Independent streak: Almanac Weekly’s Woodstock Film Festival 2015 overview

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The Woodstock Film Festival (WFF) will run from Wednesday, September 30 through Sunday, October 4, and it’s turning sweet 16. With more than 130 films, panels, concerts and special events lined up at venues in Woodstock, Rhinebeck, Rosendale, Saugerties and Kingston – including 17 world premieres, five North American premieres, four US premieres, 33 East Coast premieres and 26 New York premieres – the array of offerings is mind-boggling as usual. You can get all the details in the online Pre-Fest program at ulsterpub.staging.wpenginefilmfestival.com/pdf/2015wffprefest.pdf, but here are a few tastes of what’s in store to whet your appetite.

 

And the award goes to…

The centerpiece of each year’s WFF is the Maverick Awards Gala, to be held this year at BSP Studios in Uptown Kingston on Saturday, October 3, beginning at 7 p.m. and going on until all hours to the music of Paul Green and the Internet Trolls. Ten awards will be handed out in the course of the evening, including two brand-new ones called the World Cinema Award and the Carpe Diem Andretta Award.

But the two most coveted honors of the festival are the Honorary Maverick Award and the Fiercely Independent Award. This year, both of them are being given to Canadian filmmakers: the Maverick to Atom Egoyan (ExoticaThe Sweet Hereafter, Felicia’s Journey Where the Truth LiesDevil’s Knot) and the Fiercely Independent to Guy Maddin (ArchangelThe Heart of the WorldMy WinnipegThe Saddest Music in the World). Their entries in WFF 2015 will serve as the festival’s Opening Night and Closing Night films, respectively.

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Egoyan’s fiction feature Remember screens at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 1 at the Woodstock Playhouse. It stars Christopher Plummer and Martin Landau as nonagenarian Auschwitz survivors who plot to exact revenge on the sadistic guard who killed their families and now lives under an assumed name in the US, despite the fact that one of them is wheelchair-bound and the other losing his memory.

Maddin’s fantasy feature The Forbidden Room screens at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, October 4 at the Woodstock Playhouse. It’s described as a “Russian nesting doll of a film” that “begins with the crew of a doomed submarine chewing flapjacks in a desperate attempt to breathe the oxygen within. Suddenly, impossibly, a lost woodsman wanders into their company and tells his tale of escaping from a fearsome clan of cave dwellers…into dreamscapes, spinning tales of amnesia, captivity, deception and murder, skeleton women and vampire bananas.”

Besides the filmmaker question-and-answer sessions that follow each program, you can also catch Egoyan and Maddin in conversation at the Kleinert/James Art Center in Woodstock on Saturday, October 3 at 4 p.m.

 

More keynotes & highlights

WFF 2015 truly launches not with Opening Night, but with two events on Wednesday, September 30. At 4 p.m. at the Kleinert, documentarian and anti-fracking activist Josh Fox, writer/director of the widely acclaimed Gasland and Gasland II, will give the festival’s keynote talk, titled “Filmmaking: Human Rights and the Climate.” Wednesday night brings the screening of Ron Chapman’s documentary about Cuban superstar Carlos Varela at the Ulster Performing Arts Center in Kingston, followed by a concert with Varela himself and Jackson Browne (see Debra Bresnan’s article in this edition of Almanac Weekly for details).

The festival’s “Centerpiece Film” is one that’s likely to hit a theater near you quite soon, as trailers are already running in cinemas wherever you go: WFF’s closest equivalent to a tentpole feature. Directed by Oscar-winner Robert Zemeckis (Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, The Polar Express, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), The Walk is a feature dramatization of Philippe Petit’s ninja high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars, with Ben Kingsley as Petit’s mentor. It screens at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 3, and Petit himself (who has a home in this area) is scheduled to participate in the post-show discussion.

 

Spotlight on women

Since WFF’s founding, “the percentage of women working as writers, editors and producers has dropped, with women comprising only seven percent of directors on the biggest moneymakers,” according to Variety magazine. Even in the indie world, reports the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, in the past year women directed only 29 percent of independent documentaries and 18 percent of narrative features not made by major Hollywood studios. WFF has thus taken it upon itself to provide a bigger platform for female filmmakers, with nearly half of this year’s offerings – 25 out of 53 features – helmed by women.

Noteworthy among these, in the narrative department, is Paula Romanowsky’s The Adderall Diaries, based on Stephen Elliott’s much-talked-about memoir and starring James Franco and Ed Harris, which screens at 10 p.m. on Friday, October 2 at the Woodstock Playhouse and at 5 p.m. on Saturday, October 3 at the Orpheum Theater in Saugerties. Then there’s Katie Cokinos’ I Dream Too Much, starring Edith Brolin and Diane Ladd as an aimless college graduate and her artsy disabled aunt who lives in upstate New York. It screens at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 1 at the Woodstock Playhouse and at 6 p.m. on Friday, October 2 at the Orpheum.

In the documentary category, Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple has two entries: Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation screens at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Bearsville Theater; and her Shelter is paired with Leon Gast’s Sporting Dreams at the Bearsville at 11:45 a.m. on Saturday. Holly Morris’ The Babushkas of Chernobyl screens at 12 noon on Friday at Upstate Films Woodstock and at 12 noon on Saturday at the Rosendale Theatre. Two music docs – a specialty of WFF every year – are sure to generate a lot of interest: Jessica Edwards’ Mavis Staples biopic Mavis! screens at 9:30 p.m. on Friday at the Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock; and Natalie Merchant directs herself in Paradise Is There: A Memoir by Natalie Merchant, The New Tigerlily Recordings, screening at 9:15 p.m. on Thursday at the Woodstock Playhouse.

WFF’s focus this year on Women in Film and Media will also be highlighted in a panel discussion at the Kleinert at 2 p.m. on Saturday, titled “Enough, Already! Changing the Status of Women in Film and Television.” The panelists will include Rose McGowan, Leah Meyerhoff, and Anne Hubbell; Alexis Alexanian is the moderator. The Film Fatales collective will celebrate women directors with a meet-up and panel discussion at Bearsville’s Commune Saloon at 3:30 p.m. on Friday. And the third annual Tangerine Entertainment Juice Award for Best Female Director will be handed out at the Awards Gala at Bearsville on Saturday night.

 

Local focal

As is most appropriate for an organization closely affiliated with the Hudson Valley Film Commission, WFF also does a great job of promoting movies made in our region or by local producers and directors or starring actors with homes in the mid-Hudson. Katie Cokinos’ abovementioned I Dream Too Much is but one of several WFF 2015 offerings shot in our neck of the woods. Frank Lotito’s narrative feature Good Ol’ Boy, screening at 2 p.m. on Friday at the Woodstock Playhouse and at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday at the Rosendale Theatre, was shot entirely on location in Ulster County. Jake La Botz, the star of Chris Hicky’s The Grace of Jake, screening on 5 p.m. on Saturday at the Bearsville and at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday at Upstate Films Rhinebeck, lives in Newburgh.

Both the subject, veteran actress Mary Louise Wilson, and the producer/director, Ron Nyswaner, of the documentary She’s the Best Thing in It are Ulster County residents; it screens at 7:45 p.m. on Saturday at Upstate Films Woodstock and at 3 p.m. on Sunday at Upstate Films Rhinebeck. Natalie Merchant lives in Ulster County as well, along with Jon Bowermaster, who is the producer of her abovementioned Paradise Is There and the director of After the Spill, a documentary about the aftermath of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster that will have its world premiere at 3 p.m. on Sunday at the Woodstock Playhouse. And Mavis! includes a visit to Levon Helms’ Barn right in Woodstock. You can’t get much more locally focused than that.

 

It’s not too late to score tix

That’s only the tip of the iceberg, of course; there are hundreds of films to choose from – some by and with total unknowns awaiting discovery, others boasting star-studded casts. There are lots of other panel discussions, and I didn’t even mention the great programs of shorts and animation. Ticket prices range from $10 to $75, and although some of the higher-profile events were already sold out by presstime, plenty of others still have seats available. You can hardly go wrong here taking a chance on something that sounds like it’ll never be shown in mainstream cinemas, even if the show that you wanted is no longer available.

Check out the listings at ulsterpub.staging.wpenginefilmfestival.com, then visit the box office at 13 Rock City Road in Woodstock or call (845) 679-4265 to order tickets. See you at the festival!

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