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Nantucket Film Festival Gets Underway

The Nantucket Film Festival (NFF) kicked off yesterday with their opening day film Finding Dory, an unusual choice for a film festival since it is a Disney sequel film and is already in theaters. But don’t let that fool you. The schedule this year is chock full of excellent fiction and nonfiction features as well as virtual reality experiences (new this year!) and panels and special events that celebrate the art of storytelling in cinema.

HERO_cameraperson On  the documentary front, there are a number of interesting choices. Under the category of documentaries by masters of the form, NFF is screening Miss Sharon Jones!, the latest from the legendary Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA; Wildman Blues; etc.), which screens Thursday, June 23 at 12 p.m. And, my personal favorite, Werner Herzog brings his unique approach to nonfiction film with his latest documentary Lo and Behold:Reveries of a Connected World, about the impact of the Internet and the multiplicity of screens that exist in our daily lives now, screening also on Thursday at 5 p.m. and again Friday at 9 a.m.

Although I have not seen many of the documentaries on offer, I did see Tickled, and I have to say that is one of the most bizarre stories ever to be captured on film—fiction or nonfiction. What begins as a fluffy human interest story about “competitive tickling” soon turns into a disturbing trip into the mind of a most peculiar character. To say more, unfortunately, would ruin the film for you. Trust me, you need to see this to believe it. It screens Friday at 5:30 p.m. and Sunday at 4:15 p.m.

In addition, I did see Cameraperson, a fascinating, non-narrative documentary by Kirsten Johnson, a cinematographer who has worked on many notable documentaries, such as The Two Towns of Jasper, Fahrenheit 911, and Citizenfour. With this film, she sits in the director’s chair and works with the outtakes from her career of shooting documentaries and puts together a piece that she asks us to see as her “memoir.” Although there are interviews that tell us powerful stories of loss, regret, and fear, it is not so much the verbal content as it is the imagery that demonstrates the overwhelming power of the visual. As someone who makes films, it taught me a lot about what images can have impact on an audience, aside from the usual focus on people’s faces. This film, which screens Thursday at 1 p.m. and Friday at 3 p.m., is meditative, but very relevant to the human condition through the films she includes.

HERO_WILDERPEOPLE- Still 2- Julian Dennison (Ricky) Sam Neill (Hec) Credit On the narrative fiction side, there are several films I recommend. Little Boxes is a wonderful small film about a biracial family that moves to the suburbs of the Pacific Northwest. The father is a black novelist and the mother a white college professor. Their son is “just what we need around here” according to the local white girls who see his blackness as a way to up their hipness quotient. The story is moving, very funny, and very well written and well acted. It stars Melanie Lynskey (Two and a Half Men), Armani Jackson, and Janeane Garafalo. It screens Saturday at 3:45 p.m. and Sunday at 6:30 p.m.

Captain Fantastic, screening Thursday at 1:45 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m.,  stars Viggo Mortensen as Ben Cash, a father of six with very unconventional views on child rearing. Having decided with his wife to raise their children in the wilderness, things take a turn when tragedy forces them to come out into the “real world” of other people. This clash of realities is at times hilarious, but also quite provocative.What is appropriate to tell a child? How much harm do we cause in protecting them from experiences? And what are the skills that we need to pass on to our children. Director Matt Ross has crafted an intelligent, funny, and resonant film here that examines parenting in a way we have not seen in the cinema before.

I also saw the Closing Night film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a film by Maori writer/director Taika Waititi about a troubled kid who is adopted by a couple who live close to the bush in New Zealand. This film, too, starts out as one about culture clash, with the young boy having to reimagine himself outside of the urban, hip-hop environment he’s used to. Like in Captain Fantastic a tragedy beyond his control forces him to deal with the outside world when he and his adoptive father take off into the woods on the run from a maniacal child-welfare officer. It’s a very funny film and also quite touching. This is one everyone can enjoy, from kids to adults. It screens Sunday at 5:15 and 8 p.m.

Filmmaker Todd Solondz is known for pushing the boundaries of people’s comfort zones for over a decade now, since his debut film Welcome to the Dollhouse and later, the very disturbing  Happiness. He’s on the festival circuit now with his new film Weiner-Dog, basically a collection of short stories about “weiner dogs” and the impact they have on the families who adopt them. This one is not for the squeamish, and despite its topic, it is not a great film for animal lovers. Solondz’ trademark cultivation of unease is on display here, sometimes making for hilarious entertainment, but more often veering into a contemplation of loneliness and the void that dogs often fill for people. If you’re someone who enjoys things that make you uncomfortable, this one’s for you, albeit not as brilliant as his previous films. This one screens at 9:45 p.m. Thursday and Saturday.

The festival also features a tribute to Oliver Stone, breakfast panels with various filmmakers (all of which are sadly sold out at this point), a suite of virtual reality experiences, and an In Their Shoes conversation with comedienne Molly Shannon. Hop a ferry and check out one of our region’s great cinematic celebrations. For all the details visit nantucketfilmfestival.org.

 

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Provincetown Film Festival Comes to a Close

This year’s Provincetown International Film Festival gave us another great lineup of events and screenings, showing that 18 years in, they still know how to do a festival right. The concept of “filmmaking on the edge” has always been the major identifying factor in this festival, which, while it takes place in a mecca for LGBT residents and tourists, has never been  a narrowly defined festival.

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Ang Lee receiving the Filmmaker on the Edge Award at the Provincetown International Film Festival on Saturday, June 18, 2016. Photo: Rebecca M. Alvin

The concept of “the edge” is a fluid one, and it can mean many different things, a fact that was not lost on this year’s Filmmaker on the Edge awardee Ang Lee. The Chinese-American director of such brilliant films as Brokeback Mountain, The Ice Storm, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon said in his acceptance speech at an event in Provincetown Town Hall on Saturday evening, “I don’t know what the edge is and I don’t want to know. I like the mystery… I want to keep lying to you in the dark.”

Lee also spoke about the inspiration to become a filmmaker coming from the response he had to Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, a film he confesses he did not understand, but which for some reason stayed with him. “I saw the world differently.”

Asked by a young man in the audience what advice he’d give to aspiring filmmakers, Lee was frank in saying, “Don’t do it.” He explained it is such a difficult path to take that no one should go into it lightly. “I’m very fortunate to do what my heart tells me to do,” he said. “You have to really like it to do it, and if you do you don’t need my encouragement.”

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Cynthia Nixon, the Festival’s Excellence in Acting awardee speaking about her work this past Saturday at Provincetown Town Hall. Photo: Rebecca M. Alvin

The Festival also gave out an Excellence in Acting Award to Cynthia Nixon, who is perhaps best know for her role as Miranda in Sex in the City, but also has numerous award-winning credits in television, movies, and theater. In fact, she’s been performing professionally since she was 9 years old. Nixon, who is married to a woman, said she’d been working on the television movie Killing Reagan, which premieres this fall, and that this was her first time in Provincetown. “I’d just come from a month of playing Nancy Reagan… It’s nice to wake up from 1981 and see where we all are. It’s good to be here.”

When asked how her work for gay marriage in New York and in support of public education connected with her acting work, Nixon was clear, saying “When you make art with a political agenda, it often sullies in in a way… I like to keep my politics and my art separate.”

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Agata Kulesza in The Innocents (2016), which won this year’s Audience Award for best narrative feature.

On Sunday, after the Closing Night film Strike a Pose, the festival film awards were announced. Of special note was the HBO Audience Award winner for Narrative Feature: The Innocents, a beautiful, heartbreaking film about nuns in a convent in Poland in 1945 who seek the help of a young French woman training to be a doctor with the French Red Cross when several of them find themselves in the late stages of pregnancy. Beautifully photographed and so well acted, it is no surprise this was chosen as the best narrative film of the festival.

In addition, the following awards were also given:

– HBO Audience Award / Best Documentary Feature (tie): The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, directed by Morgan Neville and Political Animals directed by Jonah Markowitz and Tracy Wares
– HBO Short Documentary Award: Territory, directed by Eleanor Mortimer
– The John Schlesinger Award, presented to a first time feature filmmaker (narrative): Blood Stripe, directed by Remy Auberjonois
– The John Schlesinger Award, presented to a first time feature filmmaker (documentary): Off the Rails, directed by Adam Irving
 – Here Media Award – Best Queer Short Film: One Last Night, directed by Kerem Blumberg
– Best Narrative Short Film: Thunder Road, directed by Jim Cummings
– Best Animated Short Film: Glove, directed by Alexa Haas and Bernardo Britto
– Best New England Short Film: Black Canaries, directed by Jesse Kreitzer
– Best Student Short Film: The Mink Catcher, directed by Samantha Buck
– Special Mention: ¡Mais Duro!, directed by Camila Saldarriaga
The Short Film Jury consisted of Ian Samuels (filmmaker, Myrna the Monster), Lisanne Skyler (filmmaker, Brillo Box (3¢ Off)) and Kim Yutani (Senior Programmer, Sundance Film Festival).

Woods Hole’s Own Kristin Alexander Kicks off the 2016 Season

Back in 2002, I started a film screening series in the basement of the Unitarian Universalist Meetinghouse in Chatham. We showed underground indie films by filmmakers from New York, San Francisco, Boston, and elsewhere in two 10-week seasons a year on Friday nights. That went on for a couple of years and then I began showing films at various venues on the Cape, including the Provincetown Art Association & Museum, the Woods Hole Film Festival Winter Series, WHAT in Wellfleet, and Payomet Performing Arts Center in North Truro.

Now the Cape Cod Film Society screenings are back, this time at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod, right smack in the middle of the Cape, in South Yarmouth. Although the series is no longer a weekly program, this monthly format is going to be great, with screenings generally at 3 pm on the second Sunday of every month, September through May.

Woods Hole filmmaker Kristin Alexander is an extraordinary talent, with a background so diverse it includes dance, nursing, and of course, filmmaking. She kicks off our series this Sunday, January 10th at 3 pm with two short films she made about different aspects of life in Bermuda. One is about Mwalimu Melodye Micëre Van Putten, a fascinating educator bringing an Afrocentric curriculum to schools in order to rectify the systematic disenfranchisement of students of African descent, like many of the residents of Bermuda. The film, called Healing History, is an eye-opening account of Van Putten’s work and objectives that everyone needs to see.

 

The second film we’re showing, Trusting Rain, discusses water conservation efforts in Bermuda, which is something that should be of great interest on Cape Cod, even as we routinely waste water, in denial of the potential for drought.

I asked Kristin to answer a few questions to introduce you to her work. She will be attending the January 10th screening so you can ask your own questions of her at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod that afternoon at 3 pm.

Rebecca Alvin: When did you begin making films, and what drew you to fillmmaking?
Kristin Alexander:  I find filmmaking a creative outlet that also allows me to bring a voice to people and ideas that I feel are important.  Sort of visual advocacy.  I had some experience with film as a teenager, coming to Cape Cod in summer:  MAW productions, started by two brothers who made 8mm short films, which involved all the neighborhood kids in some way.  It was great fun and the films were quite good.  I studied communication and film for a time in college, in the days of linear editing.  When the digital revolution hit, I picked it up again.  At that time I was integrating film into dance performances on stage.  My first documentary Nothing without Joy followed 5 women on Cape Cod surviving cancer.  That was in about 2001.  I really enjoyed all aspects of making that film, from the cinematography to editing.  Since then I have completed 12 short documentaries, several of which have won awards on the festival circuit.  I have also assisted in several films as cinematographer, and participated in fundraising using my skills as a filmmaker.

RA: How did you come up with the idea for Healing History? What was your connection to it?
KA: Healing History evolved out of meeting Melodye, who is a teacher, poet and performance artist.  She is teaching African history from a new perspective, not one that most of us learned in history books.  I found her to be passionate and interesting.  We met through her husband, who had been in my film Trusting Rain [also screening on January 10th].  I asked if I could do a video portrait of her, and she declined.  I later asked again, and she looked at some of my previous work, and decided to give it a try.  She was skeptical, as her previous experiences with white folk had not been overwhelmingly positive.  She was teaching primarily black children and adults, to give them a sense of themselves and their history, teaching that they are descendants of genius, and are desperately needed in the world today.  The filming took several years, and spanned between her work in Philadelphia and Bermuda.  During this time it became apparent (via current events), that her work was even more necessary.

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RA: What has been the reaction to the film?
KA: Healing History has been on the festival circuit, from Bermuda, to several cities in the U.S., Africa World in St. Louis and in Cameroon, Jamaica and the Pan African Cannes.  Interestingly, it has been invited to almost all of the Black festivals in which we applied, and only two of the mainstream festivals (as well as the Cape Cod Film Society).  It has been positively received, overwhelmingly in the Black festivals.  The Pan African Cannes and Bermuda Film Festival had a mixed audience, and the discussion was controversial at times, and quite extensive.

RA: Tell me about the film Trusting Rain? How did that originate?
KA: Trusting Rain is a film about rainwater collection in Bermuda, and the island residents’ relationship to water.  The island has no rivers or streams, and has historically been dependent on rain collected on roofs and stored in tanks below the house.  Times have changed, and as the island becomes more populated, this precious resource is dwindling.  Many tourists who come to Bermuda have no idea that the water used for drinking and showers is collected from rain.  I was fascinated by the stories of the ‘old timers’ and how careful they were with water, to the new generation and the overall waste, requiring desalinization plants to maintain the self sufficiency.

RA: That film seems to connect very directly to issues we have around water on Cape Cod. Do you agree?
KA: Potable water is a worldwide problem.  Certainly on Cape Cod, where there is seemingly not much concern about water shortage.  I had done a film about a scientist who is using a natural process to clean wastewater for re-use (Green Eco-Machine).  This kind of technology is so needed, but seems so foreign to people.  I feel clean water has become one of the great worries of our time.  We need to change our relationship to water, as a precious resource.

RA: You’ve made a lot of different films about different topics and in different styles.  Is there some sort of through-line in your work?
KA: My documentary films tend toward portraits of people, delving into their lives in various countries and at home.  I am very interested in people who are doing things to make a change in the world.  I enjoy filming nature, and finding positive work that is being done to help the environment.

RA: Are you working on any new films now?
KA: Currently I am finishing the edit on an older portrait, and have two ideas that I am working on, we shall see how that plays out!

Kristin Alexander’s films will be shown on Sunday, January 10, 3 pm at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod, located at 307 Old Main St., South Yarmouth, Mass. Tickers ($10) can be purchased in advance by calling the Cultural Center: 508- 394-7100,  or at the door that afternoon.

©2015 Rebecca M. Alvin All Rights Reserved

Peter and John: On Tour

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven, whose film Peter snd John is in the midst of a 100-date Cape Cod tour. It is currently playing in Chatham, but check his schedule because there are dates coming up all over the Cape and Islands.

The film, based on Guy de Maupassant’s Pierre et Jean, stars Jacqueline Bisset and Christian Coulson, and was shot entirely on Nantucket.

Here’s a link to the story I wrote for Provincetown Magazine:

http://provincetownmagazine.com/2015/07/29/somewhere-in-time/