“In feature films, the director is God. In documentary films, God is the director,” according to Alfred Hitchcock. We have ample opportunity to decide for ourselves with the 80 films that will be presented in the upcoming Berkshire International Film Festival beginning this Thursday night, June 1. Kelley Vickery, the founder and BIFF executive director, has expanded the film festival to 29 narrative, 30 documentary and 21 short films. It is indeed international as 23 countries are represented — including Cuba, Brazil, Australia, Iran, England, Iraq, India, Chile, France, Spain, Israel, Syria, Sweden, Russia, Egypt and Japan.
Of course, the heartbreak endemic to this ever growing festival is the choices one must make. Should I see the intriguing film about Palestinian young women in Tel Aviv (“Bar Bahar”) or “Swim Team” — an inspiring film about an extraordinary competitive swim team comprised of teenagers on the autism spectrum? (And the filmmaker will be in attendance — I always love to hear the filmmakers discuss their work after a film.) Do I go to the first ever “Tea Talk” — a new addition to the make-up of the Festival — with Sheila Nevins (more about her later) but miss the first group of shorts? (And also miss “City of Ghosts” — which sounds like a documentary that we should all see re: heroic journalists in Syria). One bit of advice before the festival starts — especially if you have an all-access pass — please study the BIFF “book” and make those hard choices before the festival begins — noting that some films are screened twice.
This new speaker series added to the Festival — “Tea Talks” — is sponsored by Harney and Sons Tea. These talks will give us additional insight into the process of making films and developing the stories behind them. There will be three talks during the festival — the first one will be with Sheila Nevins. She was here at the festival last year promoting the documentary “Becoming Mike Nichols.” Sheila is president of HBO Documentary films and has produced over 1,000 docs for HBO and is considered the “doyenne” of documentaries. If you want to be truly excited for her talk, please try and catch her April, 23, 2017 interview with Lesley Stahl on CBS Sunday Morning. She is very honest (incredibly so) and makes you want to read her new book, “You don’t look your age….and other fairy tales.” Her candid answers are quite refreshing.
The second “Tea Talk” is with award-winning actor/director Karen Allen, following the screening of her directorial film debut of Carson McCullers short story, “A Tree, a Rock, A Cloud.” It has also won the Best International Film designation at the UK’s Manchester Film Festival. She describes this work as “a film about relationships and the passing of experience across generations — the giving of wisdom.” This film was shot in Sandisfield, Mass., and stars Jeffrey de Munn, James McMenamin and a 12 year old from Housatonic, Mass. (Jackson Smith). The entire cast and crew will be present at the Tea Talk. There will also be another film based on a Carson McCullers short story, “A Domestic Dilemma” (1991) directed by Kristi Zea — who will also be at the Tea Talk. Ms. Zea is an Academy Award-nominated producer and production designer. This was also her directorial debut. It is a sensitive tale of love, marriage and alcoholism, starring Andy McDowell and Ray Liotta. Both of these short stories can be read online and I think reading them before hand would add some depth to the experience.
The last “Tea Talk” is with Paul Krugman, the New York Times Nobel Prize-winning op-ed columnist. It follows a screening of “All the President’s Men.” Washington Monthly called Krugman “the most important political columnist in America.” WAMC’s Alan Charlock will moderate the discussion. With the current political climate, I think this will be extremely interesting.
There are many films that stand out for me — and I will give a brief mention of ones that seem especially intriguing. When I think about films — E.M. Forster’s remark in “Howard’s End” — “Just connect” — seems most appropriate. That is truly what makes us excited about these independent films — watching films together in a darkened movie theatre — bringing our community together.
“The Hero,” starring Sam Elliott, brings up many issues that confront us all — aging, illness and repairing connections with family members and friends. This film premiered at Sundance and stars a fan favorite from “The Big Lebowski.” Mr. Elliott has aged into playing sexy leading older men — “I’ll See You in My Dreams” with Blythe Danner (also by the director of this film, Brett Haley) and Jane Fonda in Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie.” In “The Hero” he plays an older Western film star who, upon a bad diagnosis, wants to repair his career and his relationships. Mr. Haley said that, “he wanted to make a film that connects with people….not only as an escape but also something you go to, to connect or see yourself or someone you didn’t know before on screen and feel that human connection that we all desire.” Just connect…….. Consider this film when you are trying to decide whether to go to the opening night in Pittsfield to see “The Trip to Spain.”
This is the third installment of the culinary road comedies through Europe with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (the first one was “The Trip” in which they traveled through northern England). The second one was “The Trip to Italy” and I enjoyed the gorgeous drive through Tuscany, Rome and the Amalfi Coast. This new film appeals to me as I recently drove down through the coast of Spain, enjoying the Spanish cuisine and landscape. I have always found these films hilarious as the stars riff on their different celebrity impressions — Al Pacino, Mick Jagger and their dueling Michael Caines. I am expecting this to be a needed escapist romp.
The opening night film in Great Barrington “STEP” won the 2017 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize for best documentary. By all accounts, this is an inspirational film directed by a Baltimore native, Amanda Lipitz. With all the negative real-life tragedies in this time of Black Lives Matter — this is a joyous story of three girls who overcome severe difficulties and go on to be the first in their families to attend college. A girls high school step-dance team is set against the background of inner city Baltimore. According to Variety, “Lipitz does more than just entertain or enlighten. She’s breaking down barriers in nonfiction cinema.”
This Saturday night at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington BIFF is honoring Academy-award winner Christopher Plummer for his lifetime achievement. There will be a conversation with Mr. Plummer and David Edelstein, chief film critic for New York Magazine, as well as film critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air” and CBS Sunday Morning. This will be followed by a screening of his new film, “The Exception.” At 87 he has gotten great reviews in this romantic spy thriller. Is it true, as Sylvia Plath wrote, that “every woman adores a Fascist?” I am looking forward to this film, also starring Lily James (the mysterious chamber woman) and Jai Courtney (head bodyguard for the German Monarch — Mr. Plummer).
I have always been a Harry Dean Stanton fan since I first saw “Repo Man,” the science fiction comedy with Emilio Esteves, and “Paris, Texas” with Nastassja Kinski and Dean Stockwell. The closing night film of the festival is “Lucky” that features “Stanton’s finest performance since ‘Paris, Texas’…..the performance of a lifetime,” according to Variety. Again, this is a film which contemplates “connection” within the community and aging and mortality (Mr. Stanton is 89 and Lucky is very close to that). David Lynch and James Darren (yes, of “Gidget” fame) are also in the cast. What really tempts me about this film is that it is the directorial debut of one of our great character actors — John Carroll Lynch (if you didn’t see him in “Zodiac” — get it on Netflix!). It is always interesting to see when actors move over to the other side of the camera — if they sometimes display more interest in character development than plot.
One last point — if you missed the BIFF’s special screening of “The Happy Film” this past Friday night (May 26) — please try and catch it in theaters or on Netflix. It was introduced by a very enthusiastic, Mary Mott. Her enthusiasm was not misplaced. The premise was that this designer wanted something more out of life, in fact, to “redesign” himself. He tried three different ways to increase his happiness — meditation, therapy and medication. The star and co-director Stefan Sagmeister was present to answer questions on this fascinating and gorgeously designed film. Also present was Ben Nabors, co-director, and Dr. Sheenah Hankin (his cognitive psychologist).
There are so many other movies that interest me — hopefully you will find several that will leave you changed and elevated. Documentaries will open up your world to places and situations that you have never encountered before. That is what is great about this delicious banquet of films and talks with so many different perspectives on life. My theme is “just connect” and I think that these myriad stories told in many different ways display connections throughout the world. If it is just connecting with your own mortality, or your family bonds or just humanity in general — these films will help you reflect on your own life. See you at the festival!