14th Annual Woodstock Film Festival, by Karen vanMeenen
Woodstock, New York
October 2–6, 2013
The fourteenth annual Woodstock film festival exists under the tagline of “fiercely independent” and, although it displays its fair share of glamorous people, parties, and awards, it manages to give the smaller film and emerging filmmakers equal footing as well as to utilize small and alternative theaters and screening venues throughout several towns in the Catskills region. This year’s festival, still directed by cofounder Meira Blaustein, offered more than two dozen narrative and two dozen documentary features, and several shorts programs, all juried by renowned makers.
The narrative feature Winter in the Blood (2013, directed by brothers Andrew and Alex Smith), is based on James Welch’s 1974 novel of the same name. The complicated flashback structure, and externalization of internal memories and (sometimes a bit confusing) interior thoughts, apparently led to the decision to utilize a voiceover narrative that was ultimately inconsistent. But the generally strong performances, especially from the lead actor, the stark setting along Montana’s Hi-Line region, and the universal tale of past suffering and potential redemption more than redeem the film.
The Retrieval (2013, directed by Chris Eska) tells the story of a Black boy and his bounty hunter uncle who track a freed slave who killed another man. With outstanding acting and skillful cinematography that maintains the tension and intimacy of the characters’ interactions, this unpretentious film also benefits from a strong and spare script and the bleak Southern landscape with which it surrounds its characters.
In The Forgotten Kingdom (2012, directed by Andrew Mudge) a young man, Atang, travels to his small African hometown to visit his estranged father, only to find him deceased. After the funeral, he finds potential love with a childhood friend, whose traditional father will not approve of their match because of Atang’s lack of economic potential. He therefore must journey on horseback across the stunning landscape with a mysteriously wise younger boy to win back her love. Strong performances, beautiful photography, and reliance on character made this film a standout in the narrative category, winning all three awards for narrative features.
One of several festival directorial debuts of siblings, The Motel Life (2013) highlights the talents of Alan and Gabriel Polsky, who have a string of impressive producing credits. Based on a 2006 novel by Willy Vlautin, a tragic accident sets two brothers on a journey without a clear destination. Their shared creative impulses (of storytelling and drawing) allow them to escape their troubled past(s) as individuals, and eventually, together. Heartbreaking and realistic, this was a highlight of the festival’s narrative offerings.
Where this festival truly excels is with its documentary selections. Along with new works by stalwarts Haskell Wexler (on the four days of protest in Chicago in May 2012 against war spending, which the national media did not cover) and Joel Berlinger (on former United States Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson), as well as a biopic on cult horror director George Romero, the festival included Running From Crazy (2013), Barbara Kopple’s collaboration with actor Mariel Hemingway about the actor’s struggles with her family’s apparent genetic propensity for mental illness and suicide. Intimate (sometimes shocking) revelations are enhanced by documentary stills and footage of America’s grand family of literature, smiling through the strain of interpersonal turmoil and inner demons.
In American Commune (2012), two sisters (Rene Mundo Croshere and Nadine Mundo) who both now work for MTV, attend a reunion at the Farm, the Tennessee commune where they were raised. Their parents were two of the three hundred founders of the Farm in 1971, and the filmmakers had access to plentiful archival footage and photographs to illustrate their childhood narrative. The personal approach offers an intimate lens that allows viewers to approach this famous intentional community and its idiosyncratic, even controversial, history with an open mind.
Town Hall (2013, directed by Sierra Pettengill and Jamila Wignot) follows two Tea Party activists during the 2012 presidential race. With full access and an unmitigated trusting relationship between the subjects and the filmmakers, the subjects shared the economic histories that influenced their political philosophies and narratives about the country—past, present, and future. Screened during the federal government shutdown, this film took on a particularly stark resonance as it demonstrated how difficult it is to live up to one’s ideologies.
Although the beginning mosaic takes some time to establish its focus, American Jesus (2013, directed by Aram Garriga) reveals a vast and endlessly fascinating subculture of Christian evangelism that extends from surfers and snake handlers to bikers and wrestlers. Garriga lets his subjects speak for themselves, and an extensive, engaging interview with former Christian fundamentalist and author Frank Schaeffer anchors the film, leaving the viewer wanting more.
The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne (2013) attempts to reveal the story of the world-class diamond thief Doris Payne, who has stolen many millions of dollars of jewels over several decades. Directors Matthew Pond and Kirk Marcolina use smart and spare reenactments along with interviews with the subject and her close friends and family members. The charismatic and enigmatic Payne shares her earliest impetus for thievery as a way to take control in a society in which she, as a Black woman, had no other agency. Repeatedly denying that she is a thief, she explains that she doesn’t steal—she just takes items with no intention of returning them. In reference to the racial oppression she has experienced, she says her actions are her means to say “take that,” and in a less political vein, she clearly also revels in her outsmarting of the competition. This complex character has swung between an international jet-set life and stints in prison (several from which she escaped), and although Payne is compelling and endearing on camera, she is a trickster figure whose accounts we cannot wholly trust. Even her best friend admits on camera, “horns are holding up her halo.”
In The Manor (2013), director Shawney Cohen examines the vagaries of his family in relation to the family’s business, a strip club outside Toronto. In the tradition of such documentaries as Grey Gardens (1975, directed by Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysles, and David Maysles), Capturing the Friedmans (2003, directed by Andrew Jarecki), and most recently The Queen of Versailles (2012, directed by Lauren Greenfield), we see the raw interactions within Cohen’s family (his father, expanding in girth at four hundred pounds; his mother, contracting to the point of hospitalization at eighty-five pounds; his brother, finding satisfaction in monetary rewards and a girlfriend who dances at the club). Ultimately the story is not merely one of an uncommon family business but of the attendant perils of body image issues and the contradictions of drugs, alcohol, and sex being one’s bread and butter. It is also about universal issues of family strife, questions of loyalty, and the potential for understanding and forgiveness.
Three highly deserving documentaries won several festival curatorial and audience awards. American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs (2013), by the similarly named Grace Lee, offers a rich historical lens as seen through Boggs’s five decades of civil rights activism—while teasing out the complexities of her (and the movement’s) changing ideologies and loyalties, from Hegelian Marxism to the conflict between the ideologies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Boggs argues for full consideration of the implications of a position, the recognition of contradictions in one’s thought, and openness to change as situations do, noting that change must take place inside of individuals in order to foster revolution. At nearly one hundred years old, Boggs is still working for civil rights, acknowledging that it is time for a new dream.
Jeremy Workman’s Magical Universe (2013) explores the later life and work of Al Carbee, a reclusive artist whom the filmmaker met briefly on a trip to Maine, leading to years of exchanging letters, video, and artworks. To the casual observer, Carbee’s work and personality might come off as eccentric, but Workman sensitively shows the artist as a passionate elderly man who has dedicated his life to the pursuit of his creative impulses, which include complex multimedia collages and photographs of his vast collection of costumed Barbie dolls, which he positions in various, highly detailed narrative scenarios.
The chilling God Loves Uganda (2013, directed by Roger Ross Williams) follows several International House of Prayer missionaries to Uganda, contrasting their story with a powerful interview with an Ugandan pastor now living in the US who was exiled because of his equal rights stance; gay rights activist David Kato, himself the subject of the earlier documentary Call Me Kuchu (2012, directed by Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall); newsreels; and other carefully selected footage. The film implicates American Christian conservative missionaries and US-trained African pastors in a rising intolerance movement in Uganda. These players have long been preaching abstinence as a panacea for HIV, even though many in the Ugandan medical community acknowledge that infection rates have risen and those policies only work “to get money from the US.” In recent years they have advocated a no-tolerance policy on homosexuality, including the current bill (now in the country’s Parliament) that includes a prescribed death penalty and life imprisonment clauses. As one interviewee claims, “Africa became a dumping place for extreme ideas . . . [they] couldn’t say . . . in America.”
The fifteenth annual Woodstock Film Festival will be held October 15–19, 2014, and will undoubtedly provide more worthy films for independent, even fierce, thinkers.
Karen vanMeenen is editor of Afterimage.