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.


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.”


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.”


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).

Southwest of Salem


Anna Vasquez, one of the San Antonio Four featured in Deborah S.Esquinazi’s Southwest of Salem.

One of the films I saw at the Tribeca Film Festival last month was a documentary about the so-called “San Antonio Four”—four Latina lesbians who, in 1994, were accused and ultimately convicted of sexually abusing two young girls. After the Innocence Project of Texas took an interest in the case, many holes were found in it, and then, about ten years ago, one of the alleged victims came forward to recant her testimony, saying her father told her and her sister to make up the story. I had the amazing opportunity to sit down and talk with the filmmakers behind Southwest of Salem and the women it profiles, all now out of prison awaiting exoneration. The article appears in this week’s Provincetown Magazine, although there are currently no plans to show the film on Cape Cod. I hope that will change. Here on the Cape we have so many independent movie theaters, so I encourage you to call your local theater to request it.

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.


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

In Jackson Heights


In Jackson Heights is a more hopeful film than what I expected from the director of High School, Welfare, and of course, the groundbreaking Titicut Follies.  Where Frederick Wiseman often exposes the weaknesses of large institutions, this time he celebrates a unique community in Queens, New York, in his portrait of a neighborhood I know well, Jackson Heights. And while his portrait is not all-inclusive – no documentary can or should pretend to be – it does encapsulate everything I have felt and seen about New York City since I left in 2000.

We enter the world of Jackson Heights through its LGBT community, including the city councilman Daniel Drom. It is an interesting choice to begin with this one of the hundreds of different minority groups in Jackson Heights. One of the reasons, perhaps even the main reason, Jackson Heights is my favorite New York City neighborhood, is because of its remarkable ethnic diversity. As someone in the film says, there are 167 languages spoken in the less than one-half a square mile of streets that make up Jackson Heights. But while I knew the Queens Gay Pride parade took place in Jackson Heights, I was never aware there was a gay community there. And while the gay community has often been associated (rightly or wrongly)  with gentrification of working-class neighborhoods, here they are not simplified into that kind of battle between hardworking ethnic minorities and well-heeled gay interlopers. In true Wiseman fashion, the complexity of the neighborhood and of the relationships between the different groups of which it is comprised, comes through in his careful editing, which is almost invisible. More noticeable is the beautiful camera work by John Davey, which captures the grit of Queens, as well as its vibrancy and color. But it is the editing that makes the 3 hour and 15 minutes slice of life a triumph of direct cinema (a.k.a. fly on the wall).

While the variety of ethnicities reveal their presence at all times (whether someone from Colombia talks about their heritage directly or by what is captured on screen in the background: everything from a Uruguayan cafe to a Malaysian restaurant and an eyebrow braiding salon for the Indian and Bangladeshi population), the focus of the film is on how these communities are coping with attempts to gentrify, changes to immigration policy, and in some cases, the dying off of their members (as in the small Jewish Community there).

I grew up in New York in the late 1970s and 1980s, and with the exception of a few years in Boston, lived there through the 1990s. After moving to Cape Cod in 2000, I have returned to visit several times a year, and what I have seen has been quite disheartening. There’s a scene in In Jackson Heights where a Colombian community organizer lays it all out for his compatriots, explaining how beautification and BIDs (Business Improvement Districts) sound wonderful but end up destroying communities. He cites most, if not all, of Brooklyn, Long Island City, and Astoria, as examples of how this works to push out everything that made those places great and replaces it with a wealthy elite and an onslaught of big box and chain stores that wipe out the uniqueness of each neighborhood.

New York once was a city of neighborhoods, but increasingly, when I return, I see each neighborhood folding into an abyss of GAP stores, Starbucks, and campaigns that push out ethnic diversity in favor of generic concepts of “beautification.” It is becoming a giant shopping mall for wealthy real estate developers, Wall Street bankers, and the white-collar workers and others who continue to live there in memory of what that great city once was.

While In Jackson Heights is of course about a very specific place, it speaks to a larger tendency in America, one that New York City may have been a last hold out against. And that is something that holds meaning everywhere, including here, even if you will not likely see this film shown anywhere on Cape Cod.