Woodstock Film Fest’s 20th brims with promise

A scene from The Pollinators. (Photo by Peter Nelson)

We’ll start our preview of this year’s 20th Anniversary Woodstock Film Festival, running October 2-6, with the special guests, including Matt Dillon, Rosie Perez, Julie Taymor, folk music icon Janis Ian, and many others. Abigail Disney, Great Niece of Walt, will receive the Trailblazer Award for her documentaries and community activism. March for Our Lives co-founder Cameron Kasky will be on hand for the screening of Parkland Rising, about the teen-led anti-gun-violence movement generated by the high school shooting in Florida.

Other highlights of the festival’s 20th year: Twenty-three out of the 55 films are directed by women.

Kicking off the festival on Wednesday, October 2 will be the world premiere of Tarik Benbrahim’s Simon Shaheen: A Musical Journey, about the world of classical Arabic music, with the world-famous oud and violin virtuoso. A live performance by Shaheen and fellow musicians will follow the screening.

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In the Official Opening Night film, at 6 p.m. Thursday, October 3 at the Woodstock Playhouse, Shia LaBoeuf (The Transformers) stars in Honey Boy, based on his screenplay about his rocky relationship with his Vietnam vet father. Lucas Hedges (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) co-stars.

On closing night, you can see Oscar-nominated filmmaker Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, about a marriage breaking up and a family staying together, with Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, and Ray Liotta.

It’s exciting to see, or even imagine, celebrities on the streets and screens of Woodstock, but the heart of the festival is the hard-hitting documentaries and the up-and-coming directors who have sweated blood to get their films made, then convinced festivals to screen those beloved babies.

One of this year’s directors, Peter Nelson, is an Accord resident whose first full-length film, The Pollinators, has already won five awards at film festivals. “I’m trying to refocus the way people look at their food,” says Nelson, who followed commercial beekeepers on their treks across the country with tractor-trailer loads of hives, to pollinate almonds, apples, blueberries, cranberries, and other crops. This vital service, enabling the production of a vast quantity of the country’s nuts and fruits, is threatened by the decline in bees, with beekeepers losing as much as sixty percent of their bees every year to disease, pesticides, and degradation of habitat.

Nelson, a director of photography for documentaries and commercials, keeps several beehives of his own. “I’m endlessly fascinated by bees,” he says, “how they communicate and work together, know what to do and where to live, when to be gathering pollen or nectar, how to organize the hive. They’re beautiful creatures. I used a special camera that slows them down to wingbeat speed and shows them in ways that hadn’t been seen before.”

The film profiles the hard-working migrant beekeepers who set out at night, on a few days’ notice, to truck their bees across the country and deliver them to orchards. In the face of environmental threats to the bee population, Nelson also shows what individuals can do to help, from planting pollinator-friendly gardens to working with local government to prevent spraying of pesticides on roads, as Olive residents have done. “It’s actionable,” says Nelson. “It’s a serious problem, but I don’t believe we’re going to starve, and there are things everyone can do to make it better.”

A few more enticing festival features: Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, winner of Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival this year, is a period drama, with an all-female cast, centering on a rebellious noblewoman and the artist tasked with painting her portrait.

On the theme of music, Jason Miller’s Not Not Jazz will be followed by a live drum solo by Billy Martin of Medeski, Martin and Wood. The David Bowie-inspired Speed of Life, a New York premiere by Woodstock Film Festival alum Liz Manashil, will start off with a live cover of the late superstar’s most memorable songs by Robert Burke Warren.

Brazilian filmmaker Flavio Alves’ The Garden Left Behind follows the plight of thirty-year-old Tina, an outspoken advocate for transgender rights, trying to survive as an undocumented immigrant in New York City. Many of the film’s cast will be in attendance.

The Remix: Hip Hop x Fashion, by Lisa Cortes (Precious) and Farah X, examines the overlooked contributions of black designers and stylists whose iconic pieces and creative guile challenged luxury fashion gatekeepers.

The options, as always, are extensive and intriguing.

Advance single admission tickets are available for purchase at www.woodstockfilmfestival.org, by calling (845)-810-0131, or at the festival box office, located at 13 Rock City Road in Woodstock. A limited number of full festival passes are available for purchase online or at the box office. See website for box office hours. Reserve early as shows tend to sell out quickly.

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