Woodstock Film Festival is back, live, September 29-October 3

Meira Blaustein (photo by Dion Ogust)

Like every other arts organization or venue that depends on the physical gathering of an audience in a common space, the Woodstock Film Festival was forced to reinvent itself last year. Most of the 100+ movies it presented in 2020 were streamed online (as were the panel discussions), but about 30 films could be seen on a big screen — in one of three local drive-in theaters.

Happily, the Festival will be more genuinely festive when it returns for its 22nd year, running from September 29 to October 3, with events in Woodstock (Playhouse, Bearsville Theater, Tinker Street Cinema, Community Center, Colony, Cucina), Kingston (Blueprint) and Saugerties (Orpheum Theatre, White Feather Farm). (The Rosendale Theatre is temporarily bowing out, as it awaits installation of an upgraded ventilation system.) Screenings and panels may be attended live or streamed — which means a much broader potential audience for WFF this year, and likely into the future.

Awards will be handed out in person on Saturday evening, October 2 at the Woodstock Playhouse. This year’s Maverick Award is going to Oscar-winning director Roger Ross Williams (Music by Prudence, God Loves Uganda, The Apollo, High on the Hog, Cassandro). The Trailblazer Award will go to Tom Quinn, CEO/founder of Neon, the distribution company that brought Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite to America. Eliza Hittman, director of Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Beach Rats, will receive the Fiercely Independent Award. Among the celebrities coming to town to participate in panels or post-screening talkbacks are actors Kelsey Grammer, Matt Dillon, Tim Blake Nelson, Kelly Jenrette, David Gallo and Greg DePaul, filmmakers Stanley Nelson, Ry Russo-Young, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chinn, musician Kara DioGuardi, polar explorer Will Steger and scientist Peter B. de Menocal.

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Since one ironclad hallmark of this Festival is ongoing celebration of Woodstock’s status as a music town, it’s only right that live concerts will be back again in 2021. This year’s kickoff film is Fanny: The Right to Rock, a documentary directed by Bobbi Jo Hart about the pioneering 1970s “womyn’s music” band Fanny. The accompanying concert at the Bearsville on Wednesday, September 29 will include two original Fanny members, guitarist (and longtime Woodstocker) June Millington and drummer Brie Darling, with Gail Anne Dorsey filling in for Jean Millington and a guest spot, presumably on harmonica, from John Sebastian.

While a screening/concert combo is traditionally the first event of the Festival, the designated “opening night film,” for reasons that remain obscure to this writer, is always shown on the second night, typically Thursday. This year’s selection is the East Coast premiere of the fiction feature Violet, directed by Rye resident Justine Bateman and starring Olivia Munn as a woman trying to break free of crippling self-doubt. The “centerpiece film” is Flee, a documentary about the adult life of a child refugee from Afghanistan, directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen. It won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Sunday’s “closing night film” will be Will Sharpe’s biopic The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the eccentric, possibly schizophrenic Victorian-era illustrator of anthropomorphized cats and Claire Foy as Wain’s wife Emily.

Additional music-centric films in this year’s Festival include documentaries on the Velvet Underground, Joe Cocker, Alanis Morissette and Francisco Fellove; there will also be a special showing of Stanley Nelson’s Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool dedicated to the memory of editor Lewis Erskin. Woodstock’s own Leon Gast, a longtime advisor to WFF who died last March, will be honored with a screening of his Oscar-winning 1996 documentary When We Were Kings.

WFF is also known for punching up movies that were made in the Hudson Valley and Catskills. Along with a couple of shorts, four feature films in this year’s program were filmed primarily in this region: M. Cahill’s Porcupine, Jack Fessenden’s Foxhole, Emrhys Cooper’s The Shuroo Process and Keith Boynton’s The Winter House — the last two being among the 11 world premieres in the 2021 roster.

As usual, the lineup of films offers a tantalizing sea of choices. There are stories about TV chef Julia Child, playwright Horton Foote, East Africa’s first all-female anti-poaching unit, a photographer who lived for 50 years on a houseboat in Sausalito, PTSD survivors, women who deliberately opt out of having children, a Thai soccer team trapped in a flooded cave and a White House insider trying to sell the missing 18 ½ minutes of Richard Nixon’s infamous tapes. Brooke Pepion Swaney, one of the young indie filmmakers who participated in WFF’s first-ever incubator this past May at White Feather Farm, will have one of her earlier works, Daughter of a Lost Bird, screened on Friday. And as always, there are lots of programs of short films.

To view the full 2020 lineup at a glance, see https://drive.google.com/file/d/1fEueZi6E4GoJqcAigtNG6uQ6jCigUXKs/view. Fuller descriptions of all programs and links for ordering tickets can be found at h. Tickets can also be reserved by calling (845) 810-0131 or visiting the WFF box office at 13 Rock City Road in Woodstock.

For safety’s sake, all attendees at WFF live events must show proof of COVID vaccination. In addition, masks are required in all indoor venues, other than when eating or drinking.

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