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The Rosendale Theatre Collective

A Fistful of Films—From the 12th Annual Woodstock Film Festival by Tad Wise

“Fiercely Independent” is the term the 12th Annual Woodstock Film Festival—September 21 through 25—uses as its descriptive motto, and it does a pretty darn good job of living up to it. WFF tends to honor independent artists doing quality over selling quantity, giving a forum to some truly worthy new films and filmmakers, while hosting five days of events, panels and discussions, awards ceremonies, and new cinema of all shapes and sizes, often with filmmakers and stars available for questions after screenings. And—this being Woodstock—some pretty great parties in the woods. A detailed program will be available at festival time. Here is a sampling of films and shorts we caught, a very small collection from the smorgasbord available at this year’s festival. Be sure to visit for more details on events, locations, and ticket information.

DOLPHIN BOY (US Premiere), directed by Dani Menkin and Yanatan Nir, is an important film documenting the soul-saving connection between a young man brutally beaten into a permanent state of shock, and a colony of dolphins which reawaken in him the will to live and the courage to love. Along the way several cliches are defused; a moderate Arab family lives in Israel without racial hatred (the violence is Arab to Arab); and a strong, masculine father chooses an experimental therapy over the adrenal response of traditional revenge; instead of wiring bombs for a child’s fanatic suicide, he sells off his business and embarks upon an all-or-nothing gambit to win back the sanity of the son who “is (his) soul.” Before Hollywood buys the rights and soups it up, see the original. Here the fairy-tale quality remains sub-textual, and the near miraculous bond between man and dolphin doesn’t require a Danny Elfman score to make sure you get the point.

DOWNTOWN EXPRESS starts off with nerve, verve, and laughs. A Russian family of classical string players, falling on hard times, pays their rent by performing in the subway and in old age homes and on boardwalks. But the star of the family—of course—has a musical scholarship and is practicing for his debut, which will propel him into world fame with a kinda sexy ice-queen pianist/professor except that...he falls in love with pop music. In particular a blonde with a band. Central conflict? His classical roots vs. The Shock of the New. Central problem? “The new” is not at all shocking. And his Rachmaninov is sexier by far than his fiddle-in-the-middle rock.

As an actor’s director trusts in the stillness out of which emotion is born, so a filmmaker’s filmmaker trusts an image to capture the audience until the story arrives. After several delicious shots in succession, the reassured viewer settles in for a feast. For such visual mastery to almost instantly evidence itself in a newcomer is exceedingly rare, and with only a short film to base high hopes upon, we’re not allowed the luxury of certainty. But STEFAN, a 15 minute short by 28 year-old Juliet Lashinky-Revene (who grew up between Woodstock and Manhattan) coaxes haunting performances from a minimal script with painterly poignance—without flinching from delivering the punch. This story of an adoring mother, her son’s oedipal agony, and the man she brings home is a tiny masterpiece.

GRAVITY is a 13-minute student film by Pamela Romanowski, involving a man and woman at the edge of civilization. Religious music lyrics from a radio in the seen-better-days cabin are the only words we hear. The woman (played with eerie precision by Kate Udall), a rangy, long-boned redhead straight off a bleak Andrew Wyeth canvas, has assumed the role of hunter. Her damaged mate, a most fittingly feral Laurent Rejto, is dependent on what she kills. There is a cold complicity about them—survival the sole aim. Then something within her shifts, the gestalt falters, and he re-assumes the male role with devastating effect. A small detail—fittingly downplayed—implies their complete history as the one we are viewing ends: title fulfilled. There’s a cold, grim, spareness akin to the best of Hemingway in GRAVITY, which was filmed in Mt. Tremper.

Shortly after Washington failed to bail out New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, a story appeared on the front page of the Woodstock Times describing one man’s rescue mission. Adam Markowitz, who owned a music store in New Paltz, was poised to drive a moving truck filled with nine pianos to New Orleans and give them away. Alone. Local theatrical adventurer Gillian Farrell read the piece and called him up, saying she was interested in making a film about the odyssey. He was okay with that but his schedule was tight, he was leaving the very next day.

9 PIANOS (which was shot entirely by Gillian and her daughter Anna Beinhart) is a rough ‘n’ ready documentary. And it works that way. Sure enough, Markowitz, made the trip (with his dog) and, enlisting help from passersby, delivers and tunes nine pianos in a single day, while the camera follows him. Farrell then arranged to do follow-up interviews, while Markowitz drove home and picked up an additional eight pianos for the return trip. These drop-offs and in-depth talks at clubs, churches, wrecked houses, whole houses, schools, and makeshift shacks were all captured on film, and the spontaneous combustion of the spirit of New Orleans is so palpable here, so revelatory, and despite the city’s trials and tribulations, so a-l-i-v-e! I’d be wasting time and space to quote or summarize from the odditorium of oral and pianistic history so potently captured herein, except to say if the guitar is a love song, the piano is a symphony. And no, children—don’t deprive yourselves of a life bereft of the sound or sight of this film. C will bring many a smile, and—I wouldn’t be surprised—a single, brave tear.

Not to be missed is the World Premiere of MOTHER, a new Blondie video, shot locally with a local director. Just when you thought the rock video was dead it comes back as a zombie. Thought you knew NYC way back when? Remember the club Warhol loved—Mother? (Sure, you don’t.) Well, this vid viciously re-visualizes it all vamp and camp, with B-52s and the like liberally scattered thru the crowd. Locally filmed at Backstage Productions in Kingston, lethally directed by WFF’s own Laurent Rejto. With bloody tongue in cheek, Blondie in shockingly fine form, and Debbie Harry never sounding better! Give the ‘ole girl a whirl. Just don’t call her MOTHER.

THE LIE utilizes great talent (directed by and starring Joshua Leonard) to capture the essence of the mediocrity and moral cowardice nowadays epitomized by “the slacker.” If the performances weren’t so persuasive and sympathetic, it could be labeled an indictment of the medical marijuana generation. As it is, call it a cautionary tale about that one lie too many, that one you can’t...take...back. Based on a story by T. C. Boyle.

Written and directed by Jordan Bayne, with the stellar pairing of Academy Award-winner (and Ulster County resident) Melissa Leo and Peter Gerety as the parents, and an eviscerating performance by Kelly Hutchinson as their daughter, THE SEA IS ALL I KNOW is a mini-tragedy, running just shy of a half hour. Nor would one easily withstand a fuller version of this unflinching portrait of Catholic parents outliving their cancer-ridden child. There is not a shred of humor here, but gut-wrenching grief, guilt, accusation, even an Irish tenor to tear your heart out. Unabating pathos flirts with bathos as universally superb acting staves it off. The high point occurs after the estranged wife takes aim first at her husband, then at God himself, then...two desperate souls revisit what’s left of earthly love. Because on earth, it’s all that’s left.

TAKING A CHANCE ON GOD is a straight documentary of the life and thought of John J. McNeil, the brilliant Jesuit priest whose Vatican-approved exploration of Catholic homosexuality created a theological uproar with three obscure articles. These Rome tolerated. But when his book, The Church and the Homosexual, catapulted McNeil onto national talk shows, where he became the first Catholic priest to admit to being gay, he was quickly censured and eventually de-frocked. McNeil, who married his life partner in Canada, survives at 85 as the seminal leader in a struggle still making headlines today. And his journey, from POW in Nazi camps to Grand Marshal of the Gay Pride Parade, remains an inspirational story of faith served by unblinking courage. With a stirring score by local composer Peter Wetzler.

The Woodstock Film Festival takes place September 21 through 25, at various locations in Woodstock, Rhinebeck, Rosendale, and Kingston. Please visit for event schedules, locations, and ticket information.

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