Berkshire International Film Festival rolls out 9th season


GREAT BARRINGTON -- Seventy-five films in four days -- narratives, documentaries, shorts; a big opening night dance party; special events; a filmmakers summit. Seems like business as usual at BIFF -- the ninth Berkshire International Film Festival, May 29 through June 1 in Great Barrington and Pittsfield.

But business will be anything but usual at BIFF 9. Festival founder and executive director Kelley Vickery is tweaking things -- just a bit.

For openers, BIFF is starting off not with an American feature-length documentary, as it has in each of its preceding eight years, but, rather, with a narrative made in Amman, Jordan -- "May in the Summer" from filmmaker Cherien Dabis ("Amreeka"), who not only wrote and directed this drama about a sophisticated New York woman returning to her home in Amman for her wedding but also stars in it. The film -- the opening night attraction at 2013 Sundance Film Festival -- will be having its East Coast premiere when it opens BIFF at 6 p.m. May 29 at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. Dabis will be on hand for the screening and a post-screening Q&A preceding BIFF's traditional opening night bash in the BIFF Tent across the street from the Mahaiwe on Castle Street.

The film will be released in July. "We have a very good relationship with the distributor (Cohen Films)," Vickery said during a luncheon interview. "I'm so pleased we've been able to get it for our opening."

Pittsfield's festival opener May 30 at the Beacon Cinema is another coup -- "The Trip to Italy," a Sundance 2014 hit starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, those guys from "The Trip," on another cultural and culinary road trip, this one through Italy. "The Trip to Italy" also is the official BIFF closer 7 p.m. June 1 at the Mahaiwe, followed by the closing night party at BIFF Tent.

Yet another big event is on tap 7 p.m. Saturday, May 31, when BIFF screens "Battering Bastards of Baseball," a documentary about the Portland Mavericks, America's only independent baseball team, created in 1973 by Bing Russell, father of actor Kurt Russell. Former Major League pitcher Jim Bouton, who lives in South County and appears in the film, will join the filmmakers at the screening and Q&A.

Earlier on May 31, also at the Mahaiwe, is something new for BIFF -- a French cinema retrospective featuring Claude Chabrol's "Night Cap" (2000) and Andre Techine's "Scene of the Crtime" (1986), both in newly digitized formats.

"The festival has always been about the new and independent," Vickery said. "I think we should take a look at the roots, the traditions, the masters. So, we'll see how this works."

Highlighting a special Sunday Screenings and Special Events series at the Mahaiwe on June 1 is "Biff at The Mount" featuring a screening of "Edith Wharton: The Sense of Harmony," a biography directed by Elizabeth Lennard -- who will be on hand for the showing -- that traces Wharton from Newport to France and beyond and includes the only known film footage of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and short story writer.

All in all, BIFF will be showing 29 documentaries, 28 narratives and 16 shorts in Great Barrington at Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center and Triplex Cinema and in Pittsfield at Beacon Cinema.

There are fewer shorts in the festival this year, Vickery said, because "I had so many strong docs and strong narratives, strong international features. We got a lot of what we wanted. I had a hard time cutting myself off."

Among the features Vickery is particularly pleased to be showing is "Fort Tilden" about two young women, friends, who, in response to an invitation from two guys, set off on a bicycling adventure to Fort Tilden, a seaside enclave in Brooklyn.

Sarah Violet Bliss, who wrote the screenplay and co-directed, won BIFF's 2012 Berkshire Bank Next Great Filmmaker Award. "Fort Tilden," Bliss' first full-length feature, won the prestigious Grand Jury Prize at this year's SXSW. Bliss will be in the Berkshires for the screenings -- 9 p.m. May 30 at Triplex 2 in Great Barrington; 2 p.m. June 1 at Beacon 4 in Pittsfield.

Nine years into BIFF, Vickery says it's all still a big rush for her.

"The rush is being able to bring beautiful films like ‘May in the Summer' to the Berkshires," Vickery said; "in finding the talent; in bringing something new to the Berkshires."

Vickery shows no signs of slowing down. Typically she takes a bit of a breather after one BIFF finishes and planning for the next BIFF begins. This year she is wasting no time. Vickery and her associates are beginning work right away on a year-long series of events leading up to the 10th anniversary BIFF next year. There will be a gala, BIFF's first ever, on Aug. 29. Also later this summer, BIFF will present a series of free family films shown outdoors at Berkshire Botanical Garden. That's only the beginning, Vickery says.

"We're already talking about our 10th year," Vickery said, pausing for a moment. "It feels surreal to me."


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