Adapting to Ourselves: Williamstown Film Festival Celebrates 15 Years
The Great Chicken Wing Hunt
By Nichole Dupont
He remembers the first year like it was yesterday. A few indie films sprinkled in with funny shorts and a documentary or two, the distinct feeling that this could be a “thing.” Now, Steve Lawson — veteran director of the Williamstown Film Festival — cannot imagine a Berkshire autumn without the brief interlude of comedy, drama, and premieres that bring thousands of moviegoers and dozens of (famous) artists to the county’s northern reaches.
“People are not just going to a movie,” says Lawson of the faithful and the new. “It’s an experience they can be part of. It’s more of an occasion. The audiences is being entertained and picking up knowledge.”
The festival begins on Wednesday, October 30, with a talkback with John Irving (yes, you read that right, John Irving is coming to town!) and runs through Sunday, November 3. While Images Cinema is once again home base for WFF, several ancillary feasts and fetes will be held at places such as MASS MoCA, Hops and Vines, and the Purple Pub. In fact, food is a pretty sizeable dish in this year’s film smorgasbord. Thursday night (Halloween) has been designated Food Film Night and will feature two very different directors’ cuts; the brutal quest to find the perfect chicken wing and the 25th anniversary of France’s most elegant picnic. Matt Reynolds, a former correspondent for Reuters (he spent several years in Slovakia), is a first-time director of The Great Chicken Wing Hunt about his odyssey to find the perfect chicken wing. For him, the documentary experience was driven by a personal quest. And an obsession.
“This movie was so close to my heart,” says the upstate New York native. “It brought me home. I guess because of that I was blissfully unaware of the whole filmmaking process — marketing, festivals — I wasn’t concerned about what normal filmmakers would worry over. It’s about going on this quest to find something perfect.”
The Great Chicken Wing Hunt is strangely poignant, and ironic, as Reynolds amasses a group of experts and takes to the road, sampling hundreds of wings, sometimes hitting 12 stops a day. The result is, needless to say, messy. And a far cry from the festival’s other foodie film. Diner en Blanc, directed by Jennifer Ash Rudick, chronicles one night in Paris on the 25th anniversary of the city’s first secret dinner party that now amasses some 15,000 attendees, all dressed in white, all waiting to find out where to park their tables for the world’s largest clandestine dinner party.
“A French friend told me about the dinner over 15 years ago, this was before flash mobs were a popular idea, and it was hard to imagine. She said there were thousands of people dining on the Pont des Arts,” Rudick recalls. “It really inspired me that so many people collaborate for the fun of it and I wanted to meet the man who took this on every year simply for the fun of it. I hoped other people would want to meet him, too.”
Despite the film’s elegant homage to serendipity and to the city of chic, Rudick faced some challenges, not least of which was unveiling the mastermind behind the dinner, Francois Pasquier.
“Francois had never spoken to the press and it took nine months to convince him to speak to me,” she says. “I tracked him down through Parisian friends who attend the dinner but they were very protective of him for fear of ruining the dinner and for fear of being taken off the guest list. When he did finally agree to meet, I went to Paris and he sent his neighbor and co-organizer to lunch instead.”
Those reluctant beginnings melted into a gorgeous film, and as Lawson notes, perhaps the most “sweeping” among a roster of sparse humor and indie cool. But “there’s something for everyone to see,” says Lawson, who is particularly endeared to this year’s selection of shorts films. Actor Treat Williams, who lives in nearby Manchester, VT, stars in one of the shorts; Halftime, a 10-minute monologue directed by Joe Cacaci in which Williams is a basketball coach attempting to give a rousing halftime speech to his floundering team. Of course, the monologue turns into a tangential rage against his wife’s infidelity.
“It’s hilarious,” Williams laughs. “You can see where the coach really starts to lose it. The monologue is complete. That’s the beauty of the short. It’s a template for filmmaking as an art form. It’s the tapas of movie-going.”
The short film genre was what launched director Luke Matheny into the upper Hollywood circle. His Oscar-winning film God of Love was a WFF favorite before the “big time.” Now Matheny, in his role as a screenwriter, has produced a full-length feature about a group of students who go on the search for a supposedly extinct duck. A Birder’s Guide to Everything, which premiered at Tribeca, is “an accessible story.”
“It’s a coming of age story. It resonates and it entertains and has surprising heart,” Matheny says. “We left the specific birding details to the experts, and dealt with the emotion and the story.”
Matheny had an emotional moment himself while filming.
“Ben Kingsley is in the film, and he was reading the monologue that I wrote. It was surreal. I texted my mom right away.”
There is one unlikely star that closes the festival. This one lives in Stockbridge, MA and has the wisdom of age and experience that even veteran actors covet. Cherry Cottage was built in 1782 and has seen tumultuous times. It is also an ideal star to tell the tumultuous story of America according to director David Simonds.
“It’s the story of a house, really,” Simonds says. “We filmed the documentary parallel to the renovations of the house. We dug up information and literally left no stone unturned.”
What he and producer Hans Morris (who owns Cherry Cottage) found was a voluminous cache of stories about philosophers, artists, businessmen, psychiatrists, downfall, ruin, and resurrection.
“It’s all about the people,” Simonds says. “You have to get to the fabric of the house to find out about the people.”
Williamstown Film Festival
October 30 - November 3
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Yes We Cannes: The FilmColumbia Festival In Chatham
By Scott Baldinger
Chatham’s charming Main Street seems to be in a quiescent stage these days, with a noticeable reduction of retail and pedestrian activity on its handful of blocks. (Thankfully, The Blue Plate, Yianni’s, the Thompson Giroux Gallery, American Pie, The Chatham Bookstore, The Main Street Grainery, and the Our Daily Bread restaurants, among other stalwarts, are all still there and doing just fine.) But things will really come to life, as they have for the last 14 years, on October 22-27, with FilmColumbia’s movie festival at the Crandell Theater, which, remarkably (considering the modest venue most of it takes place in), will hold something quite similar to the Sundance, Toronto, or Telluride conclaves we read about in the media all the time; a stellar mass of (mostly) independent filmmaking that forecasts what will be a very good remaining year for the movies. (Tickets to the general public go on sale October 5. FilmColumbia members have had first dibs for a week now, so it’s a real advantage to join the club, otherwise keep checking the schedule for sold-out signs when buying individual tickets.)
More stars than there are in heaven, MGM used to say about its huge number of contracted actors, and this quaint self promotion comes to mind when looking at the festival’s lineup. It’s filled to the upgraded projector room with stellar names both in front of and behind the camera: Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, and Sam Shepherd in a stage-to-screen transition of the acclaimed play August: Osage County, directed by John Wells, The West Wing’s actual originator (Aaron Sorkin was a hired writer); Dame Judy Dench in director Stephen Frear’s Philomena, brought to these shores by the Weinstein brothers and sure to be an Oscar contender (“The Queen’s Speech,” it can be nicknamed); Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis, winner of the Grand Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and starring Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake, and John Goodman; and festival favorite Alexander Payne (Sideways) with his Nebraska, starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte.
As for documentaries, FilmColumbia will feature films such as The Oath by Laura Poitras, to whom Edward Snowden first revealed his whistle-blowing secrets, as well as The Armstrong Lie by Alex Gibney, who started filming Lance Armstrong in his comeback year, 2009, and was there when Armstrong confessed to doping. Claude Lanzmann‘s The Last of the Unjust focuses on Benjamin Murmelstein, the head of the Jewish Council of Elders, who was appointed by Adolf Eichmann to run the notorious Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Internationally, FilmColumbia will screen features and shorts from Japan, Australia, the UK, South Africa, Germany, Iran, France, Mexico, Paraguay, Spain and Cuba.
“This year’s festival is the best we’ve had. Most of the big movies that we’re showing are going to be nominated for Academy Awards—not that that means anything,” says festival executive director Peter Biskind. “Film distributors make the decision about which festival their films are going to be shown at, so it’s a real feather in our cap that we got the ones we did. They are all going to be released later in the year; if a film is coming out in late September or early October, we didn’t include it in the lineup.”
“How did they do it?” is the question most asked when the lineup is described. Paradoxically, the high profile and internationally acclaimed work brought to Columbia County this year is actually a result of local cinematic muscle: local residents Biskind, Vanity Fair contributor and author, and Louis Kardish, former curator of the Museum of Modern Art film department, both traveled extensively to choose the lineup. “Louis has his contacts and I have mine, and between us we pretty much cover the waterfront,” Biskind says, adding that the help of other Columbia County residents, such as Focus Features’ head James Schamus and Brian Swardstrom of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, has been “wonderfully supportive.”
Movies made by locals include Beyond Iconic: Photographer Dennis Stock, about one of the most influential photographers of the late 20th century (his iconic photo of James Dean at right), directed by current Falls Village resident Hanna Maria Sawka, who will host a Q&A after the screening. Basil Anastassiou and Paul Kentoffio will discuss their Ballin’ at the Graveyard, a gritty look at the culture and community of pickup basketball, as told by hardcore ballers at Albany’s Washington Park.
Others planning to accompany their films to Chatham include veteran British TV director Brian Percival, who, after many episodes of Downton Abbey, will be on hand to answer questions after the screening of his first feature, The Book Thief (at left), starring Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. And food icon Ruth Reichl will introduce The Kings of BBQ Kuwait, in which director John Markus organizes the five greatest BBQ Pitmasters from the United States to travel to Kuwait and stage an authentic slow-smoked meat picnic for 5,200. (And, yes, there will be real barbecue at the event, which will be held at the Morris Memorial Community Center, a block away from the Crandell.)
All of the films are distinguished by a visual acuity aided by the Crandell’s transition to digital projection, which was just completed this year and, at a recent preview, looked so startlingly beautiful that one left into the light of day visually handicapped. Biskind is more than thankful for this transition, paid for by an extensive fundraising campaign. “It’s wonderful that the community got behind this, but we’re particularly grateful to Ellsworth Kelly and Jack Shear (director of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation) and PS21’s Judy Grunberg for giving us the ability to show the movies in the best way possible. It all cost about $200,000, including curtains so that the sound doesn’t bounce around the walls, a situation that we had before.”
This time around, the sound might not bounce, but the reverberations for the area will continue for a long time to come.
October 22 - 27
Crandell Theater and the Morris Memorial Community Center
Chatham, New York
One Year Membership - Single: $35; Couple/Family: $55
Tickets to individual films available starting October 5
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A New Spotlight For the Independents: The Beacon Independent Film Festival
By Robert Burke Warren
An old musician temporarily outwits the Grim Reaper and gets an extra decade of life, during which he nurtures his community; a mom n’ pop cryonics operation promises immortality and thrives, despite the scoffing of scientists; a middle-aged mother struggles to save her prescription pill-addicted daughter, losing herself in the process; two thirty-something Manhattan couples retreat to the Catskills, finding much more than they bargained for. These stories, all told in film, seem quite disparate; the first two, Ain’t In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm, and We Will Live Again (the cryogenic film, pictured above) are documentaries, the third and fourth, Bottled Up (starring Oscar-winner Melissa Leo, below) and Palace Living, are fictional narratives. As part of the upcoming inaugural Beacon Independent Film Festival, however, all four share a common thread. Festival founder and director Terry Nelson says, “A lot of our selections are about an individual making a choice, and how it affects them and the people around them.”
The emergence of a theme in BIFF, running September 13th through the 15th at University Settlement Camp in Beacon, is an accident. “I didn’t want to have a theme,” Nelson says, laughing. As a longtime film editor and voiceover actor, he’d seen his share of festivals, and wanted to launch something homespun and modest. “I sought a lot of advice in the beginning,” he says. “People kept saying I had to have a theme. But we didn’t want to follow the film festival blueprint. We don’t have submissions or jury prizes, and we want the average person to feel comfortable walking in and being part of the experience. We just picked films that moved us, then stepped back and recognized the similarities. The most important thing is to develop our voice, rather than parachute in and tell people what to think.”
The BIFF voice, apparently, comprises stories about seemingly small but decidedly willful actions radiating out and influencing others, to sometimes surprising degrees. The festival itself mirrors this process; what began as an idea hatched during Nelson’s time on the Beacon Arts board has become a buzz-worthy event embraced by the community, citizens and businesses alike.
George Mansfield, co-owner of Beacon’s Dogwood Bar & Grill, couldn’t be happier about the festival, which he is helping sponsor. “Everyone wants to be part of the renaissance that’s happening here,” he says. “Viewing and enjoying film on a community level is going to be very important to Beacon.”
Nelson noticed that renaissance when he moved from Manhattan to Beacon in 2009. But something was missing. “The more exposure I got to the arts community,” he says, “the more I realized film was the missing element. We had theater and visual art, but there wasn’t an opportunity for Beaconites to see indie film unless they went across the bridge to Newburgh.” In a classic “build it and they will come” situation, he created BIFF. “It’s taken on a life of its own,” he says. “A lot of people have come together to help each other. It’s a very collaborative environment.”
Award-winning filmmaker and Newburgh local, Enid Zentelis, is excited to bring her Bottled Up to BIFF. For one thing, the entire film – Melissa Leo’s first job after winning her Oscar for The Fighter – was shot on location in Beacon and Newburgh. “I’m looking forward to screening Bottled Up in the community which helped make it,” she says. “My first narrative film (Evergreen, 2004) premiered at Sundance, and Bottled Up premiered at Tribeca Film Festival, and I appreciate all that, but I’m not in it for the hoopla. I prefer something simple and direct. For me, the Beacon festival is perfect. It’s amazing to think of all the community members and businesses that got behind the production. It couldn’t have been done without them.”
Nelson discusses the scheduled films with the enthusiasm of a dad bragging about his kids. “I saw One Wall: Kings of Coney Island in Brooklyn,” he says, laughing. “It’s like David Mamet did a handball movie. And How to Make Movies At Home is genius; it’s a narrative and a how-to. It’s fun.”
Fun is important to Terry Nelson and the Beacon Independent Film Festival. “A lot films aren’t really fun anymore,” he says. “Filmmakers tend to take themselves too seriously. All the films we chose, the filmmakers look like they’re having fun. Audiences are smart enough to pick up on that.”
Beacon Independent Film Festival
September 13 - 15
University Settlement Camp
724 Wolcott Avenue, Beacon, NY
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Berkshire International Film Festival: An Orgy of Film and Style (and Food)
By Jeremy D. Goodwin
The most concentrated dose of entertainment and in-season chic to hit south Berkshire every year just may be the Berkshire International Film Festival. The entertainment comes courtesy of some 70-plus films crowding four venues; the in-season chic is served in large helpings at the assorted special events and parties throughout the long-but-not-long-enough weekend, eagerly attended by local film fans and scenesters, who take the cue to bring their indie-chic glad rags out for a spin ‘round the town, and the scores of industry types freshly arrived to promote their own films or just enjoy the work of their peers. (Parties and other events listed on page 10 of the 2013 program here.)
As usual, this year’s edition (the eighth) combines a few headlining events with a benevolently relentless stream of screenings, mostly at Great Barrington’s Triplex Cinema and the Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield.
In addition to those venues, festival founder and executive director Kelley Vickery has long since learned to schedule the festival’s major, headlining events at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center as well, taking advantage of the theater’s sense of spectacle as well as increased seating capacity. There, you’ll find the opening night documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom; the Saturday event-screening of the much talked-about documentary Girl Rising (which tells the stories of nine extraordinary girls from nine countries, pictured at top); and Sunday night’s closing presentation of Noah Bambauch’s latest, Frances Ha, seen at right. (Like many filmmakers presenting work at the festival, Baumbach, director/writer of films such as The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg, and star Greta Gerwig will be on hand for a post-screening Q&A.)
Although the eye of the festival ranges widely, with entrants from 20 different countries, food is a leitmotif throughout the schedule. One entry answers the question: What would cause famed Red Lion Inn chef Brian Alberg to serve squirrel chili and rabbit stew? For a private screening party this past winter, these off-menu items alluded to the shooting party at the heart of Texas Huntress, a stylish mash-up of foodie concerns, upturned gender roles and several dead pheasants. The film (actually two 30-minute installments of a series) is the brainchild of Ashley Chiles, a citizen of Texas and of the world, who set out to combine some of her favorite things.
“We’ve got food, we’ve got fashion, we’ve got sex—because we’ve got sexy women—and gender role reversals,” she explains of the concept, wherein she journeys with fashionable ladies into the wild to shoot game and invites a talented chef to craft a special meal from their bounty. “Of course I’m going to bring my most fabulous, fierce, ballsy, gorgeous, brilliant, Texas female friends that I can find who are willing to go on this adventure.”
The second installment was shot, quite literally, at Punsit Valley Farm in Chatham, where Chiles led a team including Alberg, Barrington Coffee Roasting Company’s Gregg Charbonneau, and Berkshire-based epicurean advocate Torrey Oates on a pheasant hunt. The fruits of their labors were cooked and served on location at Chris Weld’s Berkshire Mountain Distillers in Sheffield. The first installment depicts a boar hunt in south Texas. (In the photo at left by Tai Power Seeff, Patrice Shackelford and Amy Esacove are seen with Chiles, center.)
“It was a natural progression of my life events,” Chiles explains, “having always been fascinated by the culture of food—from local street food and the tiniest of divest joints around the world to the finest of gourmet food.”
Texas Huntress is just one of a handful of documentaries looking at the politics of food and sustainable agriculture. After Winter, Spring looks at a French region of family farming on the brink of extinction, GMO OMG excoriates genetically modified crops, and in a special Sunday screening at the Mahaiwe, The Moo Man, the portrait of an English dairy farmer, is preceded by the short Longing For A Local Lunch, about Great Barrington students’ examination of the benefits of locally grown food.
Another short with a local, if not culinary, touch is Halftime, in another Mahaiwe event. (The proliferation of selections there may take a bit of pressure off the Triplex, which remains the epicenter of the festival, with three theaters humming along throughout each day and its finely choreographed chaos of bustling lines overseen by general manager John Valente and a staff of dedicated volunteers, the festival’s secret weapon.) Originally written as a monologue for last year’s playwrights’ gala, it’s directed by Joe Cacaci (co-artistic director of the Berkshire Playwrights Lab, in addition to his many film and television credits) and produced with John Whalan’s Great Barrington-based production company Black Ice Entertainment, the short stars Treat Williams as an enthusiastic basketball coach. It was shot over Martin Luther King Day weekend at Berkshire School, with help from a group of local actors.
“We all immediately knew we had to make a film out of it,” he says. It has already spawned a sequel, to be unveiled at this year’s gala, and there may be more to come. “Treat really took a liking to this particular character, which we’re maybe going to try to turn into something else down the road.”
There’s some Berkshire history to be found in Cherry Cottage, the story of a Stockbridge house built in 1782, and The River, a locally made short by Sam Handel that depicts a character, portrayed by Lauren Ambrose, as she seeks some summer relief.
All-you-can-eat-and-view movie passes typically sell out shortly after they go on-sale the previous fall, but there are plenty of ways to take a spontaneous taste, including good old single-showing tickets. Some advance planning (ahem, ticket buying) does wonders by way of guaranteeing you a seat, but the emergence of word-of-mouth favorites—propelled by factors like the talent involved with the film, the topic of a documentary, or maybe just the buzz spreading quickly around Railroad Street afterhours—is unpredictable. So the best advice is to be flexible. And then enjoy the show.Comments
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Film Festivals: Get Out Your Handkerchiefs
So you missed your chance. But why waste tears on regret? Sure, opening night at the Williamstown Film Festival and the ever-popular Saturday Night Sneak at the FilmColumbia Festival are both (predictably, at this late date) SOLD OUT. But there is still plenty of powerful hanky action to be wrung from the films being screened at two major festivals in the RI region this week.
Laughter: When was the last time a rom-com inspired you to stand up and cheer? That’s what audiences at the Toronto Film Festival did last May after the screening of Silver Linings Playbook, directed by David O. Russell and starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence (above). Find out why at 1:45 p.m. at the Crandell in Chatham on Sunday, October 21.
Tears: Any Day Now, playing at Images in Williamstown at 2:15 on Thursday afternoon, won the audience award for best narrative feature earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival. Set in 1970s Los Angeles, it is about a semi-closeted gay couple (the singer is out, the assistant D.A., naturally, in) and their struggle to legally adopt the sorely neglected, mentally-challenged boy next door. By all accounts, the boy is played with such effect that actor Isaac Leyva all but steals the picture from, among others, the always riveting Alan Cumming. Great music, too.
Wonder: Cloud Atlas, this sci-fi, fantasy, adventure drama based on a bestselling novel, is so sprawling that it required three directors (the Wachowski sibs of Matrix fame plus Tom Tykwer) to herd all those special effects and stars (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon, and Hugh Grant, to name but a few). The question remains: Did the audience at Toronto give this film a 10-minute standing ovation because of the big emotional payoff at the end? Or were they simply relieved that, after 3 hours stuck in their seats, they were finally allowed to stand up and make some noise? At the Crandell on Friday, October 19, 12:30 p.m.
Outrage: Love Orchard, a fiction film about the strife that is every illegal immigrant’s daily dread, is set on a farm that bears a striking resemblance to the Love Apple Farm on Route 9H in Columbia County. Written by that farm’s owner, Chris Loken (at left with director Farhad Mann and co-star Bruce Dern), and co-starring Loken’s daughter Kristanna Loken as the young attorney who defies her firm’s anti-immigration stance to take up one family’s particularly wrenching cause. Demand for tickets to this was such that the first screening immediately sold out, so FilmColumbia has scheduled a second one for Sunday night at the Morris Memorial Building at 6 p.m. —Marilyn BethanyComments