This year’s Woodstock Film Festival was dedicated to the legendary Wexler, a friend of the festival since its inception. In 2001, the Haskell Wexler Cinematography Award was launched with Wexler as judge: this year the coveted award went to Shepherds and Butchers (Oliver Schmitz, director) with cinematography by Leah Striker: the film also won the Maverick Award for Best Feature Narrative. The Fiercely Independent Award was presented by Ben Foster to Academy Award-nominated writer, director and producer, Oren Moverman (Love and Mercy, I’m Not There, The Messenger, Rampart). The Trailblazer Award was presented by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Biutiful, 21 Grams, The Revenant, Birdman) to David Linde, CEO of Participant Media, a fitting honoree as it’s a global company dedicated to media that inspires social change: The Woodstock Film Festival obviously resonates with that commitment.

 

For a full list of awards and further information, see www.woodstockfilmfestival.com.

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