“This is the moment to tell our stories, we need you to bear witness to truth, to justice, to change, to bear witness….”
Those are the words that scrolled across the screen on opening night, accompanying the beautiful Berkshire International Film Festival 2018 promo film, establishing the theme for this year’s festival (Thank you, Kevin Sprague and Studio Two, for the gorgeous promo). Pat Fili-Krushel, chair of BIFF, spoke about the communal and “old fashioned” experience of seeing a film together—“streaming into the theater” instead of “streaming” films in the privacy of our homes.
What BIFF has created in the past 13 years is a community of film lovers, which has hopefully made us better and more sensitive citizens of the world. There have been 1,358 films shown (narratives, documentaries and shorts) from far-reaching areas of the globe that we have seen here since the beginning of the festival. And in keeping with the explosion and awareness of female strength in our society with the #MeToo movement, the empowerment of women has been displayed to a huge extent. Ms. Fili-Krushel said that fully one-third of the BIFF films that were presented over the weekend were produced or directed by a woman.
And it all began with Kelley Vickery wanting to “put on a film festival.” What a huge, fabulous, ambitious idea! And now this film festival that started out rather small in Great Barrington (30 films the first year) has evolved into four days and 80 films. BIFF has expanded the festival from Great Barrington to Pittsfield and has collaborated with Jacob’s Pillow, Shakespeare & Company, Berkshire Botanical Garden and the Mount.
This film extravaganza is a joyful weekend for us Berkshire residents—dinners, parties, tea talks, a tribute to noted actress Rachel Weisz and, of course, the amazing films. As Kelley remarked, if only we could clone ourselves so we could see more of these films!
The opening night’s film, “American Animals,” was engrossing, engaging and very innovative. Its pretext was that, according to the director, Bart Layton, “this generation is lost … looking for a way to be special or to be interesting.” In 2004, four fairly well-to-do and educated young college students at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, decide to plan a major heist of the most valuable book in America, an exquisite first edition of Audubon’s “The Birds of America” (And, if they have time, perhaps grab Charles Darwin’s first edition of “On the Origins of Species”). It is a poorly thought out scheme and each student has a different motivation to consider this heist. The film was complicated but enriched by actually showing the real students,14 years later, after serving prison time for the consequences of their crime.
Spencer (Barry Keoghan) was the sensitive artist who believed that it was necessary for a true artist to suffer. And, so far, his life had been rather soft, being raised in a loving, upper middle-class family. He was looking for that shocking event that would derail his life from too much normalcy, so he engaged his old friend, “the spice in the broth” Warren (Evan Peters), to consider robbing the rare books library at their university. The heist was so incompetently planned that the suspense was immediately building for its spectacular failure.
Warren, the ringleader, was the most troubled and felt in need for “something to happen” to make his life “special.” “Do you want to wake up 10 years from now and wonder who you could have been?” He strongly believed in “carpe diem” but without any attendant common sense. They needed two more partners, and they do find an accounting student, Eric (Jared Abrahamson), who is up for some excitement in his life. To round out the accomplices, they find a muscular young jock, Chas (Blake Jenner), who is up for anything except any potential violence in committing this crime.
We follow this gang that can’t shoot straight to Amsterdam, where Warren meets with his “fence” (the great German actor Udo Kier), to New York City, where they find needed connections and auction houses to buy their stolen goods. They are so obviously in over their heads that it is fun watching them but also very much a cautionary tale as there are real lives that are being ruined.
The actual day of the robbery would be a slapstick comedy if people hadn’t been hurt. The librarian who guarded the rare book room, Betty Jean Gooch (the always fabulous Ann Dowd), was tased and injured during the robbery. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. It was not a well-thought out caper at all—even after the students viewed several heist movies (“Rififi,” “Goodfellas” and “The Killing”) and there was a humorous reference to Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” scene with the color-coded pseudonyms (“Why am I Mr. Pink?” says one of the characters).
Truth and shifting recollections were part of this story. Was Warren always telling them the truth about his exploration of “fences” in Amsterdam? Did he really go? Warren and Spencer (the real ones) were questioning each other’s version of what went down. Having young actors representing the younger counterparts of these incompetent criminals intercut (and occasionally sharing scenes) with the actual real men gave some perspective to this absurdly amateurish heist and its aftermath. What happened to the four appeared to show their remorse and the ability to make amends for their youthful criminal acts. The film was a real treat, a great escapist movie, and I am looking forward to Mr. Layton’s next experiment in film. What a great movie to open this film festival!