2009 Woodstock Film Festival: Fiercely Independent, Indeed

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lebron-st-vOne of the regular thrills of living outside of Woodstock, New York is the annual Woodstock Film Festival. This year it celebrated its 10th anniversary. Running Oct. 1 to 4, it screened over 100 features, documentaries, shorts, as well as panel discussions, parties, and awards ceremonies. Spreading out at venues all over the small, quaint, and well-known town, it managed to create a helluva festive event. Of course any film festival is only as good as the quality of the films it screens, and the WFF, whose motto is "fiercely independent," lives up to its hype. Over the decade I've moved towards seeing mainly documentaries, since most features of worth (even truly low budget independents) will get at least art-house distribution, whereas brilliant documentaries may seemingly disappear. (Of course that may be because I don't watch public television 24/7.) This year I saw six documentaries and one shorts program. What follows are scattershot remarks on the experience: My favorite was Kristopher Belman's basketball film, More Than a Game, which is in distribution right now. It has heart and depth, and it reveals how training from fifth grade on with a passionate and committed coach can create not only surprise high school champions and close-knit team friendships, but a breakaway star such as the NBA's LeBron James. After that, my personal ranking list (and they were all good) goes: 2) Shooting Beauty, director George Kachadorian The story of photographer Courtney Bent, who enters the world of the severely disabled, finds herself moved by them, and ends up providing them cameras to photograph life as they see it, freeing a number to be deeply creative and also more connected to others, ultimately changing our view of what "beauty" means. Uplifting but not Pollyanna-ish. 3) Without a Home, director Rachel Fleischer Similar to the above film, the protagonist here penetrates the world of the hardcore homeless in L.A., particularly the skid row area, befriending the people there, helping them as best she can (most are addicts or alcoholics), filming their stories, and enlarging our sense of the complexity involved in seeing who can be saved and who cannot. 4) The Tiger Next Door, director Camilla Calamandrei Looking into the strange, often hidden world of those who collect tigers in the United States, where apparently there are more tigers in captivity, privately and in zoos, than in the wild worldwide. We meet Dennis Hill, an Indiana collector and breeder of tigers, a wild man himself, and possibly deluded, since many experts say that it is simply inhumane to keep wild animals in any kind of captivity given their biological need for territory and freedom. 5) Trimpin: The Sound of Invention, director Peter Esmonde About a genius of sound and unusual materials, an ex-pat German living in the U.S. and making music from cast off junk, a cross between instruments and found-sound accidents, a humorous, totally driven and idiosyncratic artist on the path of discovery. 6) When You're Strange: A Film about The Doors, director Tom DiCillo Using historic footage that captures Jim Morrison and his band mates early in their career, from when they began in 1965 to Morrison's death in l971, during which time they made six studio albums and performed live to wild crowds in the U.S. and Europe, introducing a new sound to the rock scene, and providing an iconic self-destructive figure, who sadly burned himself out on drugs and booze before our eyes. Why that ranking? I like to be surprised by films, taken into places or situations I haven't experienced before. I want to be moved. I want to be shocked. I want to be a slightly different person afterwards. Of course this is asking a lot. But at least my top four choices achieved that goal. Seeing so many films in such a short period of time (there were also the six shorts in the program titled Love Is) is an intense experience. Add to that the emotionally draining subject matter of several, and I ended up dazed but happy after my four-day marathon. I felt enriched. Stimulated. And during post-film Q&As with directors, actors, and producers, one gets the illusion of intimacy (which as my late husband said is pretty much as good as the real thing). Since they have traveled all the way to Woodstock, they come prepared to tell their own insider stories, letting us in on both the felicitous and disastrous moments. These behind-the-scenes tales and comments have more bite than those shared on late night television, appearing more honest, less rehearsed. I actually know people in the Woodstock area who don't go to the film festival each year. But I can't figure them out. It's like a great feast has been set before the crowd, and some of them wander off without eating. Their loss. Film is one of the premier art forms of our time, and though you can catch films easily at home with Netflix now, I much prefer the communal experience of "going to the movies": the buzz, the shared space. At the Woodstock Film Festival, you can pretty much count on seeing some great films, and that is surely a rare pleasure. - Victoria Sullivan victoria.jpgMs. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.