Eight films to check out at the Woodstock Film Fest

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Tickets for the Woodstock Film Festival, which comes to town in a fortnight, from October 11 through 15, are now selling briskly for key films and events. But according to WFF Executive Director Meira Blaustein, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of treasures one can catch and revel in.

One of the great glories of film festivals is that they pull to the forefront quality works one might not otherwise catch. Some films are too small in scope or quirky in execution, and lacking the star qualities that streaming search engines, cable channels, or even brick-and-mortar cinemas like for pulling in audiences. Or their narrative focus and innate qualities haven’t been branded with the critical or awards acclaim that allows a Moonlight to rise into need-to-see view.

Just as importantly, they’re often dominated by some of the best documentaries being made these days, which in turn are often the best film work, period, getting created.

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So what are some examples of what’s available that’s particularly special? Blaustein recently suggested eight films, five narrative and three documentary. What are they, and what are their special qualities? Let’s start with the fictional works, many based on true stories.

• Beauty Mark, written and directed by Harris Doran and playing on Saturday, October 14 at Upstate Films in Woodstock at 3 p.m. (as well as at Rhinebeck’s Upstate Films the following day), delves into sexual abuse in a redolent southern urban Louisville setting that touches on elements of generational down-drift, bad scraping-the-bottom choices, and even racism in a purposefully testy manner that feels morally ambiguous at times, but is well-directed and acted. Talk about a conversation starter; Doran and his two talented lead actors will be on hand at the film’s screenings.

• Becks, written and directed by Daniel Powell and Elizabeth Rohrbaugh and showing at the Woodstock Playhouse at 3:15 p.m. on Thursday, October 12 (as well as at Upstate in Rhinebeck Sunday afternoon), is a quasi-musical with one of the more complete five minute set-ups we’ve ever seen before the narrative’s heroine, Becks (short for Rebecca), returns home to St. Louis to get back in touch with her dreams of creative success beyond her released-and-spurned sexuality. The creators (who will be on hand for their screenings) pull strong, honest performances from Tony winning actress Lena Hall and the always-great Christine Lahti, pull on their writing and directing backgrounds to create a deft production, and revel in their story’s comfortable Midwest settings while also allowing their protagonist’s songs to express her inner growth and story line, including a great mid-point use of harmony. Without any enlivening humor, however (despite Powell’s history with Saturday Night Live and Inside Amy Schumer), the work feels slightly petulant, the way New Yorkers sound when visiting home elsewhere in the country.

• Cold November, written and directed by Karl Jacob and screening at Upstate Films in Woodstock at 4 p.m. Friday, October 13 (as well as the next evening in Rhinebeck), is one of those gems film festivals and public funding mechanisms for film bring to light; be ready to hear more from this filmmaker. It follows a young girl in northern Minnesota learning the rigors of subsistence hunting from older generations of women as the protagonist simultaneously faces her first period. It’s slow-moving but haunting in its specificity, drawing poetry out of both plot details and cinematography. Sure, it’s long scene involving the girl’s gut cleaning of her first kill is harsh, but also a reminder that we inhabit older lands than we may be accustomed to, especially in still rural stretches of our nation such as the Catskills and Hudson Valley. Jacob will be on hand with his young star.

• Don’t Come Back From The Moon, director and cinematographer Bruce Thierry Cheung’s lyrical take on Dean Bakopoulos’ novel about a dystopian desert community losing its fathers and uncles (kids telling each other they’ve “gone to the moon”), shows at 6 p.m. Thursday, October 12 at Upstate in Woodstock (and again in Rhinebeck on Sunday.) Shot near the haunted, increasingly desolate Salton Sea area of southern California, it’s a dystopian coming-of-age story with a great look, some great faux-redneck performances, and plenty of metaphoric possibilities that extends a growing number of these works playing festivals around the world, giving their makers the impetus for later, more commercial works. Bakopoulos is expected to be on hand.

Finally on the narrative front, Tamlin Hall’s Holden On is something of a Don’t Ask Alice/I Never Promised You A Rose Garden on mental health issues and their role in addiction that’s well conceived, beautifully shot, and exquisitely acted for our times. It dives deeply into its Georgia milieu, dealing unblinkingly with everything from high school football culture to drive-around drug use and Christian-based recovery centers while playing the humanity of its characters and their motives against the deep tragedy of its basic story, always being sure to lighten a sense of doom with the levity and humor of day-to-day life. By skirting our preconceptions about recovery clichés, and how we judge normality and aberrance, Hall’s work deepens its effect into a bracing freshness. The filmmaker will be present when this should-be classic plays at Upstate Films in Woodstock at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 14, as well as at the Orpheum Theater in Saugerties at 5 p.m. on Sunday, October 15.

Taken together, the five narratives all delve deeply into our thoughts about what’s making America tick  these days. They deal with the sort of rural or Midwest/Southern urban milieus not often covered in our daily newsfeeds, binged television programming, or mainstream film culture. In other words, just their independence from expectations gives them a fierce means of provoking strong thought about where we’re all at, a key for any art’s ultimate effectiveness.

Documentaries

As for documentaries, the three works we previewed not only humanize the complex tragedies of current affairs, in two cases, but also found means of showing the very hope inherent in paying attention to the worlds around us, as well as potential catharsis. 

• Shingal Where Are You? from Greek journalist and theater director Angelos Rallis, follows a group of the Yazidis forced to flee their Iraqi homeland as ISIS kidnaps more than 3000 of their people’s women and children. They end up in refugee camps in Turkey, trying to track what’s happening as the world recognizes genocide in action. We watch everyday life try to restore itself, with kids internalizing trauma and waking up to new destinies when everyone makes it back to their ruined city, Shingal, at this emotional film’s deep finale. At the halfway point a father turns his family’s pain into a form of blues that breaks everyone listening into sobbing tears. Rallis and others involved in this haunting production will be on hand when the film plays at Upstate Films in Woodstock Friday, October 13 at 1:15 p.m., as well as the following afternoon in Rhinebeck.

• This is Congo, by Hudson Valley part-time resident and noted photojournalist Daniel McCabe, gets its New York premiere at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 12 at Rhinebeck’s Upstate Films. Talk about a great and vividly you-are-there dive into the tragic chaos of endless war in the former Belgian colony known for a spell under dictatorial control as Zaire. McCabe’s images of national and rebel forces in action, interviews with leaders and individual soldiers, and side focuses on personal stories of those caught in the conflict gets played against imagery of Congo’s surprisingly mountainous mixture of jungle and grassland rural stretches dotted with million-person cities that keep shifting from one force to another. Active gunfire punctuates scenes of singing forces and classic Congolese music, both traditional and modern. This is an important work.

As is, finally, Lisa France’s Roll With Me, which gets its world premiere at Upstate Films on Friday, October 13 at 3:15 p.m. and the Bearsville Theater on Saturday, October 14 at 1:30 p.m. The film follows Gabe Cordell, a Palestinian-American rendered paraplegic following a Long Island accident in his late teens, and newly recovered from years of substance abuse. He trains for and then accomplishes an arduous journey across the roads of America from Burbank to West Hempstead, self-powered in his own manual wheelchair. The film includes the crew France assembles to help get Cordell across the country on back roads and roaring interstates, at first drawing the complaints of local police but gradually winning everybody over to the inherent hopefulness in his drive to do something remarkable with his life, even when it threatens to render him completely powerless.

The film’s one of those cathartic experiences that leaves audiences cheering, in tears, and working to get others to see it. As are the ones on Congo, in its emphasis on humanity, and even that covering the Yazidi tragedy.

It’s great when we happen on such work by happenstance, among our usual entertainment diets. But even better when curated for us by the likes of our own Woodstock Film Festival.

As noted earlier, tickets keep going fast. See www.woodstockfilmfestival.com for further information. Or stop by the WFF box office at 13 Rock City Road Thursdays through Sundays.

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