It is October and for the hamlet of Woodstock in upstate New York that means two things: the fabulous fall colors and the Woodstock Film Festival. This year, this big small-town film festival with the subtitle “Fiercely Independent” is celebrating its thirteenth year in existence and has a line-up of an astounding 130 films, performances, panels and other special events. The films include 19 world premieres, 9 North American premieres, and 15 New York premieres and, according to Meira Blaustein, “The line-up features a diverse slate of today’s most outstanding and bold voices in filmmaking.” Indeed the Woodstock Film Festival (WFF) has become a major contender in the world of film festivals and the film industry. But before we look at what’s on offer, for those not yet au fait with the festival, let’s take a look at how this whole thing got started and who is responsible.
The festival is the brainchild of Meira Blaustein and Laurent Rejto, both of whom are alumni of the School of Visual Arts. Israeli-born Blaustein is Executive Director and Rejto serves as Administrative Director. The duo initially approached the town of New Paltz about establishing the film festival there but, put off by the specter of miles of red tape, they instead engaged the support of likely venues in Woodstock and, with little ado with municipal bureaucracy, went ahead and established the festival here in September of 2000.
Although primarily known for the ’69 festival, Woodstock has been a magnet for artists and musicians of all stripes going back to early in the 1900s with the founding of the historic Byrdcliffe Arts Colony by Ralph and Jane Whitehead. Today the film festival extends far beyond the physical boundaries of Woodstock to take in all of the nearby towns and villages from Rhinebeck to Rosendale, so visitors would be well advised to have independent transport.
Trawling through the cornucopia of films that I hoped to preview I noted enough films set against or within a religious framework that I wondered, given the culture wars we are currently engaged in, if the organizers had an agenda. I put this to Laurent Rijto who replied that they don’t have an over-arching agenda or theme for the festival but that, once selected, he is often fascinated by the number of films that tend to have themes in common, evidence of a zeitgeist among the film-makers, we wondered, or maybe evidence that there are only so many really great subjects. He noted that this year’s “Hiccups” collection of shorts also seems thematically connected, and that the films are concerned with such issues as the struggle to get along with room-mates and to find the rent – issues that are, doubtless, pressing ones for most young and struggling film-makers.
Among those set against a religious background is Nor’easter in which actor David Call plays Erik Ångström, a young Catholic priest in crisis mode who has replaced his disgraced predecessor in a remote island community (in Maine) that has pretty much given up on religion. However he is called on to help a devout family gain closure on the disappearance of their son Josh (Liam Aiken) five years earlier. After a hesitant start he succeeds where all others before him have failed only to find that in the very act of putting the lost son to rest, the boy is resurrected. Nor’easter is the director’s debut feature film and it has that, plus the terrific young actor Liam Aiken, in common with another film in the festival that is also set against a religious background: Electrick Children directed by Rebecca Thomas.
Electrick Children is the story of Rebecca (Julia Garner), a fifteen year old girl from a fundamentalist Mormon sect whose discovery of rock music coincides with her becoming pregnant – with a head filled with the stories of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, she becomes convinced that the voice on the tape is the begetter of her pregnancy, and sets out to find the father of her child. The young Garner is endearing as the innocent Rachel, but it is too bad the film-makers felt they had to gild the lily with a costume that is too pretty and more juvenile than fundamentalist, and which fails to create the kind of contrast one would expect when Rachel meets up with her 21st century peers in Sin City. In addition to Julia Garner and Liam Aiken, the film also features Bill Sage, Billy Zane, and Rory Culkin who acquits himself particularly well as a skateboarding drop-out.
Continuing on this theme are two documentaries: Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God by Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, and Virgin Tales by Mirjam von Arx. The former, which I haven’t seen but plan to, exposes the abuse of power in the Catholic Church and documents the first known public protest against clerical sex abuse in the US. Virgin Tales is about the Wilsons, an evangelical family whose patriarch founded what has now become an institution among many evangelical Christians, the “Purity Ball.” The main focus of the film is on the Wilson’s second daughter, 20 year old Jordan, a young lady “in waiting” for a husband who is, in the meantime, practicing purity – that means no kissing until you have been pronounced “wife.” A bonus for viewers of Virgin Tales is that Sophie Haller’s animated short, History of Virginity, will be screened before it.
Other feature-length, directorial debuts scheduled this year include Gayby by Jonathan Lisecki – a delightful Will and Grace story in which they do have the baby; First Winter by Benjamin Dickinson is a film to which many NYC-to-Upstate transplants will surely relate; Quartet by Dustin Hoffman is a comedy set in a home for retired opera singers with stellar cast: Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Michael Gambon, and Pauline Collins. There are also a number of feature-length documentary debuts by directors including Allison de Fren’s The Mechanical Bride – a film that explores the bizarre world of robo love, and Anton Verstakov’s Rolan Makes Movies – Verstakov follows the titular Rolan around a small town in Siberia as he presses his friends and family into helping him create Hollywood-style movies. Armed only with a cheap camera, a budget of zero and a few buckets of fake blood, Rolan has succeeding in making ten films, and people like them. This is one for the dreamers.
One film that caught my eye is Francine directed by Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatkzy – the film is shot in Ulster County, so fun for the locals. From a cinematic point of view, this film has a lot in common with Nor’easter – both films embrace silence and an impressionistic, psychological approach to cinematography which can be intruded upon to great and jarring effect as, next to the ethereal beauty of the landscapes, there is the human condition in all its gritty messiness. Francine stars local actor Melissa Leo who recently earned an Academy Award for her role as Alice Ward in the 2010 film, The Fighter. Another film that would be a shame to miss is Apartment in Athens by Ruggero Dipaulo about a family in World War II Greece that is forced to host a German army officer, Captain Kalter, played by Richard Sammel (Inglorious Basterds).
WFF is divided into categories many of which have titles that are particular to this festival, for example, the Exposure category featuring films that “draw attention to local and global needs.” Two of this year’s Exposure films are: Chasing Ice directed by Jeff Orlowski, and Dear Governor Cuomo… directed by Jon Bowermaster. The former is about the photographer James Balog, best known for his virtuoso photographs in magazines like National Geographic. In 2007, Balog became directly involved in environmental activism, creating the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) after witnessing the rapidly vanishing ice sheets across the globe – this is a film as beautiful as it is disturbing.
Bowermaster’s Dear Governor Cuomo…, one of the world premieres on offer, is a film that is bound to be popular with New York audiences, centered as it is on the issue of hydraulic-fracturing or “fracking” in this state – there ought to be an element of celebration to this screening as, just a few days ago, the Governor did agree to table approval for new fracking sites pending further studies into public health concerns. The film features actors and New York State residents Mark Ruffalo and Melissa Leo, environmental biologist Sandra Steingraber, and musicians ranging from Joan Osborne to The Felice Brothers. The Screening on Thursday at 6:30pm at the Woodstock Playhouse is followed by a live performance by Natalie Merchant, who is the film’s musical director.
Back with her second feature at the Woodstock Film festival, award-winning director Mai Iskander captures the momentus rise of the Arab Spring in Words of Witness as it played out on the streets of Cairo through the eyes of 22-year-old fledgling reporter, Heba Afify. Heba disseminates her story via texts, Twitter and Facebook, while dealing with her parents’ worries and their view of what is appropriate behavior for a young Muslim girl.
Treva Wurmfeld’s Shepard & Dark is a different kind of documentary; it is an exploration of the enduring friendship between actor and director Sam Shepard and his best friend Johnny Dark, a quiet writer and archivist who works days behind the counter at a Santa Fe deli. A must-see for Shepard fans – if it is even possible to not be a Sam Shepard fan.
If you intend to go to the festival, do also check out the panel discussions which are usually lively, informative, and full of interesting guests. And for those who live for the score, there is the “Music in Film” panel which is moderated by Doreen Ringer Ross, V.P. of Film and TV Relations at BMI – panelists include director Amy Hecterling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless) and composer David Kitay (Look Who’s Talking, Clueless, Scary Movie). On the “Actors Dialog” panel Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner Sally Kirkland (star of WFF feature Archaeology of Women) will be joined by Brian Geraghty (The Hurt Locker, Jarhead and We Are Marshall) and John Pankow (Mad About You and the TV series Episodes) – both actors play roles in WFF features. Other panels deal with issues of raising funds, marketing, producing films in a multi-screen world, and crossover paradigms between film and television – the latter panel includes Timothy Hutton, star of Ordinary People and, currently, the hit TV series “Leverage.”
And finally, there are the parties and award ceremonies that all good festivals must have – this year the director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, and documentaries Jimmy Carter Man from Plains and I’m Carolyn Parker, among others) has already been announced as the winner of the coveted Maverick Award while NY State Congressman of 38 years, Maurice Hinchey, was honored with the “Spirit of Woodstock” award for his outstanding service to the state – that award was presented to Mr. Hinchey by actor Aidan Quinn.
The Woodstock Film Festival runs from
Wednesday October 10 through Sunday October 14
For information on schedules, venues, concerts, tickets and festival passes, please go to:
Unless otherwise indicated, photos are courtesy of the Woodstock Film Festival.
Claire Lambe is an Irish born painter whose works have been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic; she is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and holds an MFA in painting from the City University of New York. Claire’s artwork can be seen at Hudson Valley Artists 2012 at the Dorsky Museum, SUNY New Paltz from June 23, 2012
In addition to her art-making, she is also the company manager and designer for The Woodstock Players Theater Company – as the company designer she is responsible for everything from the website to the set design.
Writing credits include contributing author to Teen Life in Europe (part of the Teen Life around the World series), and articles and reviews for this publication.
Claire Lambe: Artworks